With Prêt-à-Porter, Robert Altman filmed a self-conscious, grotesque portrait of the fashion industry in an inaccurate, messy, but rather enjoyable manner.
In the first half of the movie, fashion is a playground for men. Olivier de la Fontaine (Jean-Pierre Cassel) runs the Chambre de la Mode. Designer Simone Lowenthal’s son (Rupert Everett) licenses the family brand to a Texan boot maker behind his mother back. Photographer Milo O’Brannigan (Stephen Rea) ascertains his power by blackmailing the holy trinity of fashion editors (ELLE, Vogue, Harper’s).
Women, however, quickly regain control. De la Fontaine dies and his statuesque wife Isabella (Sophia Loren) becomes the focal point of every front row. The editors put their publishing competition aside and team up against the golden boy of photography. Lowenthal shocks the industry by sending naked women down her runway.
(heads up for nudity under the cut)
Despite Thierry Mugler asserting early in the movie that his fashion “is all about getting a great fuck, darling”, eroticism is nothing more than a background to the story. When Isabella undresses for Sergio (Marcello Mastroiani), the man she married in her teens who then dumped her for communism, her demeanor is exaggerated, and he falls asleep before she’s undone her garter’s last clasp. It lacks the sexual tension of a Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow.
The year Tom Ford became creative director of Gucci with his soft porn vision, Altman imagined a runway made entirely of naked models. Described by journalist Kitty Potter (Kim Basinger) as “so old, it’s true, so true, it’s new, the oldest new look the newest old look: the bare look”, the scene is anything but sexual. The models might’ve be naked, but I was only shocked by how alike they looked and how interchangeable they seemed. Noteworthy as well is the number of black models present compared to how many are on the runway today. In addition to Naomi Campbell’s cameo, Altman cast more black women than there have been in any contemporary fashion week
Potter’s explanation of the “bare look” is, of course, largely bullshit. Her scripted character is a mere cinematographic device linking scenes, highlighting how shallow the industry is. A decade before The Devil Wears Prada’s publication, magazine editors were not a point of fascination as they are now. They were, however, already portrayed as bitchy divas. Vogue editor Nina Scant (Tracey Ullman) has something of an Isabella Blow vibe, especially because of her love of Philip Treacy hats. This is the only “fashion forward” element of her clothing. Everyone at the defiles is wearing suits, more businesswear than the looks that streetstyle bloggers have accustomed us to. More still, they wear flats.
Altman’s film is a bit of a mess. Fictional designers are mirrored by cameos from Thierry Mugler, Jean Paul Gaultier and Sonia Rykiel. A character portrayed by Ute Lemper, plus two fictional Simpson sisters, are Altman-created supermodels, measuring themselves to real-life supers Linda, Helena and Carla. Made up catwalks, in a bourgeois salon or in an abandoned Metro station echo real, raw footage from the fall 1994 Lacroix, Rykiel and Gaultier shows. The overtly staged transition from one scene to another, via Potter’s commentary, means that the viewer, despite being highly aware of watching a movie, can easily get lost between reality and fiction.
- Lucie Goulet