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A retrospective of cinema characters dressed by fashion’s best designers

Having film costumes dreamed up by fashion designers is not a novel idea. The silver screen’s sartorial reliance on fashion bigwigs harks back to its early cinematic days. During Hollywood’s golden age, Audrey Hepburn made her mark time and time again, from Sabrina to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, while decked in Hubert de Givenchy’s most definitive pieces. Pierre Balmain helped establish Brigitte Bardot as a sex symbol through his leg-baring cinched-at-the-waist skirts in And God Created Woman. Then again, who better than fashion’s best creatives to invent consummate character wardrobes?

Below, we look back at five feted films which immortalised costumes masterminded by fashion’s original heavy-hitters — from a lesser-known Coco Chanel-dressed French New Wave movie to a cult feminist sci-fi featuring Paco Rabanne’s oft-referenced chainmail costume.

Last Year in Marienbad (1961) by Coco Chanel

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Delphine Seyrig as Last Year in Marienbad’s unnamed leading lady in a Chanel dress.

After her 1930s million-dollar stint with Samuel Goldwyn Mayer dressing the likes of Jean Harlow, Coco Chanel only returned to the cinema industry in the ’60s, designing looks for French director Alain Resnais’ dreamy romantic noir Last Year in Marienbad. The year it was released, the film bagged a Golden Lion award — the highest honour a film could receive at the time — at the Venice Film Festival.

Filmed in black and white with the dramatic backdrop of a baroque hotel and its lavish gardens, ‘the woman’, portrayed by Delphine Seyrig, offsets it with her flurry of simple, pared-back Chanel pieces. Iconic standouts include a diaphanous chiffon dress that flows as she walks through the gardens’ foliage a little black dress paired with the designer’s signature two-tone slingbacks. The film was dubbed as one of the most crucial works which defined the French New Wave movement with the movie widely referenced from time to time. Chanel’s successor, Karl Lagerfeld, cited the film as inspiration for Chanel’s Spring 2011 collection.

To give the movie a new lease of life, the house of Chanel has been on a mission to digitise the movie. The restored version of the film is set to premiere, once again, at the Venice Film Festival on 5 September this year.

The Fifth Element (1997) by Jean Paul Gaultier

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Milla Jovovich as The Fifth Element’s Leeloo in a Jean Paul Gaultier-designed bandage bodysuit.

More than two decades after its release, French director Luc Besson’s outlandish sci-fi thriller The Fifth Element, set in the 23rd century, is still as visually gripping as it was in 1997. While its cinematography and production design are impressive, it was the costumes — masterminded by fashion’s former enfant terrible Jean Paul Gaultier — that packed a visual punch, earning the film its cult status.

When Besson appointed Gaultier, the French designer was no stranger to the wardrobe department, having collaborated with Spanish director Pedro Almodovar several times. His eye for detail had him designing over 1,000 costumes, not only for the lead protagonists — Milla Jovovich’s bandage-style bodysuit, Bruce Willis’ bright orange tank, Chris Tucker’s gender-bending all-leopard-everything — but for the numerous extras throughout the show. The supermodel-like McDonald’s girls and flight attendants only appear briefly, yet their provocative costumes have remained as pop staples alongside the main characters’— a testament to Gaultier’s meticulous attention to the littlest of details.

American Gigolo (1980) by Giorgio Armani

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Richard Gere as Julian Kaye in American Gigolo, wearing a belted Armani overcoat.

As high-class escort Julian Kaye in Paul Schreider’s American Gigolo, Richard Gere defined the ’80s notion of the self-occupied, image-obsessed yuppie. His series of loose, undone pale Giorgio Armani suits also shaped the period’s penchant for slouchy tailoring. At the time, Armani was ahead of the curve: he removed the jacket’s internal padding, lightened the colour palette and introduced softer fabrications like linen. His feted work for American Gigolo pushed Armani into the spotlight.

The suit isn’t Julian’s only Armani staple. With a wardrobe chock-full of slouchy tailored suits, short-sleeved shirts and classic Mackintosh-style overcoats now synonymous with the brand, Julian’s intent fixation with his looks and the clothing he wears almost puts even Patrick Bateman to shame. Almost.

Romeo + Juliet (1996) by Miuccia Prada

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Claire Danes as Juliet in Miuccia Prada’s dress, and Leonardo Dicaprio as Romeo in Romeo + Juliet.

Baz Luhrmann’s American adaptation of Shakespeare’s age-old classic, Romeo + Juliet, is a revolutionary action-packed, star-studded blockbuster. For two hours, the words spoken are Elizabethan English retaining its “thine’s” and “thou’s”, while everything else has been refashioned for the ’90s MTV generation. The fluoro universe soundtracks sonnets to Radiohead, as well as garbing the Montague gang in kaleidoscopic Hawaiian shirts and louche boxy jackets — not unlike Spring 2018’s Louis Vuitton and Balenciaga — and the Capulets in sleek, ultra-sharp all-black tailoring courtesy of Dolce & Gabbana’s now-defunct diffusion line D&G.

In contrast to the distinctive factions, the clothes of Leonardo DiCaprio’s Romeo and Claire Danes’ Juliet themselves are “the simplest of all, very clean lines, not embellished at all,” said costume designer Kym Barrett. Barrett roped in Miuccia Prada to do it. Prada — who later on worked Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby — created two understated now-iconic ensembles worn by the couple: Danes’ white dress and wings for the costume party, and DiCaprio’s navy blue wedding suit, complete with a crisp cotton shirt and pink floral tie. The minimal detailing and muted colour palette elevate them above the transpiring chaos. Still, even impeccable Prada can’t save the star-crossed lovers from their inevitable misfortune.

Barbarella (1968) by Paco Rabanne

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Jane Fonda as the titular Barbarella in Paco Rabanne’s chainmail outfit.

Based on a comic strip by Jean-Claude Forest, the 1968 sci-fi flick is situated in an absurdist future with Jane Fonda as Barbarella, the space-traveller on a quest to save earth from the evil hands of Durand-Durand and his superweapon. Barbarella was ridiculed for its weak premise, second-rate acting and supposed exploitation of women upon its release. But fast forward to the present day, the film is now acknowledged as a cult feminist classic — progressive in its portrayal of an assertive woman unabashed of her sexuality.

Playing a large part in cementing Barbarella’s unique character are her glimmering costumes. Created perhaps quite unsurprisingly by the trailblazer of ’60s spage-age fashion, Paco Rabanne, his work symbolised the era’s peak of the space race and the feminist and free-love movement. These costumes have inspired designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier, Rodarte’s Mulleavy sisters and Louis Vuitton’s Nicolas Ghesquière referenced Rabanne’s chainmail minidresses, futuristic bodysuits and metallic go-go boots in their collections.

(Main image: Barbarella; featured image: American Gigolo)

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