Why ‘Prêt-à-Porter’ is the ultimate fashion film

The microcosm of the fashion industry is an endless source of entertainment laced with cotton and tulle. Fashion is business and beauty, high and low art, deception and expression. The subcutaneous tension and the paradoxical nature of fashion speaks to the public’s imagination. Over the years there were several films who tried to capture the essence of the fashion industry – see The Devil wears Prada or Coco Chanel. Yet, Robert Altman’s reviled satire Prêt-à-Porter (released in the U.S. as Ready To Wear), which came out in 1994, is often overlooked. With the 21st anniversary taking place yesterday, it’s time to talk about why you should watch the ultimate fashion film.

Prêt-à-Porter is a multifaceted extravaganza. Altman seems not particularly interested in portraying the expressiveness and aesthetic value of fashion, but focused more on all the intrigues in the industry and the drama behind the scenes. The underlining theme in Prêt-à-Porter is ego. He highlights the fashion industry from top to bottom: Designers, photographers, magazine editors, journalists to the models, the make-up artists and the assistants. The film is glued together with short interviews by an improvising Kim Basinger as the dim-witted Texan TV-reporter Kitty Potter.

Other characters include Marcello Mastroianni and Sophia Loren in a renewed romance that fizzles out; the adventures of journalists Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts who’re stuck in their hotel room; an uppity designer who finds out that his favorite model is pregnant; the mistress of the hated fashion mogul whose death is a relief to the industry; three fashion editors who try to hire the same smarmy photographer; and so on. There’s a running gag throughout the film where six characters step into a pile of dog s—t; an palpable metaphor of the industry where everybody wades through piles of s—t in order to achieve their goal. But beyond plot points, what sets this film apart?

Paris Fashion Week
It took Altman 10 years to create Prêt-à-Porter. He had the foresight to make fun of an industry that in the ’90s reached its absolute peak and still yearned to be taken seriously in mainstream culture. Unlike other films where they create fictional fashion shows, Altman shot Prêt-à-Porter live during SS/1994 in Paris, which gives the film an extra layer of campy realness and shows the hyped entity that is Fashion Week. The ’90s clothes are divine as is the soundtrack song by Ini Kamoze: “Here Comes the Hotstepper.”

The chaos of the industry
The film has a very large ensemble cast with numerous subplots, but the characters only briefly interact with each other. The seemingly structure-less plot resembles the chaos of fashion shows, which is underlined by the creative improvisation of the actors and the loud overlapping dialogue — but quite frankly that’s part of its charm. It’s not a deadpan satire about the world of haute couture; you should be in on the joke and shouldn’t take the film at face value.

The crème de la crème of the industry
Everybody who’s anybody shows up in the film. Altman shot during the live- shows of Jean Paul Gaultier, Thierry Mugler, and Christian Lacroix. Karl Lagerfeld, who refused to cooperate, is casually characterized as a thief; he went to German court and ordered Altman to remove the offending scene. There are cameos by designers Gianfranco Ferre, Issey Miyake, Sonia Rykiel, and models such as Christy Turlington, Helena Christensen, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer, Carla Bruni, and Naomi Campbell. It’s like attending a fashion show before there was live-streaming.

Fashion at its finest
There are several charming moments, such as the chemistry between Loren and Mastroianni (who give homage to the striptease scene in Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow); Roberts and Robbins, who make the most of their doomed affair; or recognizing stars such as Lauren Bacall, Harry Belafonte, Cher, and countless of others in the background. While the depth of certain characters is debatable, I think it’s actually great that everybody is just a mess. Just as in real life. Or as Kitty Potter eloquently put it: “What the hell am I talking about? What’s going on here? This is f—king fruitcake time, is that fashion?”

The emperor’s new clothes
The film was trashed by critics and industry insiders who said that Altman tried to show that the fashion business is empty, overrated, and superficial. I think he merely highlights the self-serving nature of every single person in the industry. The film covers the trends, the seasonal changes, creative expression, the drama, and the revenue which is ultimately the core of the fashion industry. I think the ruckus is incomprehensible because in the end, the film was too superficial to do the fashion industry any harm. Prêt-à-Porter should strut itself into our cinematic lexicon.

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Image courtesy of Miramax Films.