Arriving amidst much excitement is a series of sketches by Prada for their collaboration with costume designer Catherine Martin on The Great Gatsby. Vogue exclusively broke the images. Vogue of course is a fashion magazine and Prada is a fashion label; The Great Gatsby is a film and what the characters wear within it are costumes. There is overlap because The Great Gatsby director Baz Luhrmann apparently brought Prada on board, or more specifically their creative director Miuccia Prada to work alongside Catherine Martin, Luhrmann’s wife. To all intents and purposes this is a partnership. Perhaps to those unfamiliar with the intricacies of costume design it may unfold thus: Miuccia and Martin discuss the clothes characters will wear, agree, Prada goes off and makes them, Luhrmann points his camera and the result is enjoyed by all. Rarely however do these situations play out that simply.
Fashion has enjoyed – or maybe that should be endured – a long relationship with cinematic costume. From the disastrous days of Coco Chanel designing for films during 1930s, fashion has attempted to exploit the medium as a form of self promotion. Possibly ‘exploit’ is too strong a word, though unless a designer’s work is recognisable on screen we have to question exactly what is the point of such a collaboration in the first place? Take Giorgio Armani’s designer wardrobe for Richard Gere in American Gigolo; it made the brand. The film is an out-and-out catwalk parade. We remember the clothes, we remember Gere wearing the clothes, but how many people remember the name of Gere’s character? This was certainly a blessing to Armani as Julian was a loathsome individual who traded in people and paid the price. Even so, these garments expressed his character perfectly; Julian loved clothes and we needed to know that he loved himself wearing them.
Orange organza dress designed by Prada for The Great Gatsby. It is inspired by the brand’s autumn/winter 2011-12 collection.
Giorgio Armani’s relationship with cinema has not always been successful. Costume designer Marilyn Vance-Straker had to re-cut several suits Armani created for The Untouchables (1987) as they differed greatly from brief and did not fit the actors; most ended up being used for background players. A similar problem occurred with Theoni V. Alredge on the 1974 version of The Great Gatsby. Despite creating delicately ethereal looks for Mia Farrow as Daisy many of the suits and shirts for Robert Redford’s Gatsby were provided by Ralph Lauren, who was clearly channelling a romantic image of bygone Americana by mixing 1920s with 70’s trends, i.e. fat neckties and wide lapels. Again the problem seems to be that the fashion designer cannot resist retaining his/her own stamp. It can look like costume, though most important is that it must be identifiable. Yet this is not always at the expense of the designs themselves. Jean Paul Gaultier’s work for film often manages to serve character and be instantly recognisable. His costumes for The Fifth Element are distinguishable but also fit the narrative perfectly. Ditto one of the greatest fashion designer as costume designer projects of all time, Yves Saint Laurent for Belle du Jour (1967).
Obviously the problem of fashion designer influence goes beyond the end result. How these collaborations come to pass is never entirely clear. There is one version for the press and another for behind closed doors. This writer knows first hand from many candid chats with costume designers that the fashion designer ‘partnership’ is rarely by choice. It can be a marketing tie-in, the director’s choice or more commonly the influence of a fashion conscious lead star – something that costume designer Amy Westcott discovered with Black Swan (2010). Her brave choice to speak out over difficulties working alongside Rodarte has been well documented (from an original interview conducted by Clothes on Film). As if the production process was not arduous enough, most of the worldwide press believed that Rodarte were the sole costume designers of Black Swan, and frankly they were not denying it. In due course Westcott was BAFTA nominated and won a Costume Designers Guild Award for Excellence in Contemporary Costume, though the matter remains for all involved.
Green bustier dress intended as a ‘modern take on the twenties silhouette’. More sketches plus quotes from Catherine Martin are available at Vogue.
However this is just one scenario and, as far as we understand, not one that Catherine Martin has suffered with The Great Gatsby. Prada already worked with Luhrmann and Martin on his earlier hit Romeo and Juliet (1996), though only for one outfit – Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo wedding suit. Plus Luhrmann has directed commercials for the brand implying their relationship is more than amicable. Nonetheless what must raise a red flag is just how the public perceive Martin’s involvement with The Great Gatsby. So far major outlets have been careful to mention her name alongside Miuccia’s, though this does feel like a token gesture. Prada are the real star and without them Vogue would not be interested in the slightest. It is a marketing ploy to be sure, but one that may yet lend something to the finished picture. Perhaps Miuccia really understands the concept of interpreting character from the page and perhaps preserving the ‘Prada look’ is the last thing on her mind? Nonetheless her designs featured in the film are reworked from previous collections by Prada and their subsidiary brand Miu Miu. Interestingly bar one Prada party dress, Martin designed all of the costumes for Daisy (Carey Mulligan) personally, so it seems most of Prada’s contribution will actually be worn by secondary characters.
Ultimately we do not know Prada’s true motives for joining forces with Luhrmann, just as do not know Catherine Martin’s true feelings about the situation. Although do bear in mind that she is openly supportive of Prada’s participation, stating “Our collaboration with Prada recalls the European flair that was emerging among the East Coast crowds in the Twenties”. Yet there is a lot of pressure on costume designers to toe-the-line, no matter how high up the pecking order they are. Positions are scarce so quite understandably doing the job and smiling at producers is preferable to being replaced or not securing that vital next film. As fans of costume we should endeavour not to be seduced by glitzy gowns, pretty drawings and the word PRADA screaming forth from every article. Costume and fashion design are two entirely different animals; put them together and there is no guarantee they will get on.
The Great Gatsby is released on 10th May.
© 2013, Christopher Laverty.