Fashion Goes to the Movies

World of haute couture often fanciful or lampooned in films

When director Robert Altman took on the world of ready-to-wear in his 1994 send-up “Pret-a-Porter,” his wry, sardonic take on the rarified world of haute couture might have seemed overly harsh to some, but was not far afield from prior cinematic depictions.

Fashion’s tightly wound divas, pushy publicists, double-crossing partners, air-head models and corporate spies have all been defiled onscreen. Insiders confirm that much of the hemline-raising antics auds see are not far off the mark, and films about fashion nevertheless have done well at the box office.

In 1957, Audrey Hepburn’s transformation from bookworm to Parisian runway model in “Funny Face” marked the first contemporary vision of the fashion world on the screen. Couturier Hubert Givenchy designed Hepburn’s wardrobe, while legendary fashion photographer Richard Avedon (who served as a technical adviser) is rumored to have helped Fred Astaire tackle his role as shutterbug Dick Avery. The film snagged four Oscar nominations, and depicted a fashion world filled with at least one brainy model and a flock of sure-footed editors dressed to a T.

Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blowup,” the stylized story of a Swinging London photographer (David Hemmings) who may have witnessed a murder, became the highest-grossing art film to date in 1967, and garnered Oscar nominations for screenplay and direction.

Hemmings became a ’60s icon and Michael Myers later adopted the film’s hipster lingo (“groovy, baby”) and free-love attitude in the 1997 comedy, “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery.”

The 1970s gave us “Mahogany,” a rags-to-riches story in which Diana Ross plays a determined artiste who transcends her ghetto roots to become a fashion designer. Ross created the 50 outfits she wears in the film, and the popular score was nominated for an Oscar in 1976. “Mahogany” grossed $7 million in its first two weeks, and may have had more resonance with fledgling fashion followers than one might imagine.

” ‘Mahogany’ is the reason I went into the business,” declares Phillip Bloch, a celebrity stylist-now-actor who has attended more than 700 fashion shows over the past decade. “I saw the movie when I was 10 and left the theater wanting to be a designer like Diana Ross.”

Bloch also identified with Altman’s “Pret-a-Porter,” which takes place amid the runways of Paris.

“He captured the chaos, the pandemonium and the much ado about nothing,” says Bloch. “It’s always totally crazy before the big shows.”

Altman’s underworld is laced with intrigue, romantic interludes and unabashed vanity, carried out by a stellar cast that includes Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger, Julia Roberts and Sophia Loren. Reactions to the film were mixed in the fashion and film communities, with camps divided as they often are over Altman’s work.

“I’m a big Altman fan, but I’m not sure that it captured the inner workings of that world as much as say ‘Nashville’ or even ‘Gosford Park’ did of their worlds,” says director Michael Rymer, whose indie film “Perfume” delivers his version of Seventh Avenue travails.

Led by a cast that includes Rita Wilson, Paul Sorvino, Jeff Goldblum, Joanne Baron and Mariel Hemingway, working from an improvised script, “Perfume” spins several interwoven tales of designer-level angst. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001 and was picked up by Lions Gate.

Rymer, who researched the industry by trailing a now-defunct ready-to-wear designer from South Africa, says many film portrayals have not revealed the tough side of the fashion business or the corporate influences that conspire to squelch creativity.

“Some of the (runway) shows cost a million dollars, but it’s all about public relations and branding so you can sell more ordinary clothes,” says Rymer “Why do they put their names on T shirts, jeans and eventually perfume? That’s where the real money is.”

Ready-to-wear and fragrance legend Paco Rabanne, speaking from Paris where he was about to show his new collection, notes that films about fashion no longer capture the excitement and polish that once defined the industry.

“The problem with most fashion movies is that people today are not making much glamour,” he says. “That’s because what was once glamour is not so glamorous anymore.”

Rabanne, who shows two collections each year, says he does not allow his team to exhibit the high-strung behavior portrayed on the screen, particularly surrounding the shows. “When things happen, they must happen, if things stay Zen then the flow will be established — we do not allow hysteria or bad attitudes backstage.”

Perhaps the one film that both captured critics’ attention and managed to accurately portray the nuts-and-bolts realities of the fashion world was, not surprisingly, a documentary. Douglas Keeve’s “Unzipped,” which chronicles Isaac Mizrahi’s preparation for his 1994 fall fashion show in New York, reveals the designer warts and all, from insecurity about how his new line will be received, to the sometimes tedious and frustrating aspect of orchestrating an exhibition. Variety called it “everything that Robert Altman’s ‘Ready to Wear’ should have been: an insider’s view of the fashion world that is hip, light, authentic, revelatory and always amusing.”

In sharp contrast to “Unzipped,” last year’s comedy hit “Zoolander” created a surreal and sinister fashion world. Ben Stiller plays title character Derek Zoolander, a male supermodel trapped in a “Manchurian Candidate”-style scheme precipitated by his slide from the top of his profession. While some fashion insiders cringed at the broad portrayals of maniacal designers and brainless models, audiences went for the laughs. The proof is in the $45 million it grossed in the U.S.

“Fashion films tend to give a shallow expression to the world,” says Peter Cohen, a veteran designer of women’s sportswear and evening wear with a self-named shop in Los Angeles. “Models don’t aspire to live the life shown in films like ‘Funny Face’ or any of the others. It’s a role they take on momentarily — and it’s all a wonderful fiction.”

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