The fashion industry has long been plucking film directors out of Hollywood, borrowing their unique visions to sell clothes and perfume, and to lend an additional narrative spin to their visions. At first glance the latest auteur to make the leap across industries – Gus Van Sant for GucciFest – might seem an incongruous selection on the part of Alessandro Michele. After all, his filmography generally features characters on the outskirts of society unlikely to be able to afford the price tag on a Gucci piece. While Sofia Coppola and Wes Anderson's trust fund archetypes aren't a far cry from the personas of their perfume commercials for Dior and Prada respectively, Van Sant specialises in understated personalities and normcore costumes.
But while Van Sant's work may not involve the luxury customer, a closer look at his work reveals an innate understanding of the desire on which the fashion industry is predicated. It's not the first time he's flirted with fashion either; the director has quietly shot editorials for the likes of i-D, The New York Times Style Magazine and GQ. When asked 'what makes a good photograph' by iD magazine last year, his response read like a mission statement for his oeuvre: 'Usually for me it is a frozen moment, something fleeting, a look, an event, or a kind of light, a place, a person, that was only there for that small moment and will possibly never be there again.' Here's five times Gus Van Sant delivered the timeless fashion goods.
To Die For (1995)
Van Sant has worked with Beatrix Aruna Pasztor on almost all his films since Drugstore Cowboy. You can catch a glimpse of the usually publicity shy costume designer in 'Psycho' Path – the short film documenting the making of GVS's shot of shot remake of Psycho – picking suit buttons to match the shower curtain. Based on the novel by Joyce Maynard, which itself was inspired by the true crime story of Pamela Smart – a woman with aspirations of fame who persuaded her teenage lover to murder her husband – To Die For is where Pasztor's skills and eye for detail are most visible. '[The costumes] were connected to her darkness,' Van Sant said. 'Partly, in a sense, to her own experiences growing up in Romania. She had very dark political views, especially while we were shooting To Die For. They started getting darker and darker, and finally, she just left the U.S. She got angry with a lot of political points in history, including her own country’s. So on set, she was doing her own thing, her own interpretation. It was interesting.' Nicole Kidman's Suzanne is like a psychopathic Barbie complete with a dream wardrobe of pastel skirt suits and spandex dresses. Van Sant treats the film like Suzanne's runway, giving her a plethora of never-worn-twice outfits to match her TV star ambitions.
My Own Private Idaho (1989)
Society's obsession with dead blondes makes a gender exception for River Phoenix. This story of unrequited love amongst street hustlers is considered one of THE New Queer Cinema movies, and coincidentally Van Sant was in Rome 30 years ago this month shooting it. Of course Keanu Reeve's leather and Phoenix's workwear render the film an inspiration for timeless menswear style, but it's the never-to-age beauty of Phoenix, especially in the on set photographs captured by Bruce Weber, that elevates it to cult icon status.
Van Sant had the cast wear their own clothes for his fictional take on the Columbine shooting, which hints at another reason his films are synonymous with style: authenticity. Fashion filmmaker and SHOWstudio contributor REMEMBER YOU WERE MADE TO BE USED commented on the visual allure of Van Sant's films and Elephant's memorable yellow t-shirt. 'I think it's largely a sex appeal thing. He's so good at casting the right people. You don't think about the clothes separate to the character, they don't speak over the actors. I think he also works with the colours so well – that yellow t-shirt hold some kind of iconic power. The tones in the set design complement it, but it's the brightest shade. Yellow on a boy with blonde hair, the stark visual link of the black bull motif and the girl with black hair who kisses him. I don't think Elephant is a fashion led film but I always think about that yellow t-shirt.'
Van Sant loves to imbue his films with fragments of reality, and for his 2008 biopic of politician Harvey Milk, many of the Oscar nominated costumes were meticulous copies of real clothes seen in archive footage and documentaries. In an interview for Elle, costume designer Danny Glicker explained what made them so special: 'The clothes really reflect the tone of the gay movement when everyone was beginning to understand the diversity of personalities and roles they were able to pursue,' he said. 'I think that people were beginning to get into identity politics at that time, and it was reflected in their clothes. They were beginning to understand that being gay wasn't this secret thing that was only to reveal itself in the shadows of a bar at night, but was actually something that was part of who you were.'
Not a film but a very definite 'moment' – when the JT Leroy scandal was first exposed in 2006 only the very fashionable even knew who JT Leroy was. When the novels Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things were published in 1999, the literary world was intrigued by the seemingly autobiographical stories of sexual abuse, poverty and drug addiction. In 2001 a bewigged, gender ambiguous persona started showing up to give readings, and every cool celebrity flocked to make friends with the mysterious author, who claimed to be a homeless, trans HIV positive teenager. Leroy had flings with actors Michael Pitt and Asia Argento, Argento went on to direct The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things and Van Sant wanted to option Sarah for the screen. Winona Ryder claimed to have befriended Leroy years before outside the Metropolitan Opera House. So the social scene was particularly embarrassed to find one day that JT Leroy was an invention of a 40-year-old single mother called Laura Albert, who had persuaded her sister-in-law Savannah Knoop to act as her androgynous avatar. Regardless of the silliness of the situation, anyone remotely involved in the JT Leroy hoax can be credited as having their finger on the cultural pulse, and finding beauty in the overlooked margins of society. Therein lies Gus Van Sant's innate talent for the fashionable.