Unbuttoned: When Miuccia Prada Met David O. Russell

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Unbuttoned

By VANESSA FRIEDMAN and WESLEY MORRIS

On Tuesday, in downtown Los Angeles, a new David O. Russell film, “Past Forward,” a silent, surreal story of multiple women (Freida Pinto, Allison Williams, Kuoth Wiel) in parallel realities, had its premiere. The stars were all there. So were co-stars like John Krasinski and Sacha Baron Cohen. There was a long step and repeat as well as Champagne.

It happened the day before the glittering unveiling of “Brave,” a new musical short film by Spike Lee, in New York, where the director was joined by Ansel Elgort and Linda Evangelista, among others.

And it came just a day after another New York cinematic celebration, this one of Asif Kapadia’s three-minute biographical film (a fictional story, unlike his Oscar-winning documentary “Amy”), starring Sienna Miller and Dominic West, called “The Tale of Thomas Burberry.”

Yes, that Burberry. The man behind the brand that also happens to have underwritten the film — actually, it’s more like a trailer for a film that never was — just as Prada commissioned the David O. Russell film and Moncler the Spike Lee film. All of which will be viewable for everyone on the respective brands’ websites. Though they are not shoppable.

Welcome to the world of fashion and film 5.0, one that de-emphasizes stuff in favor of celluloid substance. After product placement in feature films and red carpet placement, after ad campaigns by Hollywood directors and Hollywood documentaries on designers, the relationship is entering yet another phase.

Which raises the question: What exactly are they selling? And how exactly are we, the viewing/consuming public, supposed to interpret what we see? The hybrid nature of the result demands a hybrid analysis, so Wesley Morris, a New York Times cultural critic, and I suited up for the debate.

VANESSA Wesley, I am not sure if you are familiar with the Fashion Law of Trend, but it essentially states that if something occurs once, it is a fluke. If it occurs twice, it is a coincidence. And if it happens three times, it’s a trend. Well, given this week we have the premieres of three new-look fashion films, all of which involve big-name directors and big-name casts but originated with big brands and are effectively owned by them. I think we officially have a trend.

But what that trend is, I am not exactly sure. And by the way, it’s probably wrong to even call them fashion films. But I am not sure what else to call them, especially since the longest one, the Prada/Russell collaboration, is only about 15 minutes. Maybe you have a better term.

WESLEY How about commercials? These vignettes are cinematic, but you also know what they’re up to. And the trend among them appears to be paranoia and psychic pain management. The Russell movie is in black and white and set mostly in the airport, using an interplay of long shots, close-ups, playful hand-held stuff and lots of famous people, among them Allison Williams, John Krasinski and Paula Patton, who I haven’t seen anywhere in three years. So let’s thank Prada for that.

But these are 14 dutiful minutes. Mr. Russell is trying on his own collection of classic Hitchcock and vintage Antonioni, namely 1962’s “Eclipse.” The three women (Ms. Williams, Ms. Pinto and Ms. Wiel) have all been styled to look like Monica Vitti. It’s ambitious, but it’s sloppily assembled in a way that reminds you once again that style isn’t what you look to this director for. More important, this didn’t make me want to buy anything.

VANESSA I’m not sure that’s what they were going for, at least not in an overt way. Most of the clothes in the Moncler/Spike Lee movie aren’t even for sale. They’re not all Moncler, and the ones that are were from last season, except for the finale puffa jacket, which will be available about … now! The film isn’t selling stuff, it’s selling an idea.

And my guess is, the hope is that idea — grooving to the New York melting pot — will get associated with the brand, and give it a nice halo, which will then make consumers feel good about what it represents and want to shop.

Same, to an even greater extent, with Prada, since that film is not linked to any specific Prada collection. The Moncler film commemorates a big New York store opening.

According to Mr. Russell, he and Mrs. Prada hatched the idea over dinner, and he jumped at it because, he wrote in an email, “it’s an opportunity to do visual cinema with many shots and inspirations that I may have had in my mind for decades.

WESLEY Wait. Wait. All that’s for sale in the Moncler short was that one jacket? Which was being worn, I should say, on what looked like the last day of August!

So I have to ask: What is the point? The Russell film looks expensive and was selling, if not an actual fashion collection, then a collection of moods. Moncler is basically a Popsicle-juicy music video for the band Negro Problems, and the song brings up beauty and suffering, and Mr. Lee reads from Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” which feels like a rebuke of our anti-immigrant moment. I’m not surprised, but I am scratching my head, since I already have most of those feelings.

Now that I know it’s technically not hawking clothes, I have to wonder whom it’s hoping to invite into its stores and purchase this stuff. None of that multi-/omni-/poly-New York is on the company’s site right now, just a section for a line of pieces called “urban twist,” which seems to me like Moncler talking out of both sides of its mouth.

VANESSA As I understand it, they invited Mr. Lee to make a film about his New York. In other words, just like Prada with Mr. Russell, they enabled him to do whatever he wanted, instead of insisting he do what they wanted. They are supporting artistic freedom with all those positive implications.

But because you didn’t know this back story, just like any viewer who comes to these films cold on a brand website, you still saw them as commercials, which is, I think, pretty significant. Brands want viewers to consider them a gift of art. Hence the level of talent involved. But people still think they are getting ads. And that is a recipe for confusion.

Which brings me back to Burberry, which is the only one of the three that is actually a “holiday campaign.” Though it seems to me more like a mini-montage for a period-piece Oscar contender. I know what Burberry was thinking: It has made a practice out of linking up with British celebrity to emphasize its heritage. But what do you think Asif Kapadia was thinking? After “Amy,” this is an unexpected move.

WESLEY Amy Winehouse doesn’t come along every day. Mr. Kapadia would like to show that he, too, can make a Tom Hooper movie. And this frigid mound of sumptuousness is the sort of thing that gets you that next Eddie Redmayne weepie.

But I don’t need to tell you that these companies know their clientele, and if you’re Burberry shopper and you see Sienna Miller working that coat the way she does in one shot, and it makes you want to fly into one of its stores, I suppose Mr. Kapadia has more than done his job.

But where am I supposed to find these things? Or is that the wrong question entirely? I do like that when I’m racing for a flight, I can sprint past, say, one of those Martin Scorsese Dolce & Gabbana ads with Matthew McConaughey and Scarlett Johansson and think about buying duty-free cologne.

VANESSA C’mon. As a cultural critic, don’t you like the idea that fashion is paying, or could be paying, for artists to experiment with an idea? I keep reading about how hard it is these days for anyone who doesn’t want to make “Star Wars,” so maybe we are looking at fashion stepping in to do their part in that situation. Isn’t that win-win for us all, more so than just facilitating cologne buying?

WESLEY I hope I don’t sound uptight about this. I think it’s fine, in principle. Who else, nowadays, is going to let David O. Russell keep dreaming in Italian masters? But the result here isn’t that captivating. It’s like what Mr. Russell thinks a fashion commercial ought to be: overkill.

And the Burberry piece feels like a parody of what somebody thinks the academy would salute. Though they’re both preferable to the reverse-engineering that turned Tom Ford into Canal Street-folding table Almodóvar.

Mr. Russell and Mr. Kapadia probably had a good time working in a new style. I’d just be curious to know where the thinking behind these collaborations leads. To more of these sorts of low-stakes brand amplifications? Or to actual feats of feature filmmaking by the likes of Mr. Russell and Mr. Lee?

VANESSA I think what we are looking at is the beginning of fashion edging into a post-commercial world, one in which they try to do that thing that those in the digital age are often telling them to do, which is stop the overt marketing and embrace the experience. But because we are now so dependent on context to know how to interpret what we see — a movie theater or Netflix signals, “This is a film”; TV or the thing that says “ad” or “sponsored content” on your phone clues you in that you are looking at a commercial — seeing them without such context, on YouTube or a website, leaves us and probably everyone else scratching their heads.

Although I will note that by Wednesday evening, the Burberry film had been viewed almost 5.9 million times on YouTube since it was posted early this month. So maybe it will lead to fashion underwriting actual feature films. Which would be an interesting, possibly logical and probably beneficial turn of events.

WESLEY At the moment, American movies certainly need to do some soul-searching about what, for example, an American movie even is anymore. And if there’s anything the fashion companies can do to instigate that reckoning, I’m open.

I want great, fun, interesting movies. I don’t care where they come from. Even if all they are is commercials.

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