Altman's film spoof isn't the rip job its targets feared NEEDLES & GRINS


Fashion isn't pretty, and insiders take guilty pleasure in that. That's why the news that Robert Altman would be bringing film crews to the fall Paris pret-a-porter collections to rip the seams out of the fashion industry sent shivers of flattery and fear among the players who have naughty little secrets tucked away in their couture closets.

The film opens Christmas Day. "Pret-a-Porter," as it was originally hyped and titled, has been translated to "Ready-to-Wear" for American audiences who are not comfortable with their parley vooing.

After much advance speculation in the very fashion press that is targeted in the film, one wonders what the fuss was about. The fashion world can relax. Instead of laying bare the designer business without benefit of makeup or stylists, the film merely smears some mascara and ruffles some coifs.

What "Ready-to-Wear" is, is a star-studded, fashion-packed, supermodel-littered look behind the scenes of the Paris collections. A fashion fan's dream. Real clothes, shows, designers and models mixed with a generous sprinkling of star cameos.

It is set in the flurry of Paris fashion week, when the president of the French design cartel is found dead and his glamorous widow, as played by Sophia Loren, sails into glamorous mourning. The competitive top magazine fashion witches, played by Sally Kellerman, Tracey Ullman and Linda Hunt, sweep into town with their entourages to cover the fall presentations. Untried fashion writer Julia Roberts tries to bluff her way through. Egomaniacal photographer Stephen Rae sulks around. Designers are in a pitched fit of nervousness and there's betrayal afoot.

It's a farce and a hoot, so there's no need to work at deep meanings, but there are plenty of fabulous clothes and faces to watch as the fashionables step in and out of closets, love affairs and doggie doo-doo.

Elsa Klensch, whose globe-trotting fashion reports for CNN have brought high-fashion to the lower brows, snagged a speaking part in the film. She was tickled to be asked.

"It was a lot of fun, not at all a documentation of the industry, but it rings true," she says. Her bit was an airy double TV interview with Kim Basinger, who plays a ditzy fashion television reporter.

"Everything moved so quickly. We got an outline of what they wanted and had to roll. The only thing I was told was to answer a question with a question," she says.

Her lines?

"You must remember Lacroix's pouf skirt? We were poufed and poufed? Well it could be that we're gonna be poufed again before the turn of the century."

Ms. Klensch is cool on camera, but this was different. "It was the chance to work for Robert Altman, the greatest and only chance I would ever have in the movies. If I had not made the final cut I would have been very disappointed."

The presence of film crews added an edge to the frenzied Paris showings of fall fashion that took place in March. "The atmosphere was very high-key and everybody was very conscious of what they were wearing," she says.

Fashion editors, who would like the world to believe they are above competitive dressing, do have their vanities.

At the New York ready-to-wear collections, which follow the French by weeks, some of the fashion press groused about the film crews' intrusion on their turf.

Ruth La Ferla, fashion features director for Elle magazine, did not find it so. "I never encountered any direct rudeness. Fashion people may feel, justifiably, that this was their time to shine, the time you gather information and make your presence felt. When a movie crew comes in, you're being eclipsed," she says. "However, I think a lot of the complaining was from people who were offended because they were not included."

The fictionalized fashion-dragon Elle editor in the film was played by Ms. Hunt, all dressed in the intellectualized Japanese-French mode.

Fashion intellectual may sound like an oxymoron to people outside the industry, but Ms. La Ferla defends her turf.

"If you take what any of us say out of its frenzy and context, a lot of it can sound completely over the top," she says. "All people who are steeped in their subject have a special language, but that doesn't mean it is not valid."

Gender bending

Though she has no argument with the film's fashion chatter, she does find fault with some complicated subplot twists. "The movie was far more blatantly heterosexual than the business I know."

Sexuality, in all gender combinations, gives a twist to the story line. One of the film's most successful characters is the multi-sexual designer Cort Romney played by Richard E. Grant. A pastiche of caricatures, perhaps, but a familiar figure on the fashion scene. He's in full makeup, high heels, kiss curls, scented sentiments and a wife as muse.

Catherine Leterrier, costume designer for the film, didn't have to stretch her imagination too far to get the look. "I mixed vintage and period pieces with clothes from the rails. The shoes came from Vivienne Westwood in London."

Shoes, as in killer platforms, a Westwood trademark. The naughty British designer lent her real collection for this fictionalized use and it's a show-stopper -- bustles, bows, funky panties. The uninformed may think it's a send-up. The reality is that this collection got excellent fashion press and firmly planted Ms. Westwood in the fashion firmament.

Being a costume designer for a film about designers was a test of resourcefulness for Ms. Leterrier, who has also dressed big period costume epics.

"People who are not of the industry have their own ideas of what is fashion," she says. Such was the case of the diminutive Ms. Hunt, who had to have clothes made to fit.

"She arrived dressed very simply in pants and sweater. I had the clothes almost finished, very severe and intelligent to keep her in character. When she saw them she said, 'I think I am going to cry. I thought I would be elegant and these rags are a nightmare.' She had something Chanel in mind, perhaps. Once I explained, she saw the sense."

Another task was creating a pink Chanel knock-off for a beefy cross-dresser. Coco would have loved it.

Then, "I had in mind real Chanel for Tracey Ullman, but that did not work. I was not happy, she was not happy. I mixed and topped her with Philip Treacy hats. It worked," says Ms. Leterrier, "and the real success was that many of the actors asked to keep the clothes."

She says designers were cooperative in lending themselves and their clothes. "Jean-Paul Gaultier loved having himself and his show in the film," she says. "He was not scared to participate, as were other designers who were afraid Altman would be nasty."

The real stuff

Karl Lagerfeld, the reigning king of Paris, turned the film crews down, she says, "but at Chanel, which he designs, they were good sports because we used a lot of Chanel. They lent us a huge room filled with Chanel -- the bags and accessories were all real ones, not faked."

It is the real, not faked, players who will give fashion junkies a rush in "Ready-to-Wear."

There are revealing glimpses of models Naomi, Helena, Linda, Tara, Tatianna, Claudia and Eve. There are mini-interviews with designers Montana, Lacroix, Ferre, Rykiel, Gaultier, Mugler. There is a lavish party at Bulgari. Anyone who needs two names to identify the players should probably pass.

For those who can't get enough fashion on film, there is the companion book "Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter." It was written by Brian D. Leitch with designer interviews, philosophies, star diaries and gossip.

Funny no none thought to market "Pret" or "Ready" T-shirts, but then T-shirts are so old and no longer of the moment.

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