It's not exactly a quiet moment in fashion. A pair of major houses (Dior and Lanvin) are without design heads, Chanel is about to begin the next pre-fall season – which will rumble on until late January – while world events have hit at the very heart of the industry. And yet the collective attention has been captured (or maybe distracted) by the trailer for the upcoming film Zoolander 2.
As the name suggests, it's a sequel, to the 2001 comedy satire starring Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson, in which they play simple-minded, aesthetically obsessed male models. The rest of the film takes equally slapstick swipes at the fashion industry: the strange outfits, pyrotechnic shows and odd pouts. “Deliberately dumb” was the general critical response, although the film was a box-office hit (hence the sequel).
The difference this time is that fashion is in on the joke. Thus Stiller and Wilson incongruously appeared as the finale to Valentino's autumn/winter 2015 womenswear show, to riotous applause. And when the trailer was released this week, it was hurrahed by magazine websites from Vogue to GQ. The film itself appears in cinemas next February. Hot on its heels will come a movie version of the cult Nineties sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, starring Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley. Kate Moss and Jean-Paul Gaultier have been photographed on the set.
I'm never sure how effective fashion lampoons can be; I'm never certain who is laughing. The humour in the Zoolander franchise is, largely speaking, base. It can be easily understood without any knowledge of the fashion business, and is probably best enjoyed as such. Kristen Wiig, for instance, plays a surgically enhanced fashion maven-type and sports a suit that, for fashion followers, directly references Alexander McQueen's autumn/winter 2009 collection. But to anyone else, she's just a weird face in a wacky jacket, a visual joke about the perceived excesses of the industry.
The humour has to be broad because, though clothes are worn by everyone, fashion is niche. It's other. However, one can't help but feel that, just because you don't understand something, it shouldn't be a reason to denigrate its worth. (FYI, the fashion industry's global worth was estimated at US$1.7 trillion in 2012; it employs about 75 million people).
In that context, the striking thing about Zoo-lander 2 is the apparent desperation of fashion and fashion designers to be associated with it, and hence prove they don't take themselves too seriously. Which is strange, as they've been burned before: Robert Altman's 1994 film Pret-a-Porter, for instance, featured a veritable wardrobe of Parisian designer names – Dior, Lacroix, Gaultier – as the background players to his chaotic farce. Altman even inveigled his celebrity cast into the audience of genuine catwalk shows, positioned front-row like the “editors” they played, while his fictional fashion designers presented real collections, ones designed by Sonia Rykiel and Vivienne Westwood. Westwood later allowed her involvement was probably a mistake.
The main trouble with fictionalised fashion is that the characters and situations are extreme enough in reality. There's no need for exaggeration. For example, the “Derelicte” clothing line of the first Zoolander – a deconstructed range inspired by the homeless, according to its designer, played by a wigged-up Will Ferrell – was itself influenced by a very real Galliano haute couture show for Dior. But then, deconstruction seems a special target for fashion-film funny men: anyone paying a lot of money for a dress with a torn hem must be stupid, right? Just like anyone buying an abstract work of art.
Committing fashion's often odd but frequently riveting reality to film – rather than scripted belly-laughs – has always been a tough sell. That's why producers favour a Hollywood “comedy” over a duller “documentary”. That's why The September Issue, a 2009 documentary charting the production of an edition of American Vogue, was a critical hit but only a modest box-office success. On the other hand, the designer Isaac Mizrahi spun the success of a 1995 documentary following the creation of his previous winter collection into a talk show, and even his own one-man show off Broadway.
If Zoolander were smarter, I think I would like it more – and there's no reason why it shouldn't be smarter. With the advent of the internet, previously niche fashion figures have become major stars in their own right; fashion shows are viewed by millions online, not just a few hundred attendees, or a few thousand who buy fashion magazines. Anna Wintour travels with a bodyguard who protects her, sure; but he also sweeps away the gawpers who cluster round her since her fame went stratospheric. And at the recent Frieze art fair in London, when I saw the former Dior designer Raf Simons – himself the “star” of a documentary on the house – he'd been stopped for pictures dozens of times, as a result of that (really very good) film.
This was unexpected. Which is precisely what the cliche-riddled Zoolander wasn't, and what I doubt Zoolander 2 will be. I've only seen the flashing, ADHD-attuned trailer. But, as someone genuinely interested in fashion, I'm already bored.
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