Triangle of Sadness nails the fashion industry

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<p><figcaption class=Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

The picture painted of the fashion world in Triangle of Sadness, Ruben Östlund’s Palme d’Or film, is not the kindest. Its title refers to a pair of frown lines that lie between the eyebrows. It’s one of the most botoxed areas of a person’s face, probably because (as the name suggests) they only show up when you’re unhappy, and no one wants that.

This particular triangle belongs to Carl (Harris Dickinson), an aging model (he’s 24) with soft strawberry-colored hair and a soft pout. We meet Carl during a casting call for an unknown fashion brand; as soon as he is out of earshot, the panel discusses whether his triangle needs Botox. The old and unhappy Carl is unable to fix things.

The rest of the film, in theaters now, continues to ridicule the industry and the super-rich who consume its wares – and fittingly takes place on (and off) a $250 million luxury yacht where Nutella is airlifted and the champagne flows freely. The yacht’s ecosystem, from lavatory cleaners to oligarchs, serves as something of an allegory for global consumer capitalism. An example: Carl and Yaya, his model/influencer girlfriend, aren’t paying for the vacation because Yaya – played by the late actor Charbli Dean – is gorgeous. Rich without a penny to his name? Such is the life of an influencer.

But it’s not just a fashion movie. It is about the precariousness of beauty as currency in a world where money is synonymous with power. Carl and Yaya use their looks to get ahead, but as Yaya points out, even personal advancement has a lifespan – and when disaster strikes, it’s brought to light. After all, what good is a Rolex on a desert island?

So how accurate is the film’s portrayal of the fashion industry? I had never come across the term “triangle of sadness” before. Nor had a facialist I asked before writing this. Based on this, it would be easy to dismiss the film as apocryphal. This isn’t the first time fashion has been used in film as an avatar of moral corruption, as Cruella, Miranda Priestly and Mugatu can attest. But as a fashion journalist, moments in the film – even hyperbolic ones – left me staring behind a pillow.

At Yaya’s fashion show, the front rows are glued to their phones the same way people are on a runway (it’s a way to kill time without having to chat). The show itself opens with a statement about the climate crisis, while an absurd sentiment – “cynicism disguised as optimism” – flashes on a giant screen behind the podium. Fashion’s desire to solve the climate emergency while contributing to it remains problematic, despite the many platitudes it hurls at it.

The film was populated by connoisseurs: Östlund’s wife, Sina, is a fashion photographer and acted as an advisor. Östlund also cast Ann-Sofie Back – a bona fide Swedish fashion designer who once had a franchise in Topshop and later described herself as “the world’s least-appreciated designer” – in a minor role alongside Dean, she -even a former model, and stylist Robert Rydberg, who is currently fashion editor at Vogue Scandinavia. In fact, it’s Rydberg asking about Carl’s triangle, perhaps not for the first time in his career.

Sometimes the film becomes heavy. Moments before the parade begins, three guests are asked to leave their seats to make way for others higher up in the pecking order. First-tier feudalism is well-documented and notorious – and painfully internalized by anyone who works in fashion. But no one gets upset like that. They would simply find them another seat.

A scene from Triangle of Sadness.

“What good is a Rolex on a desert island? A scene from Triangle of Sadness. Photograph: Landmark Media/Alamy

Similarly, getting an entire row to move a seat, which happens here, wouldn’t happen today. Imagine asking – to use Tom Ford’s front row in September 2022 as an example – Anna Wintour and Madonna to move. The front rows are often benches instead of individual seats for this reason. Still, Östlund is trying to make a point about hierarchy, and it does exist. After all, a stranger like Carl wouldn’t be allowed to sit in the front row (the horror!) to begin with.

As for the Botox comment, “it just wouldn’t happen,” says Jess, a 28-year-old former model who walked for Yves Saint Laurent and Prada. “I’ve always been terrified of looking fake or wrong and having my career end like this. But no one would dare to suggest that you had [Botox]at least not while you’re in the room, and especially not in 2022.”

Generally speaking, however, Triangle of Sadness is on the nose, and one brilliant scene gave me the most heartache (which is no small feat considering the 15-minute vomiting sequence of the film): Standing against a wall, Carl is asked to alternate between expressions used to sell Balenciaga and those you would see on an H&M billboard. Switching between surly (Balenciaga) and cheerful (H&M), the speed and precision with which he moves his expressions isn’t just Oscar-worthy. He exposes the emptiness of his work.

In my career on various rows of various shows, I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe, and reporters sitting where you wouldn’t believe either, just because of a bad review. But the worst behavior did not come from those marching.

It was a hot day in Paris, and we were halfway through the couture shows when an editor fell running for his seat. As she lay on the floor under a Rodin sculpture, with what turned out to be a metatarsal injury, I saw the other attendees stepping over her body to get to their seats. I stayed behind to help him up, not because I’m a hero, but because what else could I do? When I finally got in, I saw a fellow journalist and opportunist (row 2) steal my seat (row 1). A simple transaction, but oh so revealing.

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