The Grand Budapest Prada Jacket

Prada is one fashion brand that has latched onto film as a modern marketing channel. There have, of course, been some formal cinema collaborations with the brand such as Quantum of Solace and The Great Gatsby, but the smaller features prove just as intriguing.

It’s worth noting that the house of Prada is an Italian heritage brand with roots stretching back more than a hundred years ago. The 21st-century success of the brand is thanks in large part to Miuccia Prada, the granddaughter of founder Mario Prada. It was she who took the brand to international expansion, transforming the brand from an Italian leather goods label to a key player in the realm of ready-to-wear fashion.

Miuccia Prada’s BoF 500 profile says:

“Three years [after starting to design for her family’s accessories line], with the encouragement of her husband Patrizio Bertelli, Prada debuted her womenswear line in 1988, which she described as “uniforms for the slightly disenfranchised.” She would add Miu Miu, a secondary line, in 1993, which now shows in Paris and has become a powerful brand in its own right. In 1995, Prada released her first menswear line.”

Prada Spring 1992 Ready-to-Wear

Though Prada now has its tendrils outstretched across many different industries (eyewear, fragrance, bags, Miu Miu, Church’s, Car Shoe, etc.) there is still the unifying undercurrent of its leather heritage and elegant construction in the background.

This brings us to the little fashion nugget that was slipped into Wes Anderson’s 2014 dramedy The Grand Budapest Hotel. Two characters working at the hotel, Zero Moustafa (played by Anthony Revolori) and Monsieur Gustave H. (played by Ralph Fiennes), decide to hire an assassin to kill Madame D (played by Tilda Swinton) in an attempt to activate her missing second will.

The assassin? Enter J.G. Jopling.

Jopling (played by Willem Dafoe) is cloaked in a black leather Prada coat. The construction of the coat was aimed at emulating a World War II-era motorcycle coat called a Kradmantel. The jacket serves as a kind of physical and psychological shield for Jopling, keeping him both insulated and at a comfortable distance from the other characters.

Costume designer Milena Canonera actually was the one who designed the construction of the coat. She sewed a fabric mock-up, also known as a toile, and sent it off to Prada to be manufactured in fine Italian leather. Upon receiving the completed leather coat, Canonera added an extra touch of rustic elegance by lining the interior of the coat in red wool.

Prada is one brand that seems to take greater pleasure in the act of contributing to cinema costuming than it does in receiving credit for the act. Prada has, in fact, produced numerous short films with major filmmakers. These films are less about a stamp of “Costume by Prada” and more about investing in the medium of cinema.

The late, great fashion historian Christopher Laverty noted that Prada has a “keen interest in film-making as a twenty-first century marketing tool.” The brand is also keen on initiating these cross-industry collaborations. Laverty notes:

“In early 2014 [Prada] teamed up with costumiers Michael Wilkinson (with Tim Martin), Arienne Phillips, and Milena Canonero to construct a series of installations. This…is the first time a brand has reached out to costume designers to join forces and not the other way around.”

Laverty also remarked that Prada is one of the few brands that seems “genuinely far more interested in what they can provide for cinema than take away, which is probably why their filmic collaborations continue to be so harmonious.”

And thus, Milena Canonero earned herself an Academy Award for Best Costume Design for her work on The Grand Budapest Hotel. Unlike other instances of this phenomenon, like Black Swan and Sabrina, there was no tough love or media uproar for the designer brand going unrecognized. Canonero executed the film’s costuming perfectly, and Prada nailed Jopling’s jacket.

Black Swan’s Ugly Duckling

The 2010 sexy psychological thriller Black Swan caused quite a stir, but not for the reasons you might think.

The media buzz wasn’t centered on Natalie Portman’s strict diet of carrots and almonds, nor the steamy girl-on-girl sex scene with Mila Kunis. The controversy centered on the costume credits or really, the lack thereof. Sisters Laura and Kate Mulleavy of the fashion brand Rodarte signed on to work in the costume department, serving as two on the thirteen-person wardrobe team. They were in charge of producing costumes for the final ballet performance at the end of the film, the dramatic grand finale. Why was there controversy? A simple search for the film credits will reveal that the lead costume design credit was given to Amy Westcott, not the Rodarte sisters. What happened?

Have you ever noticed how, at the beginning of a film, we see a flash list of some team credits? They are the “face” of production– the director, writers, producers, the headlining stars, maybe a composer. The end credits are a different experience. There are often hundreds of contributors named, sometimes in multiple columns at once, whipping up and off the screen before you can read who did what. Why doesn’t the food truck that catered these 200 people for two months get a shout-out at the beginning of the movie? The simple answer is hierarchy and prestige.

It’s worth noting that fashion has fought for its increasingly prestigious position as an art form. It’s come a long way, thanks in part to haute couture and luxury fashion. But what about everyday clothes? There is still a rift between the value of high and low fashion, fine arts versus arts & crafts, leisure versus working class. This divide is evidenced and reflected in the hierarchy of movie production credits.

Nina begins the film wearing predominantly light-colored clothing from the top down. As she becomes progressively consumed by her own psychosis, her wardrobe darkens from the bottom up.

Some of the most important, film-defining roles of a production crew are expected to blend into the background: casting, sound, choreography, hair & make-up, location scouts. The costume department is usually lumped into this category. But when superstar fashion designers join the costume department, it takes some ego-deflation to participate on equal footing with their contemporaries.

Though a few costume designers have gained celebrity status–think Edith Head and Patricia Field–the vast majority remain out of general public awareness. Fashion designers are quite the opposite these days. Fashion designers are celebrities, like Ralph Lauren and Stella McCartney. So what happens when a humble Hollywood costume designer joins forces with two fashion darlings?

Ruffled feathers.

Enter: the Black Swan costume credit controversy. When Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind LA-based fashion label Rodarte, signed on to contribute to Black Swan’s costuming, public interest piqued and media coverage abided. Rodarte was in the limelight, yet the Mulleavy sisters were credited behind the head costume designer Amy Westcott. The public was outraged that the sisters wouldn’t be given a headline credit. Instead, their efforts were lumped in with the other thirteen costume department credits.

Just to be clear, the ugly duckling here isn’t Westcott, nor is it the Mulleavys. The ugly thing is the hierarchy of labor value. It’s high fashion versus the merit of everyday clothing choices. It’s the Vogue September issue versus Hanes socks. The ballet costumes were breathtaking and expertly done, but so was the singular leg warmer that Natalie Portman wore in rehearsal, indicating that she was treating an isolated sore muscle. So was the virginal white lace nightie Portman wears as her mother tucks her in, while she’s still docile and obedient, and the sheer black slip Lily lends her before they take ecstasy (or do they?). These sartorial choices matter just as much as the refined construction of erect tutus and asymmetrical feathered bustiers.

Photo by Autumn de Wilde.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. When you think of the movie Black Swan, you don’t swoon over memories of Natalie Portman’s grey leg warmer. The final ballet costumes are the glittering centerpiece of the film’s wardrobe. The controversy over costume credits here is part of a larger conversation about the value of individual clothing. Even if the Mulleavy sister’s costumes had been Oscar-worthy, the two designers were not yet members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. While they weren’t members back in 2010, they probably are now.

Most recently the Mulleavy sisters collaborated on Sing 2, designing animated fashion ensembles. 

So… Black Swan 2, anyone?