It's small wonder the fashion industry gets off so lightly in Brüno - the international rag trade has seen and done it all before.
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8 Jul 2009 - 5:32 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

“Vassup!” The gay community is growing increasingly edgy about the content of Brüno, Sacha Baron Cohen's latest provocation, where the English comic plays a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashion icon who storms the New World in a succession of tight leather and primary colours. Now they know how the Kazakhs felt in 2006, on the eve of Borat's transformation from cinematic satire to pop culture phenomenon.

But no-one appears troubled – not even those who legitimately work in the industry – by the idea that Brüno will come (temporarily) to represent the public face of the fashion world. It's a given that the international rag trade deserves whatever Baron Cohen and director Larry Charles can dish up. And then some.

As has already been noted, via Twitter, it's hard to tell the difference between the fictional tweets of Brüno and the bizarre prescriptions of Chanel's imperious design guru, Karl Lagerfeld. “My dream? Transparent fur. The hair on plastic and not on leather. We've tried, but nobody has found it yet,” one of the central European duo recently noted. “Got off plane from rear today und saw coach for 1st time. Mein Gott! It's like a prison for uglys!” declared the other.

For the record, that's Lagerfeld first, followed by Brüno. But really, it's only the Hogan's Heroes affectations and second language spelling that separate Bruno from “Der Kaiser”.

Fashion, at the top end of the creative industry, is beyond ludicrous. That may be why Brüno actually spends more time unnerving conservative Americans – he's a touch tame to true fashionistas. The other problem Brüno has is that, unlike Borat, there have already been plenty of laughs generated by the excesses of the clothing empires and media.

“Rufus, Brint, and Meekus were like brothers to me. And when I say brother, I don't mean, like, an actual brother, but I mean it like the way black people use it. Which is more meaningful, I think,” declares Ben Stiller's Derek Zoolander, delivering a “eugoogly” for his fellow male models, who died after a harmless petrol fight goes tragically wrong in Zoolander.

Stiller's directorial debut – predicated on the confoundingly amusing notion that he and Owen Wilson, with his nose like a Frank Gehry building, can play the world's leading male models – starts with the catwalk beauties but has gags aplenty for everyone in fashion. Will Ferrell, in an era when he didn't simply play the same boorish character in a different setting, even does a pretty good job on the aforementioned Lagerfeld with his maniacal Mugatu, a designer who uses homeless men as high fashion inspiration.

The closest fashion has got to three dimensions in recent years was The Devil Wears Prada, where Meryl Streep's sighing, eternally disappointed fashion magazine editor, Miranda Priestley (lifted wholesale from Vogue editor Anna “nuclear” Wintour), takes a moment to educate Ann Hathaway's size six heroine with the “Cerulean” speech, a monologue about the pervasive influence of high fashion in everyday culture via a particular shade of blue.

Prior to that the reigning examination was Robert Altman's Pret-a-Porter, his 1995 Parisian collection ensemble piece where he squandered all the credit of The Player and Short Cuts on inconsequential plotting and stunt casting (Marcello Mastroianni courts Sophia Loren, but without characters to play). Vanity is in ascendance and the most fun is had by a pair of reporters (Tim Robbins and Julia Roberts) who never leave their hotel room. And for another example of a pre-Brüno Brüno, check Richard E. Grant's florid designer Cort Romney.

It wasn't always this way. A film like 1957's Funny Face is virtually anachronistic in the way it identifies with the fashion elite (albeit with some ribbing) and wonders why the young heroine wouldn't want to join up. Fred Astaire plays renowned photographer Dick Avery (a reference to the esteemed lensman Richard Avedon), who tries to turn Audrey Hepburn's downtown beatnik into a model before romance ensures. Stanley Donen's light musical may have helped invent the makeover sequence, but it doesn't fit current beliefs.

Perhaps the difference was made in the sixties, when fashion was often a backdrop that was used for cynical, generation gap defining purposes. David Hemmings' fashion photographer in Michelangelo Antonioni's take on Swinging London, Blow Up, treats his work as a game – he only cares for serious shoots, be it reportage or, unexpectedly, a murder. In John Schlesinger's Darling Julia Christie's amoral model (is there any other kind in the cinema?) casually sleeps her way to the top in a judgment on her career choice.

It's that weight of disregard that makes the recent biopic of the original Coco Chanel, Anne Fontaine's Coco Avant Chanel, so listless. She treats her subject with such cautious regard that the movie never gets past its period design. The most interesting depiction of fashion may be in documentaries, such as the trailing of Isaac Mizrahi in 1995's Unzipped, or the recent examination of a pre-GFC Vogue's production in The September Issue (the line is drawn, however, at the banal 1996 supermodel sortie, Catwalk).

Of course, there may not be another interesting documentary about haute couture for a spell if this week's mockumentary has anything to do with it.