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Some guys have all the luck, and that certainly seems to have been the case with fashion mogul John Casablancas, who passed away in 2013 at the age of 70. Not only was he born rich, handsome and multinational, educated at the best Swiss schools and then chaperoned into high society, but he went on to create the global powerhouse Elite Model Management, which begat the careers of Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Gisele Bundchen and Stephanie Seymour — the latter whom Casablancas dated for a while, as if life weren’t already good enough.
It’s surely the stuff that dreams are made of, and in Hubert Woroniecki’s new documentary Casablancas: The Man Who Loved Women (Casablancas, l’homme qui aimait les femmes), which features a lengthy one-on-one interview backed by tons of personal archives, TV clips and fashion-spread photos, you’d think you were watching a teenager’s fantasy come true: The girls! The parties! The millions in profit! The luxury homes on several continents! (All that’s missing is the cocaine, which the tycoon apparently didn’t care for.)
But whether or not such a life makes for an interesting movie is another question, and Casablancas works best as a glimpse at how one man managed to transform the sleepy world of modeling, circa the mid-1960s, into a star-driven enterprise of the ‘80s and ‘90s that made beautiful women into rich and famous celebrities. Beyond that, watching a successful ladykiller spend 90 minutes detailing his spoils, however humbly — because Casablancas certainly comes across as a decent guy — may not be for everyone’s taste, and after a small theatrical release in France the film should strut its stuff on VOD platforms and fashion channels overseas.
Given his Europudding accent (he was born in New York to Catalan parents, then raised in France and Switzerland) and candid way of detailing his sexual exploits (“I lost my virginity at the age of 15 on a summer night in Cannes …”), Casablancas can often seem like a Simpsons-style parody of the International Playboy, and he definitely had the looks to match. Tall, suave and athletic, it’s no wonder he appealed to beauties like Seymour (they dated when he was 42 and she only 16) or the former Miss Denmark Jeanette Christiansen (with whom he had a son, Julian, who would grow up to become lead singer of The Strokes).
Gossip pages aside, what’s most impressive about Casbalancas’ career is how he more or less single-handedly reshaped the modeling business into the behemoth that it is today, taking his Paris-based Elite (which he founded in 1972) from a boutique agency of some 30-odd mannequins and expanding it into the U.S. and dozens of other countries, with annual billings reaching close to $100 million during its heyday.
The fact that all of this was done on the backs of young women — many of them underage and handpicked in the company’s Elite Model Look beauty contests — is never questioned here, and Woroniecki has a tendency to be more hagiographical than biographical in his approach to a subject that deserves to be tackled with a more objective voice.
Still, he provides some intriguing details about the gradual shift in modeling from nameless faces in magazine ads to superstars like Eva Herzigova and Heidi Klum (both of whom were once repped by Elite), particularly the “model wars” of the 1980s between newcomer Casablancas and New York stalwart Eileen Ford, whose conservative approach was a far cry from the party-hearty, headlines-heavy atmosphere nurtured by Elite.
Not that Casablancas brags about any of this, and his modest, matter-of-fact way of recalling his rise to power — or describing how Seymour once broke his middle-aged heart — can feel oddly refreshing given the usual ego-tripping of the fashion world. “The mediocrity of the business and of my competitors made me look like a genius,” is how he ultimately explains his success, which is either a way of downplaying his own cleverness or underhandedly dissing everyone who made him a multimillionaire. Either way, one thing is certain at the end: The guy definitely had a way with the opposite sex.
Executive produced by Casablancas’ widow Aline (winner of the 1992 Elite Model Look in Brazil), the documentary is chock-full of home movies, private and professional photos, appearances on Oprah and Letterman, as well as newsreel footage that takes us from the Swiss Alps in the 1950s to the skyscrapers of midtown Manhattan some three or four decades later. A playfully retro score by David “Tahiti Boy” Sztanke makes you want to grab a cocktail and start schmoozing with the best of them.
Production companies: Realitism Films, Maneki Lab
Director: Hubert Woroniecki
Producers: Diane Jassem, Christine Ponelle, Gregory Bernard
Productive executive: Aline Casablancas
Editors: Jacqueline Mariani, Seamus Haley, Hubert Woroniecki
Composer: David Sztanke, aka “Tahiti Boy”
Sales: Films Distribution
Not rated, 89 minutes
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