Back in 1963, Italian tire giant Pirelli decided to produce a calendar for its most valued clients and associates. The first stab was, by all accounts, a disaster: A gallery of models posing awkwardly alongside vehicles chosen for unfathomable, market-related reasons, and large tire graphic where slapped on each page for good measure. By Pirelli’s own admission, the images were contrived and the models appeared incidental. The whole thing had to be scrapped.

Pirelli’s UK marketing team (the brains behind the venture) went back to the drawing board, where they came up with a new theme: beautiful women. Photographer Richard Freeman was dispatched to Mallorca to shoot the pictures with the help of art director Derek Forsyth; an array of sun-kissed, sweetly sexy images of girls in bikinis and over-sized shirts came back and  a revolutionary publicity stunt was born.

 

A page in The Cal™ signifies status, cultural relevance, and above all, sexiness in sheer, unadulterated abundance.

 

Four decades on and the unveiling of the 2013 Pirelli Calendar has become an international press event. In late November, on a rainy Rio de Janeiro day, hundreds of multilingual, Dictaphone-toting journalists are gathered at the historic Copacabana Palace hotel for the launch of this year’s edition. Dwarfed on stage by the superhuman models that flank him, esteemed photojournalist Steve McCurry is being quizzed on his unlikely appointment as the photographer of this year’s calendar. "I was surprised because I don't shoot much fashion," he says, beaming in a way that only a man standing next to Petra Nemcova can. "But I do know about beautiful women.”

Oh, what beautiful women they are. Over the years, supermodels, actresses and singers have all stripped to various states of undress to pose for some of the most iconic contemporary photographers—Bruce Weber, Terry Richardson, Richard Avedon, Herb Ritts, Nick Knight, Mert & Marcus, and Patrick Demarchelier, to name but a few. Think Kate Moss reclining in the back seat of a convertible wearing nothing but a black beret; Sophia Loren resplendent between white sheets at the age of 72; and a dewy Lara Stone in all her (full frontal) glory. To be invited to pose for Pirelli is akin to landing a magazine cover or opening a runway show: A page in The Cal™ signifies status, cultural relevance, and above all, sexiness in sheer, unadulterated abundance.

The calendar’s impact, though, is about much more than just sex. Celebrated as one part Vogue editorial, one part luxe pin-up, and one part serious collector’s item, Pirelli's annual release is feverishly anticipated by fashion editors and aspiring modelizers alike. The calendar’s notorious exclusivity—it is gifted to select VIPs in strictly limited numbers and has never been sold—combined with its reputation for attracting the world’s most prestigious photographers has elevated its yearly release into a veritable pop culture event.

It was this grand tradition that ostensibly attracted Steve McCurry to the calendar in the first place. “It’s just a great photographic project”, he says his hotel suite in Rio, smile still firmly in place even after a long day of back-to-back interviews. “You work with the best models, have great resources, and are given a lot of freedom to interpret the calendar the way you want to.”

RELATED: Hottest Pirelli Calendar Girls

 

For McCurry —whose famous "Afghan Girl" cover image was recently voted the most recognized photograph in the history of the National Geographic magazine—this meant producing a calendar "with a soul." Models including Isabeli Fontana, Karlie Kloss and Liya Kebede were selected primarily on the basis of their charitable ventures, which range from women’s rights campaigning in Afghanistan to Earthquake relief efforts in Haiti.

 

The calendar’s notorious exclusivity combined with its reputation for attracting the world’s most prestigious photographers has elevated its yearly release into a veritable pop culture event.

 

Continuing to exercise his right to full creative control over the 2013 calendar, McCurry also made the controversial choice to shoot the models fully clothed, as well as welcoming a heavily pregnant Adriana Lima into the fold. “It became the logical direction to go in because we thought that perhaps [the nudity] would be a distraction from the real message” he says of the first decision. And of the second? “My attitude was just: ‘She’s pregnant. Let’s shoot!’ It seemed like such a natural, normal thing.”

Admittedly not as provocative as previous Pirelli offerings, 2013’s calendar still feels like the type of high-end photographic tome you might expect to see on Kanye West’s coffee table. Shot in Rio de Janeiro for the third time in history, McCurry’s calendar images channel the sultry, tropical sensuality of what might just be the sexiest city in the world. His unparalleled eye for color and composition are a perfect fit for the vivid streets, beaches and favelas of Rio, which he describes as “the best cityscape I’ve ever photographed.”

While the models remain fully clothed, their sex appeal rises like steam from the surface of each glossy page. As McCurry observes, “These are highly professional models—they’re really good at what they do! They’re evocative, and it’s second nature for them. In some ways, you almost want to dial that back a bit and think and how you can make it more real.”

From corporate faux pas to full frontal fantasy and now back to (augmented) reality—just where will the Pirelli Calendar go next?

Written by Phoebe Lovatt (@phoebelovatt)