November 22, 2013 6:21 pm

Fashion learns the art of film

‘Rather than use culture to enable product promotion, the brand becomes an enabler of culture’

It’s about now that a film studio’s fancy turns to thoughts of awards. They need to get their Oscar/Bafta/Golden Globe contenders in by the end of the year, and general wisdom dictates that it is always better to save the most powerful for the end, so that they remain fresh in voters’ minds.

So the holiday season coincides with the release of high-minded movies such as Philomena , Dallas Buyers Club and The Book Thief – films that deal with big subjects such as adoption and motherhood, terminal illness and the Holocaust, as opposed to, say, superheroes and aliens, or bachelors on the loose. And as in film, so in fashion.

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Vanessa Friedman

Or, rather, fashion films. They are the accessories of choice, not only for most brands but increasingly for designers and stylists too. The prize they are chasing is not, however, a little gold statuette but consumer goodwill and loyalty (enough to drive viewers into shops or on to retail sites). What’s interesting is that the strategy is the same. Just as Thor: The Dark World has given way to Great Expectations in the US, the comic book to the literary, so too fashion films now are increasingly about auteurs and ideas, as opposed to handbags or perfume bottles.

Take for example the new short film Made in England from stylist Katy England, otherwise known for her work with Alexander McQueen, Tom Ford and Kate Moss for Topshop. The film, due for launch today at Somerset House in London as part of an exhibition celebrating British creativity, was commissioned by Vauxhall Motors to celebrate the idea of, well, Vauxhalls.

That said, the star and subject of the film is unquestionably British youth culture, writ large. The car is simply a prop for a driver who takes a kind of mini-road trip, picking up hitchhikers, protecting a stray kid from a gang of angry cyclists, and ferrying a group of brightly plumed club-goers to their evening activity. Put another way: if the title didn’t include the words “Vauxhall presents”, a viewer would not necessarily make the connection. (Though they might wonder who made the pink fur jacket.)

Then there’s Prada’s new “classics” short Castello Cavalcanti , launched this month at the Rome Film Festival in the “special events out of competition section”, and on view on the brand’s website. The follow-up to Roman Polanski’s 2012 short film A Therapy , which starred Helena Bonham Carter, Ben Kingsley and a Prada coat, this one was shot by Wes Anderson (of The Royal Tenenbaums fame). Filmed at Rome’s Cinecittà studios, it stars Jason Schwartzman, one of Anderson’s favourite leading men, and has the flat, surreal delivery and style associated with the director.

Schwartzman plays a racing driver in the 1950s participating in a sprint though a small Italian village, the Castello Cavalcanti of the title. He crashes his car into a statue of Jesus in the town square, ends up in the local café, and discovers that he is in his ancestral village and that it was all fated, and so on. Unlike Polanski’s film, which at one point did zoom in on the brand label inside a fur coat, in Anderson’s film there is not one obvious Prada moment.

. . .

There’s a link, when you think about it, between learning to value heritage (which is a big thing now in luxury) and the weirdly compelling story – weirdly compelling being both a classic Anderson thing and a classic Prada thing. But you could also miss it entirely and still enjoy what you are seeing. The brand has been almost completely abstracted from the content, becoming an enabler of culture rather than using culture to enable product promotion.

In a similar-but-different vein are the 15- to 20-minute films that Karl Lagerfeld has been making at Chanel to coincide with his Métiers d’Art collections. Tracing the history of the house’s founder, they are in effect biographical vignettes with feature film production values and casts. The first, Once Upon a Time, was unveiled in May in Singapore and stars Keira Knightley as a young Coco Chanel opening her first boutique in Deauville. Early next month in Dallas, Lagerfeld will unveil a sequel of sorts, starring Geraldine Chaplin as an older Chanel and set in the 1950s, when the designer became big in America. The shorts may be packed with vintage product but the focus is, again, on the story and the actors, not the stuff.

Which means what, exactly? To be blunt: it means fashion films that are, finally, fun to watch. There’s not a constant awareness of the director’s mandate to sell – literally – a bill of goods. Because, while the goods may be billed, they aren’t being sold. All that talk about the marketing of no marketing being the marketing of the future has, apparently, sunk in.

So I would like to propose a new awards category: best fashion film not clearly about fashion. These three would be my first nominees. I’m sure that by the time Christmas comes, there will be others. The write-in voting begins now: to nominate your favourite fashion film not about fashion, send an email to me at the address below.

vanessa.friedman@ft.com @VVFriedman

More columns at ft.com/friedman

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