Fashion Flashback: Nicole Kidman, Baz Luhrmann and the Cinema of Chanel

How one extravagant perfume spot launched the brand's foray into mini-movies.
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Screenshot: YouTube 

Screenshot: YouTube 

Welcome to Pop Culture Week! While you can always find us waxing poetic about the hefty overlap between fashion and pop culture, we're dedicating the next five days to the subject of our favorite music, movies, TV, celebrities, books and theater, and how that all intersects with the fashion industry.

Every year it seems more and more brands are exploring the world of film. Not quite commercials — well, okay, yes, commercials; in fashion, almost everything is an advertisement. But these films, not quite commercials in the traditional sense, serve as a way to promote a collection online that will live on well after the products are out of the stores.

Chanel was an early adopter of the fashion film, beginning in 2004 when it released "Chanel No. 5, The Film." If ads could be blockbusters, this was it: The clip starred Nicole Kidman, and was directed by Baz Luhrmann, who were both still riding high off their recent success, "Moulin Rouge!" In fact, the short's story bears quite a bit of resemblance to the movie in look. "That's what a lot of people said to me at the time," Luhrmann told the Telegraph. "I can see why they thought that. I'd been working on 'Moulin Rouge!' so long, it was in my bloodstream." 

Its plot — of a famous, wealthy woman escaping her responsibilities and public life — has drawn more comparisons to "Roman Holiday." It's splashy and fun, and was the most expensive ad ever made at the time, costing roughly $33 million. Chanel even had two cuts, because the full-length version is almost three minutes long.

By tying the ad to a major motion picture, Chanel was positioning its spot as a movie and not as a commercial, all while anchoring it to a specific moment in popular culture. But, because someone thought it would be fun, or because someone sensed the importance video content would become in online branding, the house soon began using movies to make its own pop-culture moments. 

No 5, Advertised

The cliché about fragrance ads is that they are generally ridiculous. How exactly does one advertise a scent? It's difficult, and even the best are a little weird if you think about them long enough. Not even the chicest of houses, like Chanel, are immune to this. The brand has cycled through a number of campaigns over the decades, which range from the boring (like Catherine Deneuve explaining the scent's importance to her very being in the late 1970s), to the utterly absurd (what, what, what were those Brad Pitt ads about?) and all that came in between.

Perhaps thanks to its ambitions alone, "The Film" doesn't really fit in with the rest. It's not just selling Chanel No. 5, it's selling us the idea of Chanel — a luxury brand in a world of its own, with the budget and resources to be entertaining as well as desirable. There is something powerful about making us want to watch an ad. "It is clearly no longer enough to just have attitude and show a picture; you have to attach an emotional story to that," a business director for the ad agency J. Walter Thompson told The New York Times upon "The Film"'s release. "That is a global trend but it is especially acute when it comes to luxury goods, because with luxury goods you are paying to feel special — you need that personal connection." 

Lagerfeld the Director

"Chanel No. 5 The Film" was only the beginning for the house's video output, which have gone on to span intricate ad spots, a series of mythologizing historical pieces about Coco herself, and of course, short films — which Karl Lagerfeld has since taken upon himself to direct.

In 2011 came "The Tale of a Fairy," a 25-minute short that starred models Kristen McMenamy, Freja Beha Erichsen, Bianca Balti, longtime male muses and Brad Kroenig. The piece was initially used to promote Chanel's 2011 Cruise collection, screening it in Cap d'Antibes along with the runway show. "It is a movie about an ill-advised use of money which begins with violence and ends with feeling," Lagerfeld explained at the time. While the film was absolutely gorgeous, the acting was…truthfully, not great. Perhaps that's why subsequent shorts featured at least one of Chanel's many brand ambassadors that were professional thespians.

Two years later came "Once Upon a Time," a black-and-white film (again directed by Lagerfeld), that focused on Coco's early years as a milliner. Keira Knightley took on the lead role, and for 18 minutes we watch her start a fashion empire, all in period costumes. For all its quality in production, and the fact that they hired Knightly, the film bizarrely still feels amateur. This is perhaps due to Lagerfeld allegedly giving his cast their lines just before they said them. In a way, that's part of its charm. Who doesn't want to see Lindsey Wixson awkwardly announce "…by the way, I'm Ms. Vanderbilt"?

The historical theme continued later that year with "The Return," this time starring Geraldine Chaplin in the role of Coco Chanel. She reprised the role a year later in "Reincarnation," which took a surreal turn into becoming a music video. Pharrell was on hand, and the world got its first taste of Cara Delevingne's signing abilities.

As the years went on Lagerfeld and his team perfected their movie-making skills. 2015 saw the release of "Once and Forever," which features a complex, meta story line of Kristen Stewart and Chaplin as actresses both playing Chanel in a bio-pic. It blends the history of the house with its modern-day image, and it runs in a tight 11 minutes. The evolution of Lagerfeld's film career matures quickly in four years, but it's clear that nailing video — especially in the age of online content — was important for him and the brand.

Chanel Cinema, Today

Over a decade after "The Film"'s release, Chanel once again tapped Lurhmann to direct a commercial for No.5 — but now that Lagerfeld had figured out translate the brand to the screen, a flashy director wasn't really needed. Titled "The One That I Want," the spot feels more like a classic perfume commercial than a mini-movie. Gisele Bündchen looks forlorn, but she doesn't actually say anything. No one does. Instead an admittedly gorgeous cover of the "Grease" song of the same name plays over the loose narrative. It's likely easier to be cut down to run on TV, and obviously we're all still interested (the spot has over 18 million views on Youtube). But its doubtful it will have the same impact that "The Film" did. Though Luhrmann's original holds up pretty well, it might be time for a new mini-movie for No.5 — this time with Lagerfeld in charge.

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