The Daniel Day-Lewis Version of Fantasy Fashion Diva

Posted December 23, 2017 7:34 p.m. EST

Much has been made in recent weeks of “Phantom Thread,” the Paul Thomas Anderson movie about a 1950s couturier that opens, like a big present for us all, on Christmas Day. That is mostly because its star, Daniel Day-Lewis, has announced loudly that it will be his last film, and because his last collaboration with Anderson, “There Will Be Blood,” about the oil business, was such a power punch of a flick (and won Day-Lewis his second Oscar for best actor).

New York Times film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis listed “Phantom Thread” as one of the best movies of 2017, and the National Board of Review made it one of its top films of the year. Day-Lewis even landed on the cover of W magazine, under the headline “Hollywood’s Ultimate Star in Fashion’s Ultimate Film.”

“The Devil Wears Prada” and “Funny Face” aside, fashion has traditionally played better in documentaries than in feature films. (Remember Robert Altman’s “Prêt-à-Porter” or Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander 2”?) In part that’s because the temptation to turn characters into caricatures of caricatures rarely ends well. So all of these accolades got my golden thimble tingling, especially because Day-Lewis is famous for actually learning to do what his characters do (and you can see all the needle pricks on his thumbs).

Had Day-Lewis and Anderson managed to succeed where so many others had failed? Had they created a realistic portrait of a designer for posterity?

Nope. They mythologized an old one. There’s no better perspective on how far we’ve come than seeing a once-upon-a-time stereotype, even one as compellingly watchable as Day-Lewis as Reynolds Woodcock (what a name), looming many feet high on the big screen.

He may be a designer, but he’s the designer as tortured genius, a man whose idiosyncrasies and unreasonable behavior are enabled and tolerated in the service of his art. It’s an old and favored trope in fashion, once cultivated by many. But while that version of the aesthetic auteur may still be revered in other realms, from Hollywood to SoHo, it has actually fallen out of favor in fashion. Or perhaps more pointedly, we’ve stopped falling for it.

Although we did drink the Kool-Aid for a while.

The character of Woodcock comes straight from the book of fashion fables. Behold his custom-made George Cleverley shoes; his purple papal knee socks, Anderson & Sheppard suits and carefully coifed mane of salt-and-pepper hair; his refusal to tolerate anyone else’s opinions on fabric but his own; and his collapse after the heightened emotional and inventive stakes of a collection! And then there are obsessive eating habits: No loud chewing during breakfast — it interrupts the sketching process; no butter on the asparagus — shock, horror.

The designers most often cited as inspiration for the film are the famed early couturiers Charles James and Cristóbal Balenciaga, who was known for his uncompromising belief in his own vision as well as the monastic atmosphere of his studio. But watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of more recent names.

Karl Lagerfeld, for example, with his self-costumery (his approximately 1,000 starched, white, high-collar Hilditch & Key shirts, his powdered ponytail, his Chrome Hearts jewelry); John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, both of whom were revered as the great designers of their generation, flamboyant and visionary and terribly behaved, thanks to well-known drug and alcohol addictions, all of it somehow seen as connected and hence accepted, the price everyone paid to allow them to make the products they made.

In fact, the more extreme the behavior, the higher on the pedestal they rose, the more artistic the output was assumed to be. (We can dispute the validity of that conclusion, but it existed.) And fashion has always wanted to see itself as an art form. Yet since McQueen’s suicide in 2010, Galliano’s implosion in 2011 when he was fired from Christian Dior after an anti-Semitic rant, and the reported breakdown of Christophe Decarnin of Balmain the same year, there has been something of a sea change in the industry’s attitude to how celebrated designers should look and how they should act. And it veers increasingly toward the ... normal.

Think collared shirts and khakis. Think protein shakes. Think organization, the ability to delegate, to manage people, to not create drama for drama’s sake.

It’s another kind of New Look.

Its poster children are Christopher Bailey at Burberry (he is leaving at the end of 2018 after 17 years), Claire Waight Keller at Givenchy, Raf Simons at Calvin Klein, although there are others. Narciso Rodriguez told me he didn’t stage shows last season in part because he wanted to spend time with his newborn children. Designers like Jason Wu and Erdem Moralioglu are known for their niceness. Marc Jacobs, once famous for keeping audiences waiting for hours for his shows, is now famous for starting exactly on time. Even Galliano, back as creative director of Maison Margiela, has re-emerged as a soft-spoken, reticent member of a team.

There are exceptions of course — Kanye West springs to mind — but they aren’t applauded for their divaness. They are excoriated for it. And it’s hard not to wonder if all that divaness was an effort on West’s part to act the way he thought a true designer would act to prove he was one. Which turned out to be a false premise.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years in various ateliers watching designers in their offices, poking through their drawers and work habits, asking whether they will draw only with certain pens, have favorite types of paper or engage in strange precollection superstitions. The answers, almost always, are no. Hey, they’re easy. Reynolds Woodcock would have had a heart attack at such nonexcessive attention to detail.

That’s not to say today’s boldface names don’t have their moments, make the occasional unreasonable demands (although those tend to involve where they work, and making others come to them, rather than how they work), exist under great pressure, yell at subordinates and eat weird things.

But their behavior is closer to that of a chief executive than a tormented artist. They aren’t self-indulgent in the same way, because they can’t be: The empires they oversee are too vast, and the sales figures too public. They’ve been corporatized — and they’re OK with that. It’s a job. Perhaps a vocation. But not, necessarily, a soul-defining lifetime commitment.

That kind of perspective doesn’t necessarily make for great film, but it’s not a bad thing for fashion. They are different, by design.