Style: Fashion goes to Hollywood

Never mind the supermodels, it's the designers themselves who are really scrambling to make it in LaLa land. Jeffrey R Sipe reports
All roads lead to Hollywood," said supermodel- turned-actress and screenwriter Veronica Webb, who left the catwalk for a fledgling career in the movies. Hollywood, it seems, is just about everyone's destination these days - and no profession is immune to its charms. Artists, pop stars, even sports stars like Michael Jordan, Vinnie Jones and Eric Cantona (next to be seen in a lead role opposite a chimp) have felt impelled to try their luck in front of the camera.

But now it's getting serious. Not only has the supermodel crew (Cindy, Shalom, Claudia and Elle etc) followed Webb's example and quit the catwalk for celluloid ambitions, but in a bizarre twist, fashion designers themselves - the doyens of the champagne lifestyle, style leaders extraordinaire - are also clamouring to make their mark in the movies.

Isaac Mizrahi, having recently been given the boot by financial backer Chanel, has wasted no time in forming his own development company, Baby, and is forging ahead with a handful of projects for stage, screen and TV. Todd Oldham looks set to direct an adaptation of mobster groupie Liz Renay's biography sometime in the coming year. Carole Little's film company, St. Tropez, produced last year's unlikely box-office hit, Anaconda. Tommy Hilfiger has teamed up with Miramax for a $30m ad campaign that cross- promotes the sci-fi/horror film The Faculty and Hilfiger's fashions.

Meanwhile, Ralph Lauren is rumoured to be discussing a film project with his old pal, Lethal Weapon producer Joel Silver. Agnes B, having already invested philanthropically in a number of short films, announced at the Cannes Film Festival the founding of Love Streams, a production company with commercial aims. And rumour has it that Gucci saviour Tom Ford, now signed with the high-powered talent agency, CAA, has expressed a desire to return to his roots as an actor and make a second career in Hollywood.

In other words, the accepted wisdom that fashion is as sexy and glamourous as it gets is being questioned from within. "Fashion opens doors for you," Veronica Webb states, as if modelling were just a stepping stone to a place in the pantheon of the gods. "Movies are where we get our archetypes, our icons. Movies grant immortality."

Indeed, in America, at least, modern day legends are more and more products of the cinema. Despite the increased media attention on fashion, nothing secures a personality a place in the glamour pantheon quite like a movie - even the fashion world pales in comparison. It is almost a younger sibling. "To me, personally," says Isaac Mizrahi, "movies and fashion are the same thing. Movies are a severe case of what fashion is." Along with partner Nina Santisi, Mizrahi's self-produced 1995 documentary Unzipped - which trailed Mizrahi, his mum and a gaggle of supermodels through the New York collections - made this point quite clearly.

Currently, he is co-producing an animated version of his satirical comic book series, Sandee the Supermodel, for Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks. He is also finishing the third draft of a script for Barry Sonnenfeld, and a pilot for a TV sitcom appears to be in the offing.

"I think of myself as a personality," declares Mizrahi, relegating his fashion sense to just one aspect of his personality. "But I relate to being a Whoopi Goldberg, not a Laurence Olivier."

Mizrahi eschews any talk of glamour, however,when reflecting on his move to the entertainment world. As many of his colleagues, he sees the film industry as an extension of the fashion world. "Eventually, I want to go into directing," Mizrahi says. "Directing a movie is the ultimate fashion design. The director distills the moment. He is saying `Look at this! Look at this! This is the moment!' There is a real delight to living in the moment." Whatever that "delight in the moment" may be, Mizrahi ultimately seems more interested in staking his claim to immortality. Contemplating the role of movies in America, he points out, if somewhat dubiously, "It's the only history that America has. France has the Louvre. Italy has the Vatican. America has Hollywood."

Immortality (and a shrewd, self-promotional business sense) may be at the heart of designer/businessman/Hollywood hopeful Tommy Hilfiger's committed flirtation with the film industry. The Peter Pan-like Hilfiger is seemingly obsessed with the pre- and young-adult world. His fashion sense mirrors (some say copies) that of American youth. The countless black kids strutting the streets of New York City in Hilfiger's clothes attests to that. "We have a strong hand in popular culture as it relates to youth," Hilfiger claims. "We are creators of a look, a feeling, an attitude. We are able to alter public perception of a certain concept."

So what exactly has lured Hilfiger into both a $30m alliance with Miramax and a $25m investment in a store on Rodeo Drive?

"We want to continue to dress the young, up-and-coming, cool crowd," Hilfiger says "Whenever Leonardo diCaprio appears in our clothes, there's a surge in sales."

No one more than Hilfiger, perhaps, has been able to exploit the symbiosis of fashion and the movies. In another example of the designer's promotional acumen, an eight-city US tour to promote Tommy Jeans involved busloads of models sporting his creations. Almost all of the models were the children of celebrities, allowing those wooed by the clothes to establish their own connection with the glamour, the sex and the immortality of Hollywood. What young person adult hasn't dreamed of that?

His ad campaign for Dimension Films' The Faculty takes the concept one step further. MTV and other cable TV stations have been airing spots for weeks in which the youngish cast is shown hanging around the set, everyone decked out in "Tommy" clothes. Similarly themed print ads have appeared in all the top fashion magazines, as well. With young stars such as Elijah Wood, Laura Harris and even Salma Hayek attired in "Tommy", sales charts are sure to be showing some healthy spikes already.

The next logical move, it would seem, is for Hilfiger to take the real plunge and make his own movie. "I've talked to a few producers," Hilfiger admits, "and I would be very interested in the right deal. I'm not talking about the financial side, but rather what it would mean politically, socially, artistically. We would be more than likely to succeed in developing a story line as it pertains to the world of young people."

Nevertheless, Hilfiger admits that story line would not be his strong point. For Hilfiger, story and appearance are mutually exclusive. "The look, the attitude, spotting the trend - that's my forte," he says. "The meat of it, the story, that's not my territory. I would direct from a style point-of-view. That's almost as important as content."

If Hilfiger's comments seem to belittle the emotional creativity of film, perhaps that's because, in the end, Hilfiger - not unusually among the fashion elite - doesn't believe there's any intrinsic difference between the fashion industry and the film industry. "Running a fashion company involves creating lines, managing stores, selling the merchandise and fitting the customer," he said. "Managing all of this is not dissimilar to producing a movie."

If it all sounds a bit cut-and-dried, it's because - whether designers are attracted to film for the glamour, sex, money or status - practicality rules once the decision is made. "Movies are just another business for us," said Carol Little, whose Malibu base puts her in contact with the Hollywood elite without even trying. Little formed her development company, St Tropez, four years ago and began sifting through scripts immediately. The quality of the work that passed through her hands hardly served to nurture any sense of glamour.

"You can imagine how much junk we looked at," Little grimaces. When the script for Anaconda reached her, the search was immediately over. It's not that she fell in love with the intrinsic artistry of the screenplay. Nor did she feel that it involved any heart-felt expression that could be perceived as universal truths about the state of Man. "We felt about Anaconda the way you feel about a product," she explained. "It was saleable."

The film met with mixed reviews but, importantly, grossed over $100m. Whatever fascination Little had with the movies - she claims a life-long love of the medium - she also had no illusions. "A number of years ago, I did some clothes for the Academy Awards," she recounted, remembering the downside to working with movie talent. "Oh, my god, the actresses - some of their insecurities! It's easier to work with women in a department store."

Lest there be any illusion that designers have entered Hollywood as some kind of unified force, Todd Oldham strikes a typically independent stance. "Yeah!" he grins to a remark about Hilfiger's The Faculty ads. "What are those? I've seen them on TV, but I can't figure out what they are."

Oldham already has a list of filmed accomplishments, both before and behind the camera. In addition to directing a number of his own "Todd Time" spots on MTV's House of Style, he has also directed several music videos. "[Making a movie] is similar to the efforts of putting on a fashion show," he says. "You have to coordinate a number of these gifted, fragile ego-ed people."

But Oldham's turn to the silver screen is not merely a promotional gimmick for his clothes, since the designer eschewed the idea of acting as costume designer and dressing the characters in his own designs. "I'd rather work with someone else," he said. That's not surprising, according to sources at CAA who represent Oldham.

"People in the film business see Todd's desire to direct as a natural progression," explains the source. "He's not like some designers who would just be interested in styling clothes for a film. His fashion creations are unique - not a style that's going to be repeated. Other designers are not like that, and it wouldn't make sense for them to make a film." So has glamour, money and immortality seduced Oldham to the big screen? "I'm very much a realist," counters Oldham. "I've been on too many sets, dealt with too many actors, met too many executives to have any pipe dreams about it."

The jury is still out on whether any of these icons can make a credible transition to the movies. Making a comparison between the runway and the sound stage, Veronica Webb claims, "Modelling is external; acting is internal." And as one fashion writer remarked recently, "I've spent my entire life approaching people who are dressed in an interesting way, only to find out that there is nothing inside of them."

Indeed, nullifying the notion that those in the fashion industry are frivolous and vacuous may be at the heart of the entire migration. "As far as all these fashion designers moving into movies are concerned," remarks Little, "I don't know if they're trying to convince themselves or others."