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Fitters to be tied

Costume and fashion designers compete to clothe the stars in films such as ”The Thomas Crown Affair,” ”Great Expectations,” and more

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Are costume designers going the way of the dinosaur? With Seventh Avenue eager to move beyond dressing stars to outfitting movies, today’s Edith Heads are being pushed further and further from the Hollywood spotlight. ”I know it sounds corny,” says Austin Powers costume designer Deena Appel. ”But at this point, we really are an endangered species.”

Costume and fashion designers have always collaborated on movies — the Oscar-wining Head called on Givenchy to help create Audrey Hepburn’s classic look. But a number of recent clothing tie-ins have made these two synergistic industries unhappy bedfellows. Take the possibly precedent-setting deal between Miramax and designer Tommy Hilfiger, in which the jeans manufacturer outfitted the cast of The Faculty and received sole credit for the film’s fashions (in exchange for Tommy ads featuring the movie’s cast).

”It is a collaborative industry,” says Appel. ”[But] the trend is going toward bigger deals, where fashion designers are saying, ‘We don’t want a thank you with 40 other names in exchange for clothes. We want more control. We want to do all your leads. And we want a big stand-alone screen credit.”’

Look no further than the multiplex for proof: Sean Connery sports sophisticated Giorgio Armani suits in Entrapment. Rene Russo vamps it up in garb by Celine and Halston in August’s The Thomas Crown Affair. For a designer, these tie-ins are worth more than a Vogue endorsement. The silver down jacket Josh Hartnett wore in The Faculty was a top seller for Tommy Jeans last Christmas, while Levi’s almost sold out the hip patchwork jacket Claire Danes wore in The Mod Squad. Designer Michael Kors of Celine, who contributed original designs along with much of his upcoming fall/winter collection to Thomas Crown, says: ”Rene Russo’s character is the chicest woman in the room. What better way to show [my] clothes?”

But, says Appel, ”there is a price to pay for going that route.” Costume designers believe fashion folk — whose primary goal is to promote their product — are at cross-purposes with the prime directive of costume design, which is not to overshadow the movie. ”It’s not about fashion, it’s about character,” says one costume designer. ”[What director wants a moviegoer] to see an actress and say, ‘Oh, that’s Dolce & Gabbana?”’ More irritating, when designers are involved, craftspeople get the short end of the measuring stick.

Case in point: Judianna Makovsky chose eight Donna Karan outfits for Gwyneth Paltrow to wear in last year’s gorgeously stylized Great Expectations, and made many of the other costumes herself, but Karan got the accolades. ”I have nothing against Donna Karan,” says Makovsky, ”but she got credit. She never met me or Gwyneth [for the film]. Is that designing the movie? Excuse me?”

Yet as studios try to grapple with rising costs, costume budgets are shrinking faster than Pamela Anderson Lee’s decolletage. Nowadays, a typical costume budget is 1 — at best 3 — percent of a film’s budget, and movie dressers are being encouraged to keep costs down (and create possible promotional ops) by calling in free duds. ”The studios are trying to save money,” says Keith Snelgrove, senior VP of worldwide promotion at MGM, ”and that’s why we look for high-end designers to add to our films.”

Of course, not all of the relationships between costume designers and fashion labels are strained at the seams. Nino Cerruti turned over patterns of his ’80s power suits to costume designer Isis Mussenden for the upcoming American Psycho. ”In another film, [fashion] would interfere with the story,” says director Mary Harron, ”but Bret Easton Ellis’ book was all about labels, so it’s an unusual case.” And celebrity stylist/costume designer Arianne Phillips was thrilled when Levi’s decided to do a clothing line based on her Mod Squad designs.

At least one costume designer thinks her peers should lighten up. Kate Harrington, a former stylist for photographer Herb Ritts who got angry letters after Arnold Schwarzenegger asked her to frock 1996’s Eraser, says: ”The fashion world and the movie world are getting closer together. Arnold wanted to look really cool and hip, and I’m sure this will offend classic costume designers, but you don’t say no to the Terminator.”

But do you dare say no to Armani? When Harrington approached the designer about clothes for Thomas Crown, she recalls, ”they said, ‘Not unless we can do all of Rene Russo’s and Pierce Brosnan’s clothes, and get the credit.’ I mean, hello? I don’t want the movie to look like a fashion runway.” A spokesperson for Armani responds, ”It takes a lot of work and money on a project like that, so why would someone make that commitment only to get [their designs] mixed up with other things?”

Such self-preservation may be rubbing off on costume designers. To ensure its members receive the credit they deserve, the Costume Designers Guild is promoting itself with a newly annual awards ceremony. After all, even the grande dame of costume designers understood the importance of a little self-promotion. Director John Landis still remembers being granted an audience with Edith Head in the late ’70s. Dazzled by all the Oscars, Emmys, and pictures with Princess Grace and Cary Grant in her waiting room, says Landis, ”by the time you got into the fitting room, you were like, ‘Oh, thank you for seeing me.”’ Perhaps it’s time for latter-day Heads to try that costume on for size.