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Harvey Weinstein: Two Worlds Collide

Harvey Weinstein highlights the synergy of film and fashion.

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WWD/DNR CEO Summit issue 11/14/2007

Harvey Weinstein highlights the synergy of film and fashion.

Harvey Weinstein has some explaining to do. “I made the worst movie ever made about fashion,” the Miramax chief admitted. “It was called ‘Prêt-à-Porter,’ and it was directed by Robert Altman.”

Giving his version of why the film, called “Ready to Wear” Stateside, was savaged by the critics and bombed at the box office, the movie mogul added that Barbara Shulgasser wrote a “brilliant” script, and that Altman was notorious for ad-libbing on the set, but casting Marcello Mastroianni in the lead role was “love at first sight for me.”

“I never went to work, I hung out with Marcello every day in his dressing room,” he said. “I listened to a thousand stories about Fellini and if that movie is bad it’s because the producer was absentee. And now I’m making ‘Nine,’ which is the remaking of ‘8 1/2,’ just for Marcello. That’s the one that I’m making for him. So anyhow, mea culpa.”

Those who think that box office flop was Weinstein’s biggest fashion crime clearly haven’t had a chance to peek in his closet — a point the executive made several times during his talk. He touched on various points during his presentation, from the synergy of fashion and entertainment to his personal connection to the industry and his commitment to protecting original designs and fighting fashion copycats. Throughout, he kept his audience in stitches, with plenty of personal anecdotes that highlighted a softer, humorous side to his otherwise rugged reputation.

“I am a boy from Queens whose socks never matched, shoes were never shined and even dared to wear white after Labor Day,” he said. “My girlfriend, a Marchesa designer, Georgina Chapman, likes to call me ‘fashionably challenged,’ and that’s putting it nicely. My crimes against fashion unfortunately have been reported and photographed in the media.”

With that, Weinstein showed photos of himself, Barry Diller and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg at ease during the Sun Valley conference. Their various stages of dishevelment led The New York Times to write a story about the decline in chief executive style.

Yet for all his self-deprecating humor about his lack of style, there are few places in the world where fashion and Hollywood collide quite like they do chez Weinstein. The mogul isn’t just the boyfriend of Marchesa’s Chapman, hanging on her arm at fashion parties like the ultimate must-have accessory, but The Weinstein Co. is also a producer of Bravo’s hit television series “Project Runway.” The executive’s biggest fashion coup, however, came last March, when The Weinstein Co. and Hilco Consumer Capital bought the Halston brand, which was brought to Weinstein’s attention by Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon. The American label was as revered as its namesake founder, but after his death in 1990, it was never able to recapture its Seventies status, when Halston was as famous as Studio 54, a place he regularly frequented.

Weinstein recalled approaching LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton chief Bernard Arnault before starting his production company two years ago, and seeking his take on the idea of buying a fashion brand to diversify the firm.

“Our model was Arnon Milchan and what he had done with Puma,” Weinstein said. “So when Tamara Mellon brought us the idea of acquiring Halston, I immediately knew it was a perfect fit. She showed me a book of a thousand designs that Halston had done. To be honest, I didn’t even know that much about Halston, I’d kind of heard about Halston and Tamara did the education and so she deserves the credit.

“We had to move fast, there was actual competition, a big, big conglomerate, probably one of you guys out there who knows who it is, wanted to buy it and make it a brand for Kohl’s Department Store, sort of like Isaac Mizrahi is at Target,” he added.

With a team that includes creative director Marco Zanini, who was tapped from Versace; president and ceo Bonnie Takhar, and Mellon and stylist Rachel Zoe, who serve on the creative advisory board, Weinstein hopes Halston can become “a great American luxury brand, something that evokes glamour, elegance, sophistication and is effortlessly timeless.”

Needless to say, Weinstein’s involvement in Halston created instant buzz in fashion circles around the world, which is anticipating the relaunch of the label during New York Fashion Week in February, and wondering if the larger-than-life executive’s magic touch can do the trick. After all, that touch has earned him and his brother Bob a total of 60 Academy Awards so far.

“Some people have asked me about my plans for revitalizing the brand. What I really can say is that I found Roy Halston and all the books I read fascinating,” Weinstein said. “I read his biography by Steven Gaines and thought it was great. And I’m now just considering doing a documentary about his life. And this is where we can bring the synergy of what we do to what Bonnie and Tamara are doing at the brand. I want to introduce Halston’s life to a world of playwrights and authors, actors and filmmakers. I want them to be inspired. Maybe somebody will make a movie about that time period. I see Halston filled with limitless opportunities, and I’m thrilled to be associated with this amazing group of people.”

After the fashion week launch, which will feature apparel, handbags and footwear, Halston will embark on a business model that is expected to include directly operated stores as well as franchise partnerships, department store distribution and licensed brand extensions.

Weinstein added that fashion, like movies, is a powerful medium to convey creative ideas, and that they are inextricably linked — a notion that has been present in the movies for decades.

“Imagine ‘Pretty Woman’ without Julia Roberts’ red dress that she wore to the opera,” he said. “Imagine ‘Legally Blonde’ without Reese Witherspoon’s Nanette Lepore-designed suit. Imagine if Catherine Deneuve had not been dressed by Yves Saint Laurent in ‘Belle De Jour.’ Imagine ‘Top Gun’ without Tom Cruise’s Ray-Bans. Imagine ‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s’ without Audrey Hepburn in Givenchy’s designs.”

To underscore his point, Weinstein recalled how, as a child, he longed to own a trenchcoat worn by Alain Delon in the movie poster for the Jean Pierre Melville-directed “Le Samourai.” “I got the London Fog version,” he said. “I think my mother shopped at a place called Korvette’s, or Alexander’s. I didn’t get the Burberry, full Alain Delon look. But for at least three years, I thought I was Alain Delon. I slept in that raincoat, by the way.”

In his career, Weinstein has collaborated with some of the film industry’s most renowned costume designers, including Sandy Powell, who worked on movies like “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Aviator”; Colleen Atwood, who did the ensembles for “Chicago”; Anne Roth, who costumed “The English Patient” and transformed Nicole Kidman from the Hollywood siren into dowdy Virginia Woolf in “The Hours,” and Julie Weiss, whose painted costumes brought much color to “Frida.” And while he may not have thought of himself as a typical fashion person years ago, Weinstein recalled an episode where he got into a heady fight with Powell during the making of “Wings of the Dove.”

“She designed these hats and every time Helena Bonham Carter or Alison Edwards had a scene together, these two hats would face each other, and I said, ‘Get rid of the goddamn hats,'” he said. “And she said, ‘But they’re true to the period,’ and I said, ‘I don’t care.’ It was love at first hat.”

His interest in fashion also translated into television. Recalling how “Project Runway” was turned down by 10 networks, he approached friend Jeff Zucker, now president and ceo of NBC Universal, to consider the concept.

“I just said, ‘Jeff, you have got to do this,'” he said. Zucker thought about it for an hour and gave the show a slot on Bravo. “The show became the number-one show in Bravo’s history. And it’s probably on 100 television channels all over the world and there are all sorts of international formats,” he said.

Weinstein praised the program for raising awareness of the design craft and the fashion industry, which, until then, was often undervalued by the general public. That, and watching his girlfriend work on her designs, made him realize the importance of protecting original designs. Weinstein recalled his shock when, two years ago, a manufacturer boasted in public about his plans to knock off a Marchesa dress and sell it in stores for just $300, within two weeks of its appearance on the red carpet.

“And as a little minor investor to Marchesa, I asked the team what they were going to do,” he said. “I was told that in the fashion business, you can’t do anything and stuff like this happens all the time, and I was acting more like a boyfriend and not as a Marchesa shareholder. Well, acting as a boyfriend, I called my lawyer, who just happens to be David Boies, the greatest trial lawyer in America, the one who beat Bill Gates and Microsoft for the United States government…the one that George Steinbrenner used, the one that sued General Westmoreland. And this man, this garmento, got a letter and a phone call from David Boies. I can tell you with great pride that he dropped the idea of knocking off that dress.”

The issue quickly grew near and dear to Weinstein, and he reached out to Arnault and worked with Diane von Furstenberg to initiate legislation to protect designs.

“When you see the way these designers work, how hard they work, somebody should just go behind the scenes and lift the curtain and watch,” he said. “I see it with my girlfriend, I see it with Halston, just the 16-, 17-hour brutal days that these people create, and the deadlines and the pressures that they’re under. And then you just let some guy knock your stuff off. And Arnault even told me, he said it’s kind of a matter of course. Well, I’m happy to report that you wouldn’t steal an Irving Penn and you wouldn’t steal a Julian Schnabel and you wouldn’t steal an Andy Warhol, so why steal a Galliano or a Tom Ford or an Alexander McQueen?

“I told [von Furstenberg] my corporate motto when we first started Miramax — good can triumph over evil if the angels are as organized as the Mafia,” he continued. “So under Diane von Furstenberg’s leadership, we put a team together and we have lawyers and we have a brilliant Washington, D.C., lobbyist named Liz Robbins. And we have money from me and money from others. And we are going to go to Washington, D.C., and we’re going to get this law passed. Over the years I have raised $50 million probably for Democratic candidates in the United States and I never asked for anything. This is what I’m asking for. And I might not know how to sew a dress and I might not know how to design a piece of jewelry, but I’m pretty good in a street fight and I bet you I get this bill passed.”

Weinstein credited his girlfriend for truly opening his eyes and senses to fashion. Watching her, he said, he realized the passion and drive and hardships that it takes to make it in fashion. “I was lucky enough that she invited me to the CFDA awards last year and I met all these other talented young designers and was very impressed that they all do incredible manual labor, which gets me upset about the copyright issue,” he said. “These people work out of freezing cold ateliers. They’re in storefronts or working behind their mom’s cleaning company. It looks glamorous, but now that I’ve seen behind the curtain, it’s like any other business. Hard work is mandatory and it’s as tough as any other industry.”

Asked for the importance of synergy between fashion and the movies, Weinstein didn’t hesitate with an anecdote.

“As we were researching Halston, there’s a great scene at the end of ‘Tootsie,'” he said. “Dustin Hoffman has now revealed to Jessica Lange that he’s not a girl, he’s a quite avid guy. And Jessica has kind of admitted that she’s got feelings for him. And they walk off together after having a big fight, hand in hand. And she said, ‘You know, one of the good things about you not being that girl anymore is that I get to borrow the dress.’ And Dustin says to Jessica, ‘I can’t lend it to you, it’s a Halston.’ And that’s the last line of ‘Tootsie.’ In the Weinstein Co. movies going forward, you will be seeing more of that.”

Weinstein offered a piece of advice for young designers from his own trove of anecdotes. He recalled how in 1988, he and his brother were struggling to get their company off the ground. “Bob had young children and was married and he told me he’d maybe have to get a real job, and for us that was the worst thing in the world,” he said. “But there was no money coming in, and it almost had come down to that. And I said to Bob, ‘Let’s take a walk.’ And in New York, when you take a walk that means get a slice of pizza. So we took the walk and I said, ‘Let’s give it one more year.’ I’m so glad because 1989 was ‘Sex, Lies and Videotape,’ ‘Scandal,’ ‘My Left Foot’ and ‘Cinema Paradiso,’ all four in a row, and we never looked back.

“So just in your deepest moment of despair, in your deepest moment of doubting yourself, give yourself one more year,” Weinstein said. “You’d be surprised. We stuck with it even when it was tough. We followed our passion and I think that’s where you ultimately find success.”

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