For every woman or girl who dreams of becoming president, there's another whose fantasies run to having the exclusive run of Barneys on a magical day when everything costs one penny. A second-place thrill might be to actually work at the biggest, most important fashion magazine in America, surrounded by the sort of fabulous clothes and accessories that help transform Kate Moss from a skinny chick with a pretty face and stinko taste in men into a goddess with attitude.
"The Devil Wears Prada," the filmed adaptation of the 2003 bestseller by first-time novelist Lauren Weisberger, may be the closest most style junkies will ever get to fashion's inner sanctum. The movie (which opens June 30) goes behind the scenes at Runway magazine, a style bible much like Vogue, where, in a pivotal sequence, its imperious editor and her glossy posse select clothes to be photographed for the next issue. A spaghetti-strapped number with an overlay of tulle is under consideration. Will it make a statement if a turquoise cowgirl belt is wrapped around it, or does a strip of blue reptile cinching the waist better fit the cocktail-hour-in-Deadwood vibe the editors want to evoke?
The woman with the answer is Patricia Field, the movie's costume designer and a fixture of New York's downtown club culture. During her reign as the trendsetting costume designer of "Sex and the City," she made women all over America want to ditch their jeans and get dressed up to go out.
"The Devil Wears Prada" belt dilemma prompts Meryl Streep, as Runway editor Miranda Priestly, to lecture Anne Hathaway, in the role of her newbie assistant, Andy, on how good trends happen to clueless consumers. But Field believes any ability she's had to influence the masses has been accidental.
"Creating trends is not my intention," she says. "Sometimes when you have a show like 'Sex and the City' that's so huge and everybody's watching it, something will catch on like wildfire. It's usually an item like the name necklace or the flower pin, that doesn't require a size 2 body."
Actresses who've been given the Field treatment disagree. "She's so far ahead of the curve that so much of the fashion that I see in the stores now reminds me of things Pat put me in three years ago," says Kelly Ripa, who played a washed-up soap opera star in "Hope & Faith," the late ABC sitcom.
On a sticky June afternoon in New York, Field's trademark flame-red hair is wrapped in a red snood and topped with a woven fedora. Red eyeglasses, big silver hoop earrings and a crimson watch strap accent her outfit of leopard-spotted pants and black, scooped-neck T-shirt. She could easily walk from lunch at a bistro on the Lower East Side to her eponymous store on the Bowery in her flat suede Dior sandals, but she travels the short distance in her turquoise Thunderbird instead. Her whole visual presentation speaks of truth in packaging: This is a woman who enjoys style and doesn't take herself, or it, too seriously.
She met "Devil" director David Frankel more than a decade ago, when he hired her to do the costumes for "Miami Rhapsody." Sarah Jessica Parker was one star of that comedy. Frankel went on to direct several "Sex and the City" episodes. (That's the sound of "It's a Small World" playing in the background.) She had enough history with Frankel to occasionally wrestle with him over creative choices.
"Sometimes the director calls me a diva," she says. "I tell him: 'Don't patronize me. I'm not a diva. I'm a hardworking woman. I'm just trying to give you the best I can. If you don't want it, fine.' "
Fresh but faithful One of Field's paramount goals on "Devil" was to give Streep the look of a chic career woman. "Meryl is smart, she's witty, she's just normal and so talented," Field says. "I wanted to do the best I could for her. There are many times when she's played a character that isn't supposed to look good, or when she appears as herself at events, she doesn't always look good."
Streep's Priestly is known behind her back as "the dragon lady." The novel's author was once a flunky at Vogue, toiling in the service of Editor Anna Wintour (known behind her back as "Nuclear Wintour"). Although the media made hay of the temperamental similarities between Wintour and Priestly, the last thing Field wanted to do was ape Wintour's style.
Her concept for Runway's ice queen was a wardrobe of "super-expensive, rich lady's clothing," so Streep wears a number of heavily embellished jackets by Valentino, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta. "I had to fight for those jackets," Field says. "The studio thought she looked like a lady who lunches. I had to explain to them that Meryl liked them, and we were taking these overdone jackets and putting them with a pinstriped skirt and a white shirt, and that's the look of this powerful woman in fashion. It's not a lady-that-lunches look."
The film's story, as thin as a Conde Nast assistant editor, provides most elements of the chick-lit canon: Nice girl from the boonies comes to the big city to find fortune and love, rubs shoulders with some sophisticated people who are not very nice, but ultimately learns important life lessons and stays true to her good self. At the beginning of the movie, Field padded Hathaway slightly. The faux hips made Andy's metamorphosis, from post-graduate frump to high-fashion doll, more dramatic. Stanley Tucci as Runway's dandified art director befriends her and showers her with samples from the magazine's closet no publishing industry underling could really afford.
"That motivated my choice of wardrobe for Andy," Field says, who dressed Hathaway in Chanel, Dolce & Gabbana and Calvin Klein. "Chanel was very good to her. Let's face it, we have a budget, of course, but when you're talking about clothes of that level, there's no budget that can cover that. With all the montages, Anne had maybe 60 changes. Meryl started out with 20-something outfits, but in the end it became 40-something because of montages in which she changes every second."
Many costume designers pride themselves on their ability to sketch and make costumes, even for contemporary films. Field prefers to use clothes created by commercial designers. "I would build costumes out of necessity," she says, "for a fantasy movie or a historical story. I don't consider myself a clothing designer. I'm more of a stylist. For a fashion movie, isn't it better to have your pick of the myriad of designers?"
Rumor has it her choice of designers was limited when the word went out that anyone who cooperated with the movie would incur Wintour's wrath.
"I suppose it's true. I don't know," Field says. "It could be that some people just felt lending clothes to us would put them in a politically uncomfortable position. I understand that. People are in business. Through TV and film, I've been able to contribute to fashion in a major way, and I'm happy about that. I love fashion, and I would never do something bad to the industry. If a designer didn't return my call, I didn't pursue it. There are a lot of clothes out there."
A Golden Age élan Field's aesthetic is influenced less by current designers than by classic movies. "In my dreams, the fashion world is more glamorous than it is," she says. "I'm very inspired by the extravagance of old Hollywood. I love to watch Fred Astaire. It's all so gorgeous. Of course I know that was another time, but I always lean a bit in that direction, and what's on-screen becomes hyper-reality. If it were up to me, I'd be putting gloves and hats on people all the time. Sometimes directors want to pull me back. They'll take off a hat or some jewelry. I know they're going to do that, so I pack it on."
Although it has taken root in four lower-Manhattan locations since 1976, the gestalt of Patricia Field, the store, hasn't changed. If Carrie didn't buy the little tutu she wears in the title sequence of "Sex and the City" there, she could have. It's a place where shoppers and salespeople of indeterminate gender feel at home. The boutique is so filled with glitter and color that being in it feels like being trapped in a kaleidoscope.
Field juggles running the store, styling for TV and magazine advertisements, and movie and TV projects — she did the pilot for ABC's "Ugly Betty," and has signed on for a new ABC drama series "Six Degrees." She just quit the film now in production "The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing," starring Sarah Michelle Gellar.
Styling for private clients isn't ordinarily on her agenda, but she's intrigued by an approach from a woman she describes as "high foreign royalty." And there's one other very public person she'd like to makeover.
"For a while, I put it out there that I would like to dress Hillary Clinton, because I felt I could offer her a good service," Field says. "I never got a response from her. Maybe if she sees 'The Devil Wears Prada' and likes the way Meryl looks, she might take me seriously. I think she thinks I'm too kooky, or something."