Zoolander at 20: unmatched in its humour and representation of 2000s fashion

Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller) in his patterned headband and shirt
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Zoolander is not only Ben Stiller’s best comedy, but a wonderful satire of ridiculous early 2000s high fashion. Genevieve Nardella celebrates its 20th anniversary

Zoolander at 20: unmatched in its humour and representation of 2000s fashion

On September 28, 2001, the world was confronted with the existence of one Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), an idiot who happens to be a three-time Male Model of the Year.

Although the character had already been in a couple of short films produced for the VH1 Fashion Awards in the 1990s, Zoolander –directed, written and produced by Stiller – was his first feature-length outing. And it is wild.

After he loses his title to a newer male model named Hansel (Owen Wilson), Derek receives brainwashing from Will Ferrell’s Mugatu, and with said brainwashing, tries to assassinate the prime minister of Malaysia at a fashion show where the models are all dressed in clothing inspired by homeless people.

Zoolander at 20: unmatched in its humour and representation of 2000s fashion
Hansel (Owen Wilson) in angel wings

To say watching this play out is wacky doesn’t even begin to describe it. It is as bonkers as a mainstream comedy movie can get, which is what makes it so special.

The typical fashion satire elements are all there: ridiculous clothes with ridiculously high prices, superficiality, stupidity, and even some morally bankrupt business practices. However, what pushes Zoolander over the top is its skilful, often bizarre combination of these cliches, and that even with all the silliness there is still a lovely, blossoming friendship between Zoolander and Hansel at the centre.

This is by no means the only movie to poke fun at the fashion industry and models; Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear did it in 1994, and The Devil Wears Prada would do it again in 2006. However, this movie takes a different approach, focusing on male supermodel vanity.

Zoolander himself is a jab at male models of the time. His name was even inspired by two real-life Calvin Klein models: Mark Vanderloo and Johnny Zander.

He isn’t malevolent, but he is primarily concerned with his own life and appearance. He is used to being told what to do for his job, so he is seen as a prime candidate for mind control by Mugatu.

Zoolander at 20: unmatched in its humour and representation of 2000s fashion
Stiller in his all-white funeral attire

As for the costumes, they are a perfect representation of this madcap scenario, taking the silliness to even greater heights. The bright colours, fun textures and haute couture flourishes give the characters laughable yet interesting outfits that match the absurdity of their world.

David C Robinson, the costume designer for movies such as 2003’s The Lizzie McGuire Movie and 2004’s Confessions of a Teenage Drama Queen, has created countless instantly recognisable looks for Zoolander and co. Patterned headbands, fringe, snakeskin suits, penguin-covered pyjamas; you name it, this movie has it.

Zoolander at 20: unmatched in its humour and representation of 2000s fashion
Mugatu (Will Ferrell), Katinka (Milla Jovovich) and Todd (Nathan Lee Graham) in matching black and red

The most direct satire comes with the theatrical Mugatu, a character who takes his cues from divisive fashion designer John Galliano, who was the head of Christian Dior at the time.

Mugatu’s Derelicte show where Zoolander’s assassination attempt happens is inspired by a real show by Galliano in 2000. The inspiration came when Galliano saw homeless people on his jogs along The Seine, and the subsequent collection of “homeless chic” was immediately controversial.

In short, Zoolander is genius disguised as stupidity. Its takedown of the fashion industry and male model vanity is a perfect time capsule of the turn of the millennium.

Watch it again sometime, preferably with an Orange Mocha Frappuccino.