Framing life: Giorgio Armani's Films of City Frames

The Italian designer's well-established link with cinema continues with his search for top student filmmakers, with the help of Dev Patel


'These guys are so full of confidence. And they’re smart – so smart, they put me to shame.' So says 26-year-old BAFTA-winner and Oscar nominee Dev Patel about the six student filmmakers he has been mentoring for the Giorgio Armani Films of City Frames project.

We are in Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest film festival where Armani has built a pop-up dome in which to premiere this, the third edition of his Films of City Frames. With the aim of encouraging and supporting young filmmakers from around the world, the initiative invites film schools to put forward their best students for sponsorship by Armani.

Luzie Loose, from the Film Academy Baden-Württemberg in Germany, explains how she was selected. 'In our school it was a competition. We were asked to put forward a brief synopsis, and my producer and I did 18 pages – we had to get to do this.'

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Loose – whose contribution is a dreamy black and white unconventional love story – is one of the six who made it. The others come from schools in Prague, Beijing, Tel Aviv and Boston (where two students co-directed). All acknowledge that this has been an extraordinary opportunity, something their mentor, Patel, acknowledges. 'It means the world,' he says. 'First of all, it's the platform – to be able to get this much attention on your work at such an early stage is incredible. And the [Armani] brand is associated with excellence and precision and so just by association it's a wonderful thing. It makes you want to raise your game, it sets the guys a challenge. But I think to encourage young voices like this… I wish I had that opportunity so early on.'

The Films of City Frames format is now well established; the students are selected by their school then Armani funds them to make a film of up to eight minutes in length. The budgets are such that the students can work with professionals and have a crew, the kind of resources that are hard to come by when you are learning your trade.

Luca Infante, a British-Italian student at the Beijing Film Academy, explains, 'When you start out in filmmaking you are basically a one-man band and you do everything. This was the first time I was allowed to let go of that. And working with actors [was new].' Dmitry Konoplov, originally from Ukraine, studying at the Steve Tisch School of Film and Television at Tel Aviv University, made a courtroom comedy set in that city for the project. He explains how many of his friends won't answer the phone to him anymore because he is always asking them do favours for his films. This project allowed him freedom. It was, he says, the first time he had received support for a film: 'So I wrote a really ambitious script.'

And what did they learn from the experience? Konoplov is clear: 'What I learnt in the end is if you can imagine something, you can make it happen in the film industry. So just think big – imagine what you want to do and just do it.' For others, such as Luis Mejias, from Venezuela, studying at Emerson College, Boston, the co-director of a whimsical fantasy piece, it was about learning to collaborate: 'This was my first project working with actors who weren't students. There is so much I can learn from actors, they can take it to the next level. It was an amazing experience. It gave me the opportunity for the first time to work with a crew, with a set. It really inspired me.'

The only Armani requirement of the young directors was that they incorporate his Frames of Life eyewear into the script – and that the narratives are set in the cities in which they are studying. Giorgio Armani explains that his Frames of Life glasses are conceived to be more than simply an optical aid or fashion accessory – they aim to function as a genuine partner to the wearer and a way of emotionally engaging with the world around you. 'You see the world through your spectacles or sunglasses lenses, much as a director sees the world through the camera lens. And the world is framed by your eyewear – we even call glasses "frames", just as a movie takes place within a frame,' says Armani.

As you might expect, the students all had some knowledge of the designer before the project, though some were more aware of his aesthetic and history than others. Loose, who hails from Berlin and whose mother is a fashion designer, even used Armani's signature androgyny as a theme in her film: 'He contrasts work with feminine aspects and masculine aspects and combines the two,' she says.

But the fact that Armani is behind this initiative has a certain logic. The students are all aware of the connection between fashion and film – which is something epitomised by their sponsor. Giorgio Armani has worked on more than 400 films now, and arguably first came to global attention in 1980 as a result of dressing Richard Gere and Lauren Hutton in American Gigolo.

Former student of the Prague Film School, Ran Li from China, whose film has a noir quality about it, which is very Armani-esque, is now back home working on her first feature film, says, 'There is definitely a connection between fashion and film because as a director you have to take control of everything. For me what my characters wear is essential. By the things they wear they immediately show their character.' This is especially true for those filmmakers that have a very strong visual style. Almodovar was asked: 'What would you do if you were not a director,' and he said: 'I would be a window dresser.'

Luke Zvara, an American and the other co-director from Emerson College, Boston, points out that often outfits become iconic as a result of featuring in films. 'Throughout cinema history wardrobe is often what has made films memorable – you think James Dean and you think that red jacket [from Rebel Without a Cause], or Vertigo – that green dress. You want your character to be remembered.' Mejias, Zvara’s collaborator from Boston, agrees, 'A film can become memorable through the fashion, and characters can come to life through what they wear. It's a layer of expression and characterisation'.

Someone chips in remembering Michael Jackson's red jacket in the Thriller video, and Loose from Baden-Wurttemberg cites Audrey Hepburn's black dress in Breakfast at Tiffany's: 'You can draw that silhouette,' she says. The director from Beijing, Luca Infante, explains how in his film – a tale of love and loss set on a film set in Beijing – the clothes were needed to establish a Chinese feeling. 'I think it's important for your actors to put them in the mood: what they wear is like a second skin,' he says.

Patel agrees, 'The more you travel around the world and get exposed to fashion and costume designers – it is such a big part of characterisation… to dissolve into someone else's skin goes part and parcel with wearing clothes'.

And what does he think of what his charges have produced? 'The first time I saw [the films] I was so impressed. Because all of them have a unique finger print, each one of them,' he says. He describes what the students have done as 'just amazing', given that they were all working from the same concept. 'They’re fully formed filmmakers already, as you see from the work on the screen,' he says. 'For me I just came out of it inspired: to see how these stories blossom from different parts of the world.'

As for his mentoring skills, he has a confession: 'You see that doesn't really sit well with me because I feel like a peer. So I'm looking forward to having a drink with these guys and conversing and waxing lyrical about films – that's what's exciting to me'. Does he have any final advice for them? 'It’s really, really beautiful filmmaking and very inspiring,' he says. 'You guys should continue doing what you’re doing, and… please hire me.'

To watch the films, go to Giorgio Armani Frames of Life eyewear is available at Giorgio Armani boutiques, and in select optical and department stores globally. In the UK it is also available from David Clulow;

Above picture, from left to right: Luis Mejias, Dmitry Konoplov, Luzie Loose, Ran Li, Luca Infante and Luke Zvara

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