Lights! Camera! Action!

Magic happens when fashion designers take over the costume department.

Key Takeaways

  1. Fashion and cinema have always been intertwined. Fashion has learned how to tell (and sell) a story by virtue of replicating the cinematic language: the construction of archetypes, the narratives behind a collection, the spectacularity of runway shows, or, simply, the fashion film. In turn, costume design is one of the pillars of filmmaking, upon which much of a film’s success relies.
  2. Most successful fashion designers have flirted with the costume department at some point. The level of involvement might go from lending a few gowns to designing for a specific character or taking over the entire wardrobe department. 
  3. These collaborations are mutually beneficial. Aside from adding creative value and the opportunity of designing without market constraints, the involvement of a well-known designer might help with financing and promoting the film. In turn, it can generate extra publicity for designers and brands, while artistically elevating their work.

Fashion drowns in cinematic references. Hollywood has defined what and how capitalism sells, and fashion has taken its cues from it: collections are presented via fashion films, runway shows recreate set designs, licenses are sold for the Jaws poster to be printed on T-shirts. Cinema has also benefitted from the language and codes of fashion: costume design plays an essential role in defining the appeal and success of a film. Unsurprisingly, the relationship between both disciplines is long-standing, rich, and very fun to watch.

One of the most exciting cases of cross-pollination happens when fashion designers take on the role of costume designers. This is an opportunity for them to get creative, for the producer to use their fame as financial leverage, and for the viewer to indulge in exquisite designs. There are countless examples of symbiosis in the history of cinema. Here, we revisit five gems outfitted by five legendary designers.

André Courrèges for La Piscine (1969)
For a film about a swimming pool, its clothes are remarkably memorable. Featuring some of the most gorgeous actors to ever exist (Alain Resnais, Romy Schneider, Jane Birkin), this is a thriller about bad people falling in lust in an unreal setting. When not semi-naked, they effortlessly wear the ultimate chic summer wardrobe. The engineer behind these impeccable outfits was André Courrèges, one of the '60s most prominent designers and responsible for a great deal of that decade’s aesthetic direction. From Jane Birkin’s gingham and crochet ensembles (and that basket purse!) to Alain Delon’s shabby chic fisherman sweater or the rotundity of Romy Schneider in white at a funeral, everyone looks cool in this sweaty atmosphere. When the film was revisited by Luca Guadagnino in 2016, costume designer Giulia Persanti tapped Raf Simons, then Dior’s creative director, to help with the task at hand.

Karl Lagerfeld for Maîtresse (1975)
While connoisseurs might be quick to assert that the definitive marriage between the holy Fs—fashion, film, and fetish—was Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967), which starred Catherine Deneuve derailing in sublime YSL designs, Maîtresse is a very dignified contender. It is the story of a thief—a young Gerard Depardieu—who robs the wrong place: a dominatrix’s haven. Karl Lagerfeld was the perfect choice to dress the dual Arianne (Bulle Ogier), dominatrix and lover, mother, wife. At the time, Lagerfeld was designing for Chloé and Fendi. His sense of femininity can be seen in the clothes Arianne wears upstairs—elegant beige suits and silky blouses—in stark contrast with her downstairs self—black latex, literally breathtaking corsets, and yummy (also literally) heels. Lagerfeld crafted a delicious balance between both, adding subtle fetish details to her day-to-day looks: a hint of fishnet tights here, a see-through fabric there. The film would go on to inspire Silvia Venturini Fendi for Fendi’s AW20 collection—talk about closing the circle.

Giorgio Armani for Phenomena (1985) 
Potentially one of the '80s best-kept secrets, this film is an explosive mix of elements: a post-Suspiria Dario Argento picture starring a teenage Jennifer Connelly in her second-ever movie with a wardrobe designed by Giorgio Armani. Phenomena’s story is hard to summarise (know that you shouldn’t watch it if you dislike insects), but visually, it is exquisite. Costume designers Marina Malavasi and Patrizia Massaia worked with Armani, a friend of Argento, and defined Jennifer as the ideal '80s boss lady: think shoulder pads, masculine shirts and tailored trousers. We don’t know much about her, but her radical sophistication at the tender age of 15 puts us invariably on her side as she suffers around the “Swiss Transylvania”. The care placed on the outfits was no happy accident, for this was a match made in heaven: Armani had previously dressed Richard Gere in American Gigolo and would go on to outfit The Intouchables, while D’Argento would direct a catwalk show for Trussardi the following year.

Jean-Paul Gaultier for The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover (1989)
A theatrical designer if there ever was one, Jean-Paul Gaultier is best rememberd in Hollywood for his contribution to Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997). A lesser-known fact is that a few years earlier he was also in charge of the costumes for The Cook…, a grotesque drama directed by Peter Greenaway. Superb in its visual compositions and outlandish in its plot, it starred Helen Mirren as a woman saddened by life with a horrible husband. Her outfits reflect her oppression—we’re talking corsets, feathers, veils—and change colours to camouflage her in the spaces she occupies. Eccentric, baroque, and atemporal, the story and settings are reminiscent of an opera, and Gaultier’s designs, including the plain brown suit of the title’s lover, are a true feast for the eyes.

Yohji Yamamoto for Teknolust (2002)
The millenium bug awoke the creativity of many at the turn of the century, Teknolust being one of the oddest experiments. A feminist-leaning, sci-fi romantic comedy directed by artist Lynn Hershman Leeson, it starred Tilda Swinton as a scientist that has developed three clones, each one defined by a different colour, on a mission to chase men. While Rosetta, the scientist, is a normie plain Jane, the gleaming Marine, Olive and Ruby are dressed for success by Yohji Yamamoto in minimal monochrome outfits that mix traditional Japanese influences with ‘00s futuristic fabrics. Yamamoto, who is also known for his frequent collaborations with cult director Takeshi Kitano, is a perfect choice to imbue this Metaverse-y fable with class and coolness.

(Header image courtesy of The Criterion Collection)