There is a scene at the beginning of John Woo’s spectacular new film Face/Off in which Nicolas Cage strides down a runway. His eyes are covered in designer shades, his long black frock coat is blowing in the breeze. His boots gleam and the wind flicks around the elegant hemline of his jacket. We haven’t quite worked out who he is. We don’t know where he’s going. We don’t know what he’s done. The clothes, however, are definitely Donna Karan.
Hollywood and the world of fashion have long enjoyed a close and mutually beneficial relationship. There have been films about fashion; films featuring fashion; designers who dress film stars; models who become actors; actors who date models. It is a love affair with endless permutations.
But in recent years, the nature of the relationship has changed, or at least the balance has shifted. Increasingly, films are being used to showcase designers – the latest of these is Face/Off, due for general release next week. We might not know who directed the film, we probably aren’t interested in who wrote the script, but we sure as hell know who designed the clothes.
More than that, designers – now Hello!-style celebrities in their own right – are fast becoming the stars of film. Luc Besson’s recent sci-fi movie The Fifth Element may have featured Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman in leading roles, but the real star of the show was Jean-Paul Gaultier. He designed the costumes, gave all the publicity interviews, and was in more demand at Cannes than Ewan McGregor and Cameron Diaz combined. In short, it was Gaultier who sold the film.
This developing relationship between cinema and haute couture is examined in a new book by film lecturer Stella Bruzzi called Undressing Cinema. In it Bruzzi outlines the ‘elaborate and fragmented’ history of couture’s involvement with cinema. The interaction was there from the start, but the massive potential for commercial exploitation is only now being realised.
The earliest films where couture played a part, dating back to the first decade of the century, were straightforward, cinematic fashion shows. Then in 1931 Sam Goldwyn offered Coco Chanel a million-dollar contract to design for MGM. He wanted the glamour of a designer name, but the relationship came to a premature end after less than a year following reports of disagreements between Chanel and Gloria Swanson, whom she dressed in Tonight Or Never. It was a rocky start, but the relationship between Hollywood and the couture industry blossomed nevertheless.
From almost the beginning, cinema had a strong influence on contemporary fashions. Edith Head’s strapless party dress for Elizabeth Taylor in A Place In The Sun (1951) was copied across the world; Clark Gable’s bare-chested look in It Happened One Night (1934) resulted in a 30 per cent drop in American sales of men’s vests. More recently, Uma Thurman’s dark crimson talons in Pulp Fiction caused a run on Chanel’s Vamp nail varnish and Agnes b fitted white shirts. See the movie, buy the outfit.
After Chanel’s exit, Hubert de Givenchy moved into Hollywood, dressing Audrey Hepburn both on and off screen, in films like Sabrina (1954) and Funny Face (1957). ‘The collaboration heralded a new relationship between stars and clothes,’ says Bruzzi. From that point on, the use of a couturier on a film becomes ‘closely aligned with a desire to bequeath to the clothes the kind of star status usually denied to costume. Film fashions no longer had to remain subservient to narrative and character, and could become more intrusive, a legacy which . . . finds its surest modern expression in the spectacular, innovative costumes of Jean-Paul Gaultier.’
Between the Givenchy-Hepburn partnership and Gaultier’s outrageous 23rd-century creations for The Fifth Element (he also worked on Peter Greenaway’s 1989 film The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and Almodovar’s Kika in 1993) there have been many collaborations between film and fashion. Among the most significant is Armani’s role in American Gigolo (1980), starring Richard Gere, which marked the return of fashion to the forefront of Hollywood.
Then there were Ralph Lauren’s designs for Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (disguised to look as though she’d raided her dead father’s wardrobe) Lauren’s clothes for Robert Redford in The Great Gatsby; Armani’s work on The Untouchables (he dressed everyone except Robert De Niro, who insisted on having the same tailor that Al Capone used in the thirties) Yves Saint Laurent’s designs in Belle De Jour and Nino Cerruti’s in Pretty Woman. (Cerruti is among the most prolific, having contributed clothes to 39 films.)
This collaboration worked to everyone’s advantage. It was cheap: designers often loaned their clothes free of charge in exchange for a credit (and still do). The film usually looked better as a result, even if the clothes weren’t strictly authentic (Sean Connery’s cardigans as Malone in The Untouchables were very eighties Armani leisure-wear). And the designers enjoyed a credit (sometimes) and a smattering of subtle publicity.
But it’s not subtle any more. Donna Karan contributes four or five outfits to a movie, and suddenly it’s a marketing tool. In the UK, Buena Vista, the distributor of Face/Off, staged a screening specifically for the style press. The PR material waxed lyrical about a new genre of ‘style-led’ action thrillers with a ‘definite fashion statement’.
A spokeswoman for Buena Vista explains: ‘We are trying to cross markets. This film is much more than a normal action thriller. We are trying to appeal to people who would not normally think of going to see an action-type film. It’s a small part of the overall film campaign. But it gets another element into the film.’ And what does the designer get out of it? ‘Face/Off has created a sensation in the US,’ says the blurb. ‘It is bound to have a similar effect in the UK, with a strong influence on fashion this autumn/winter.’ And there it is, in a nutshell: Elizabeth Taylor’s party dress, Uma Thurman’s nail varnish, Nicolas Cage’s frock coat.
For Donna Karan, one of the most famous names in fashion, it’s good business. And she needs it. In the first six months of 1997, Donna Karan International lost $13.8 million, after a $7.5 million profit last year. Now she has John Travolta and Nick Cage in Face/Off wearing her clothes. Next it’s Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella in Great Expectations, due for release in the US in December. ‘It’s unbelievable,’ says Patti Cohen, president of publicity for Donna Karan in New York. ‘It’s a wonderful vehicle for our clothes. It’s very difficult to put a dollar value on it.’ Visibility is everything. And so Nicole Kidman wears Dior at the Oscars – a long chartreuse Chinese-embroidered satin gown (you may have seen the copies) Liz Hurley wears Versace to the premieres, and Demi Moore, who is rumoured to be trying to buy the rights to Coco Chanel’s life story (just think of the merchandising!), turns up at fashion shows almost as regularly as Suzy Menkes.
‘I can’t honestly say it’s an entirely new thing,’ says Chris Hemblade, assistant editor of the film magazine Empire. ‘Film and fashion people have always been interlinked in the circles in which they move. They’ve always had a symbiotic relationship. They are just exploiting that more now.
‘If you compare the situation now with Audrey Hepburn’s association with Givenchy, it’s much more organised today. People have become media-savvy, and there’s so much riding on these films that you have to become more and more imaginative to make sure it’s your film everyone’s talking about.
‘Fashion puts films into another area of the media and gets the film talked about,’ Hemblade continues. ‘Studio marketing directors are grabbing at every opportunity. Take Men In Black and the link with Ray-Ban. There’s a lot of cross-branding, aggressive commercialism.’ Both within the film and beyond. To mark the launch of Alan Parker’s Evita, starring the always fashion-conscious Madonna (she dumped Versace in favour of John Galliano for the Los Angeles premiere), the New York emporium Bloomingdales launched nine Evita clothes shops stocking the entire wardrobe of the former Argentine first lady. There was even an Estee Lauder lipstick called Evita Red Hot, price £12.50.
Enough to make you breathless? Hemblade is unperturbed. ‘I don’t think it’s a bad thing,’ he says. ‘It’s just finding more imaginative ways of marketing your film.’ Maybe, but suddenly the innocent charm of Hepburn, gauche and gamine in Givenchy, seems very appealing.
Undressing Cinema is published on November 11 by Routledge, price £12.99.