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The devil is Prada

Top costume designers on the cyclical nature -- or lack thereof -- between film and fashion

Deborah Nadoolman Landis is pissed off. The object of her anger? Fashion designers.

It’s not that the Oscar-nominated costume designer (“Coming to America,” plus “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” among others), who’s also president of the Costume Designers Guild, has anything against fashion in general. She’s a statuesque, stylish woman. But costume designers, she feels, are among the most misunderstood people in the industry. Insult to injury for Landis is being lumped in with fashion designers.

The two professions may seem like close siblings, but they’re more like distant cousins, as the conversation that follows vividly attests. When the L.A. Film Festival asked Nadoolman Landis to appear on a panel this past June with fashion designers, it hit a nerve. “Deborah became like (in) ‘The Exorcist’: ‘Aaacch! Grrhghghgh!'” says her husband, director John Landis. “Because fashion has nothing to do with costume design. Nothing.”

Nadoolman Landis put together her own panel for the festival, instead.

She enlisted famed costume designers Louise Mingenbach (“X-Men” and “Superman Returns” among her films) and Jeffrey Kurland (“Ocean’s Eleven,” 15 Woody Allen films and more), and together with John Landis, who moderated, they gathered on the patio of the Los Angeles W Hotel at sunset. The purpose? To set the record straight.

The “discussion” — “Film and Fashion: A Misconception” – was obviously one-sided as there were no fashion designers present on the panel; and it veered, at times, into a sort of team attack on the fashion industry. But the group did have valid points to make and, apparently, a pressing need to air long-festering gripes. Excerpted below is some of what they had to say, both during the panel and in a private interview afterward.

On the essence of costume design …

John Landis: Costume design for film or television or theater has nothing to do with fashion — and everything to do with character. It starts with the screenwriter or the author of the piece.

Deborah Nadoolman Landis: We help the director tell the story. Costume designers are really cultural anthropologists. That’s who we are. We’re the Margaret Mead of film. That’s why we don’t do fashion. We’re not dressing these people; we’re discovering who they are.

On working with fashion designers on film costumes — and when/if that’s ever appropriate …

Nadoolman Landis: It doesn’t work. Because you didn’t go shopping and buy your entire outfit today. Are you going to dress her in the whole line?! And are you going to dress him in the whole line? And are you going to dress her — next to her — in the whole line? And at what point is the breakeven?

It’s the surest way to sabotage the characters in a movie — unless you see that character walking into their boutique, or it’s a joke.

Louise Mingenbach: On every movie there’s a producer who comes up with this idea, like it’s a new idea, and it’s going to work this time. But it always falls apart, this deal. Because of these issues. And they (fashion designers) usually can’t provide you with what you need in terms of multiples.

Landis: When you see things like Georgio Armani’s name on “The Untouchables,” do you really think Georgio Armani designed “The Untouchables?” No.

Nadoolman Landis: Marilyn Vance designed “The Untouchables.” It was thought that there were a lot of ’30s- and ’40s-inspired gangster suits. So Armani said: “I’ll make them all on the lot.” They came back, none of them fit, they had to be completely remade. It didn’t work because he didn’t make duplicates, because there were stand-ins and second units and because actors sweat, because the clothes don’t look the same onscreen as they look in person — that’s a big difference between fashion and costume design. Costumes don’t need to be expensive, they just need to look like they are.

Jeffrey Kurland: I’ve never been asked to do that (use fashion designers in film) — by any director or producer. I’ve been lucky. Because in the end, it really doesn’t make any sense. It saves you no money, and you end up doing twice the work and spending twice the money.

Nadoolman Landis: The only time I remember this working is “Sabrina.” Billy Wilder was a great director. And Edith Head was the greatest among us. Ms. Head had designed (Audrey Hepburn’s) pre-Paris costumes. Then as the daughter of the chauffeur, Sabrina goes to Paris, starts working in Paris, has a benefactor, then comes back in Givenchy. There’s that big moment in the garden in the white dress. She brought the dress home from Paris, so it makes sense to the audience in some weird Hollywood way. She could not have started that film wearing Givenchy.

On how film influences fashion — and fashion, in turn, influences film …

Kurland: Film will influence fashion, but fashion does not influence film.

Mingenbach: Because we start with the story. Unless fashion is influencing the characters in the story, and they’re intentionally influenced by fashion — like they’re fashion victims.

Kurland: But that would only be a look; that’s not fashion. In “The Devil Wears Prada,” the Meryl Streep character, the devil, she never wears Prada in the movie. That’s the point right there! I’m sure Patricia (Field) used many wonderful designers, but the devil isn’t wearing any Prada. She dressed Meryl Streep as the character she was supposed to be.

Landis: I have never seen fashion influence film — ever. But (film influences fashion): After “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” Banana Republic was created. The look of the film influenced that. Before “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” people weren’t wearing those hats and jackets. You know Indiana Jones’ boots? They were Red Goose boots, work boots. (After the movie came out) they started to be made by very high-end designers.

I did “Thriller” with Michael Jackson — Deborah designed it — she made this red jacket for him. If I had a nickel for every knock-off of that jacket, I’d be a happy guy. Fashion wants Hollywood: It’s sexy and sells.

On why costume designers get so worked up about this issue …

Landis: Because fashion designers always take credit for their work. Ruth Morley designed “Annie Hall.” Ralph Lauren (though co-credited for costume design on the film) made a career copying those designs. The fashion business spends three or four billion dollars a year promoting their lines, so they want the association.

Kurland: Versace, five years ago, did an entire line that (Donatella) said was influenced by “Fight Club.” But she never mentioned that Michael Kaplan was the designer of “Fight Club.” It’s like saying “Fight Club” sprung from the earth and influenced her. And she takes the credit for this incredible look.

Nadoolman Landis: And the truth is, (with) fashion designers, their name is everything. Their label is their license; the name is what’s important.

Kurland: Perry Ellis has been dead, what, 30 years; but the Perry Ellis label is still of value. Anne Klein, Dior…

Nadoolman Landis: It’s exactly the opposite for us: No one knows our name. Everyone on the street knows what Indiana Jones looks like. But (not who designed the look). Did it spring from the collective unconscious? Did it spontaneously combust? Was there a design process? Was there meaning?

Kurland: There is some bitterness.