In an echoing soundstage off an uneven access road on the east side of Los Angeles in early February, men and women in personal protective equipment and lots of Moschino outfits were darting around monitors and director’s chairs.
On a stage created to resemble an overgrown jungle, with artificial monstera leaves and shadowy cutouts of wild animals, Shalom Harlow, the 1990s supermodel, peeked out from behind the greenery in a shimmering leopard print dress, thigh-high boots, tail and cat ears.
Just below her, sitting in red velvet theater seats and wearing gowns fit for a socialite complete with coin purse gloves and strings of pearls, models Winnie Harlow, Stella Maxwell and Lily Aldridge played the role of a front row watching Harlow as the evening’s entertainment.
Backstage, Jeremy Scott, Moschino’s creative director, cued the camera crew to reset.
Welcome to a runway show, the pandemic version. No longer limited by location or the narrowness of a catwalk, the fashion season has become all digital, which has been both frustrating and, for some, liberating.
Scott is one who finds it freeing, as a designer who built a career on creative approaches to the traditional runway. Last season he offered up a puppet show featuring lifelike marionettes instead of models. Now, he has dreamed up a short film inspired by George Cukor’s 1939 comedy-drama, “The Women,” a fashion-centric jewel from Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Moschino’s fall-winter 2021 womenswear collection, otherwise known as “Jungle Red,” is a three-day film shoot punctuated by daily rapid COVID-19 tests and involving a cast of about 30 models embodying various female archetypes: the wild woman, the wealthy wife, the catty competitor, the art collector and the work of art, to name a few.
“I look at creativity like water in a pitcher,” said Scott, perched on a director’s chair and wearing camouflage pants and a black hoodie layered under a breezy button-down. “I could pour it into glass, I could pour it in a bowl, I could pour it in a vase, I could pour it in a pool, I could pour it in the cracks of a sidewalk. It’s still water, it’s still creativity. I’m just pouring my creativity in another shaped vessel.”
As he spoke, Aldridge, Maxwell and Harlow (still in costume) were huddled in chairs behind a monitor, catching up, watching the playback from the scene they had just filmed and celebrating each other for nailing it.
“There’s an innate sisterhood that’s behind the scenes of any fashion endeavor that might not be as obvious as it is with something such as this,” Harlow said. “Something like this, we get to actually empower each other and cheer and clap.”
Maxwell was equally enthusiastic. “I think with Jeremy specifically, I’ve just witnessed how much you want to perform for him — above and beyond what you usually do for modeling,” she said.
Harlow nodded. “For me, there’s always a film going in my head even if cameras aren’t rolling,” she said. “So this is like an externalized version of my own inner ... well, some would say insanity.” Harlow played to the moment: “Others might say, imaginatioooon,” she drawled.
In “Jungle Red,” the runway was effectively mis-en-scene, the world of the stage shifting from Manhattan skyline to pastoral farmland to vivid safari over three days. The painted backdrops are almost cartoonishly illustrated, made dynamic by lighting design, and by the clothes. Scott said the result was a more elaborate production than a runway in numerous ways.
“My shows are like 10 minutes long, and we can barely film a scene in 10 minutes,” Scott said, adding that he had to conceptualize and finalise designs for the show more than a month earlier than he would have for a runway show. Not to mention corralling the multigenerational cast, selected as a “very contemporary way” of celebrating diversity, according to Scott.
“There’s diversity across genders, across races and, fortunately, age as well,” said Maye Musk, the 72-year-old model and nutritionist, who plays the master of ceremonies in the film. “Women of all sizes and ages and races can be fabulous.”
The unique power of “The Women” is that no man is ever seen or heard. “Jungle Red” borrows this lack of interest in the male gaze and emphasizes the ritual of dressing up as one guided less by external validation and more by a desire to self-identify through fashion.
“I grew up watching Technicolor movies from the ’40s — my mom liked watching old movies — so they had a big imprint on me and obviously on my career,” said Dita von Teese, the model and burlesque performer, who was wearing a red satin gown with a heart-shaped pinup cutout and appliqués. “I think what I loved about this era is that it was about not about what you’re born with but what you create. And how any ordinary woman can be extraordinary with the tools of glamour.”
The film was shot out of order, so models were asked to wear different outfits for different vignettes.
Joan Smalls, for example, looking statuesque in a gold gown and matching headpiece, took center stage in a campy cocktail party scene with Aldridge and Miss Miranda, a burlesque showgirl and model in Los Angeles. The two stood sipping Champagne as Smalls strutted toward their table, pausing briefly to pose for a camera pan of her dress. There wasn’t any dialogue.
“I always believe that modeling is acting in silence,” Smalls said.
Precious Lee, dressed as a modern-day blend of Dorothy Dandridge and Marilyn Monroe for one scene, added: “That’s what’s so beautiful about art and fashion, to be able to create moments and re-imagine them and make them more relevant to the times.”
She was especially excited, she said, to be part of the breadth of women in the film, “especially as a size 16.” Back when “The Women” was made, in 1939, Lee pointed out, “It wasn’t this whole sample-size mess. And I think that’s a huge takeaway — if you had the coins, and if you had the class, you could get a frock.”
On the last day of filming, the cast filmed the final scene, set in a fine art museum. A cameraman hovered above on a crane, and as he descended, the models walked toward him. As the movement director and a makeup artist darted in and out of the lights, the disembodied voice of Scott emerged from the darkness. “That’s a wrap,” he said.
“Jungle Red” may be a simple solution to the cancellation of traditional fashion weeks, but it’s also a comment on how the runways are being reinvented.
“I think it’s cool to be able to create different types of moments to present fashion, because fashion isn’t going to stop,” Lee said.
Night had fallen and there was a chill in the air, as one by one, models, makeup artists, cameramen and COVID-testing specialists swarmed the tent of craft services snacks in the parking lot. Because of social distancing, only one person was allowed in at a time.
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