The Valentino show was coming to a close, and with it Paris Fashion Week and the entirety of Fashion Month. In a flurry of monochromatic checkerboard, lace gowns, and printed silks and furs, models walked down the runway in clothes of exquisite craftsmanship and timeless silhouettes that many have come to expect from the design house.
Expectations for another spectacular show were met. Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, creative directors of Valentino, had done it yet again, but following the madness of Fashion Month, the fashion world was collectively ready for a nap. Just as the eyelids of those in attendance got a little heavier, out walked fashion’s favorite fictional models: Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson as Derek Zoolander and Hansel of Zoolander. Suddenly, the runway was alive again.
An otherwise austere and serious audience rose to their feet to capture the moment. The social media world rose in a frenzy. Fashion was fun again. The pair closed the show in a finale that few will ever forget—rather, many will remember Stiller’s “Blue Steel,” few will remember the blue silk suit that he was wearing. In a moment that shook an otherwise sleepy fashion world nearing the end of Fashion Month, the Valentino Autumn/Winter 2015 collection was forever seared into the collective consciousness as the “Valentino-Zoolander” moment.
The show garnered endless media attention, with many calling it nothing more than a fresh dose of humor in an otherwise month-long marathon of serious fashion. The stunt sealed Valentino as the most talked-about show in Paris Fashion Week—some even calling it the highlight of the week. The ice queen of fashion herself, Anna Wintour, even took part in the fun—and with her seal of approval, the rest of the fashion world would surely follow suit.
Beyond the endless social media sea of selfies and Zoolander quotes, though, few have considered the implications of this moment. What were Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson even doing at a Valentino show in the first place? Sure, the move was to announce the forthcoming release of the long-awaited sequel, Zoolander 2. Yes, it was a nice gesture by a major design house to poke fun at the contrived seriousness of fashion week. But somewhere in all of that, the clothes had been forgotten. The final stunt effectively overshadowed the show—a worthy distraction, maybe, but a distraction nonetheless.
The theatrical and gimmicky quality of the stunt seemed to reduce, or even cheapen, the reputation of quiet refinement that Valentino has so meticulously constructed, season after season. While there has been a growing trend in runway shows of creating extravagant, dramatic settings that sometimes upstage the clothes—think Karl Lagerfeld’s transformation of the Grand Palais into a Parisian Brasserie, for instance—this stunt was very clearly done as pre-publicity for yet another sequel. The idea of using a fashion show as a platform for announcing an upcoming film speaks to industry’s shift towards commercialization.
Beyond the move being a PR coup or kitschy distraction—though it was both—this Zoolander stunt serves as a portrait of a growing tension in the fashion industry: the creative versus the commercial. Many have hailed fashion as art—and often, the clothes are worthy of that designation—but the fundamental creative identity of the fashion industry comes into question when commercial interests overshadow it. Yes, the fashion industry has a commercial function—the clothes are, ultimately, for the consumer—but the artistry and craftsmanship that is so important to the industry suggests an inherent regard for the pursuit of the creative. Great minds like Alexander McQueen, Yves Saint Laurent, and yes, Valentino Garavino, show a level of creative skill, imagination, and expression that certainly warrants the title of “artist,” transforming the clothes they create into sheer works of art. Yet, unlike other art forms, fashion also caters to the consumer, as designers must now consider the commercial success of the clothes they create. This commercial identity becomes even more apparent when design houses like Valentino use their creative authority strategically to serve a commercial purpose.
So, then, is fashion, as Valerie Steele, curator and director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, calls it, nothing more than “the bastard child of capitalism and female vanity?” Or is it the work of creative minds producing art with each new season? At what point does the designation of ‘art’ become obsolete? Is there more to life than being really, really ridiculously good looking? The tension between these two opposing identities may never be resolved, and next season will certainly bring with it a crop of new Zoolanders to fuel the unending debate.
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