James Dean’s teenage angst would certainly have been less potent if he’d sported preppy khakis and a polo in the 1955 flick Rebel Without a Cause. The actor’s iconic blue jeans and T-shirt combo is only one of a slew of scene-stealing moments for denim in the movies. Marlon Brando’s rolled-up blue jeans and leather Perfecto jacket in the 1953 film The Wild One oozed sex appeal that sparked styles for tormented bad boys everywhere. Meanwhile, Marilyn Monroe’s denim-clad role in the 1961 film The Misfits showed off her curvaceous form and underlined her sultry—but down-to-earth—sex appeal.

Although historical denim moments in cinema are less emblematic today, jeanswear continues to have a best supporting role. Take Brad Pitt’s Levi’s moment in Thelma & Louise, for example, or Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz and Lucy Liu in figure-hugging jeans throughout Charlie’s Angels.

From savvy product placement ingraining blue jean branding messages into the minds of viewers to celebrities posing in denim ad campaigns and Hollywood directors filming dramatic denim commercials, cinema and denim today are as tightly fitted as ever.

“We live in a world of multimedia. Pop culture icons have become even more important because fans relate to them,” says Tommy Hilfiger, who has featured a constellation of stars in advertising campaigns, including Kate Hudson in her career debut for Tommy Jeans in 1997. “Fans practically know everything about their stars—from where they like to go, to what they drive, what they eat and what they wear.”

“Celebrities within the entertainment business have never been so powerful and popular,” agrees Adriano Goldschmied, the guru behind high-end denim label GoldSign and co-founder of Diesel Jeans. “Product placement is the new advertising rule. When people see a movie star whom they adore wearing a particular brand both on and off the set, the product gets more credibility and respect than [from] any other advertising campaign.”

With a plethora of denim brands today, brand recognition calls for a well-informed consumer.
“In the past it was easier to recognize a brand. However, today the public is very educated. They are experts and [they] understand what a product is in a second,” says Goldschmied.

Take Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Match Point. Despite the rain-drenched love scene, it was difficult not to miss the clear close-up of Johansson’s Seven For All Mankind jeans.

Meanwhile, in the Warner Bros. film Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants a single pair of vintage Levi’s, with a blaring red tab label, forges a friendship among four teenagers who share the jeans.

“Well before the term ‘product placement’ was coined, costumers included Levi’s jeans in their films,” says Amy Jasmer, director of Levi’s brand presence and publicity, who noted stars such as Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Cameron Diaz got their early career breaks in Levi’s advertisements, as did Gael García Bernal. Most recently, Nicolas Duvauchelle, France’s most talked-about cinema talent, was seen running through walls for a Levi’s Engineered jeans commercial dubbed Odyssey.

Film directors such as Michel Gondry also got his big break filming denim ads. Gondry’s Drugstore commercial for Levi’s (1994) won the Lion D’Or at Cannes and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most award-winning commercial of all time.

Much like the way the beauty industry features Charlize Theron in Dior campaigns and Demi Moore as the new face of Helena Rubinstein, today’s niche denim brands are turning to stars posing in the blue in order to battle the widespread brand recognition of jeanswear’s behemoths. Take, for example, London-based Pepe Jeans, which tapped Sienna Miller to star in its recent campaigns through the winter 2007 season. (The actress also teamed up with her designer sister Savannah Miller to create an 80-piece ready-to-wear and denim line, called Twenty8Twelve by s.miller.)

In July, Jordache Jeans tapped Elizabeth Hurley to be the face of the brand in a new ad campaign, and chose Kristin Davis for Kikit, a moderate denim-focused brand that Jordache Enterprises relaunched in 2002. “Women with curves combined with beauty and brains are more appealing than just a beautiful face and an ultraslim shape,” says Liz Berlinger, president of Jordache Enterprises. “We find that consumers today look to these celebrities as fashion icons and find it more realistic to envision themselves in products that they represent.”

Meanwhile, some brands question whether the celebrity craze might be reaching a saturation point. Italian-brand Miss Sixty, for one, which featured Italian actress Asia Argento for the past three seasons, says it’s taking a noncelebrity approach to its new campaign that it will unveil this month. “In the past, people used to identify with a celebrity. Today there are many celebrities in campaigns and it is hard to have them exclusively, and therefore they become less credible,” says a spokesman for the brand.

“Clearly, using celebrities in campaigns is always very useful,” says Claudia Gravagna, strategic planner at Saatchi & Saatchi Paris. “But it is important how a celebrity is featured and how he or she corresponds to the values of the brand.”

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