He’s gay. He’s Austrian. He worships Karl Lagerfeld. And now, he’s coming to a theater near you.
After two years of crashing catwalks, punking celebrities and assaulting heterosexual America with his high-fashion flamboyance, “Brüno” is hitting the big screen at midnight, thrusting the fashion industry into a rather glaring spotlight.
This story first appeared in the July 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While the film’s primary targets are straight American men who find Brüno’s sequined homosexuality upsetting, there is in this sashaying insurrectionist an implied assault on the fashion industry, too.
Brüno’s version of an Austrian fashion journalist is narcissistic, fame-obsessed, overstyled. As portrayed by comic provocateur Sacha Baron Cohen, Brüno, who considers African babies the ultimate fashion accessory and describes Al-Qaeda as “so 2001,” is an ambassador of bad taste — both sartorial and political.
But the fashion industry seems to be in a mocking mood and not since AbFab turned “Lacroix, dahling” into a punch line has the market so readily welcomed an effigy of itself.
“He’s a great comedian and incredibly talented and I can’t wait to see it,” said Diane von Furstenberg. “In comedy, anything is fair game.”
Trish Halpin, the editor in chief of Marie Claire U.K. who put Brüno and model Alessandra Ambrosio on the magazine’s July cover, views Brüno’s ridiculous flamboyance as the perfect antidote to recessionary doldrums.
“People in this industry are very professional, but equally they have a sense of humor and a normal life as well,” she offered. “Fashion is, of course, an easy target, but when it’s done in a clever way, [making fun of it] can be a good thing.”
And clever it can be, even when Brüno characterizes fashionistas as pleasure-seeking glamazons. “You cannot poke fun at the fashion world. It is a stereotype that we are only concerned about appearance and drugs and that is not true,” he told WWD at the film’s Los Angeles premiere. “We are also concerned about parties.”
But being on the receiving end of Brüno’s antics isn’t always fun and games. Just ask Agatha Ruiz de la Prada, who watched in horror as Brüno invaded the backstage of her spring 2009 runway show and bullied his way onto the catwalk. Clad in a velcro jumpsuit, Brüno streaked through de la Prada’s collection, taking much of it with him, and stepped onto the runway in what looked like some kind of bad deconstructionist ensemble. His blitz prompted the designer to kill the lights and suspend her show.
“I was furious with that man. He was violent. He pushed my art director to the floor and scared the models,” recalled de la Prada of Brüno. “But there he was, turning my show into a nightmare, and I wanted to kill him.” Six months later, the anger still flared in her voice. No one likes being punked.
As in his previous mockumentary, the 2006 hit “Borat,” Cohen’s on-screen victims in Brüno have fought back. Two years ago, spectators at a Kansas cage-fighting event hurled beer cans when two fighters (one of whom was Brüno) began to make out. Last year, local police had to subdue flustered travelers when Brüno began an impromptu strip show at the Wichita airport. Last month, an employee of a bingo hall in California filed a claim against Cohen seeking damages for injuries she allegedly suffered while Brüno, dressed in “sexually revealing clothing,” shouted obscenities at the hall’s elderly guests.
By comparison, the fashion establishment’s only complaint is that Brüno didn’t punk them more.
“He didn’t come to my fashion show,” lamented von Furstenberg. “But I wish he had.”
Even de la Prada, who at one point threatened to sue the actor, has found Cohen’s comedy (and his high-wattage visibility) too much to resist. “I am happy with it now,” she said after reflecting on her upcoming star turn in the film. “It can be amusing, no? Besides, he’s given me a lot of publicity.”
Publicist Paul Wilmot, who taped a memorable scene with Brüno during the character’s early days on “Da Ali G Show,” agrees that being humiliated by Cohen has its benefits. “This thing has a half life of plutonium,” he said, citing the popularity of his Brüno scene on YouTube in which the unsuspecting and apparently sincere Wilmot cautions viewers to have safe sex…via mime. “Someone just the other day came up to me at the Waverly Inn and said ‘You’re the Brüno guy.’ I actually think I’ve gotten business from it.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Brüno would become fashionable. Cohen is too funny, too ballsy, too popular to be “auffed” by the fashion industry.
In addition to Marie Claire, Brüno also landed the cover of GQ this month for a nude portrait shot by Mark Seliger — marking a rare moment in publishing in which one (celebrity?) books top billing on both a men’s and women’s title in the same month. The GQ cover, which was inspired by the famous 1971 nude portrait of Yves Saint Laurent, is nothing if not a nod to fashion insiders.
“Getting name-checked in Brüno is the ultimate fashion accessory,” said Halpin. “People want to be in the movie. It’s more insulting not to appear in it than to be insulted in it.”
Some in the fashion world have been in on the joke for months. In Paris in the fall, when Brüno was busy crashing runways at Iceberg and Jean-Charles de Castelbajac, Stella McCartney allegedly knew about Brüno’s plans at her show.
“I don’t know who you’re talking about,” she said with a wink when asked backstage about Brüno’s presence. He had clapped a little too loudly and showily preened himself while seated in the second row, but otherwise, Brüno was on his best behavior that day — a token show of…respect? “I love his work in fashion,” McCartney added.
For all its garishness, there is also actual fashion in Brüno. Cohen wears bona fide pieces from Alexander McQueen, Roberto Cavalli, Raf Simons, Dolce & Gabbana, Thierry Mugler and Dsquared in the film and also name-drops the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton. To the movie’s Sydney premiere, Brüno dressed as a sexy knight in shining armor (complete with white horse), sporting a Gucci shirt and tie.
“We wanted him to stand out, but also to pass as a fashionista,” said Jason Alper, the film’s costumer designer who has worked with Cohen since the Ali G show days. “Our standard was: if we told people he’s a fashionista from Europe and people said, ‘Yeah, OK,’ then we knew we had it right.”
That means crotch-skimming lederhosen, metallics, ridiculously large sunglasses, latex, fake fur, feathers and nary a sleeve in sight.
Alper didn’t work with any of the designers who get credits in the film with the exception of Mugler, who supplied the actor a silver leather motto outfit. He shopped Seven New York and Opening Ceremony in Los Angeles for Brüno’s looks. “Fortunately, the clothes that Brüno needs, nobody else wants,” Alper said. “They were always on sale.”
But Alper claims that Brüno’s duds, styled in their provocative, absurd way, are not intended as a critique, but are just an extreme presentation of the designer aesthetic. The runway in a fun house mirror. “Any designer I’ve used is not being mocked,” Alper explained. “If anything, it’s the opposite. That’s really important. I’m definitely not laughing at anyone.”
Cohen has also picked up some solid fashion instincts in living as Brüno. In the movie, army commanders at a training camp criticize Brüno for accessorizing his fatigues with a belt and scarf. “But this outfit is too matchy-matchy,” he protests. “I just wanted to break it up with horizontal lines.”
He’s tackled footwear, too. In an interview with Digg.com, Brüno explained that Crocs are “practical, comfortable and affordable — everything I despise in a fashion. The number-one rule of fashion: don’t buy anything you can get in an airport.” Fair enough.
But not all of the fashion industry is so ready to let Cohen off the hook. Designer Lloyd Klein was another of Brüno’s early victims. Aired during the Ali G years, Brüno’s interaction with the Los Angeles-based designer is vintage Cohen: he infiltrates backstage, asks Klein if he can model for the show, claims he is the muse of the (made-up) German designer Chrysler. Klein pretends to know who Chrysler is. Brüno then convinces a model to take off his look and give it to him, and makes it onto the runway…twice!
“I had all the gorgeous models and he is asking me in his German accent with his chest hair like a carpet to get into the show,” Klein remembered. “I’m looking at him like, are you serious? And who is Chrysler?”
They say that comedy is just tragedy plus time and, five years later, Klein can’t help but admire Cohen, and, in some ways, relate to him. “He is a creator, like me. He can reinvent himself,” Klein explained. “That is very fashion.”
It’s a common reaction to Cohen’s gorilla-style comedy: that it’s funnier to watch than experience, but if you do experience it, best not to stay angry, to let the mincing Hessian get under your skin. After all, fashion is, in some sense, about poise.
“I think it’s not bad to be critical,” de la Prada observed, finally absolving Cohen and Brüno for their intrusion last year. “There are too many people who take fashion too seriously.”
She may have forgiven Cohen, but the ghost of Brüno — crop-topped in an animal print — will be felt at her fashion shows long after the movie has left the theaters.
“I will tell you. Security? We have much more of it now.”