Fashion, ‘yellowface’ and growing old disgracefully – on set of Absolutely Fabulous

It is such a thrill to be in the same room as Patsy Stone’s beehive. I’m on the set of Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie, in the basement of a London hotel on a rainy November evening. The room is purporting to be a casino in the south of France, all leopard-print furnishings, roulette tables and chandeliers the size of cars. Between shots, a woman is zhuzhing Joanna Lumley’s blond bouffant with a tail comb. Around her, dozens of octogenarian women in evening dresses sip ginger ale, pretending it’s champagne.

Next to Lumley is Jennifer Saunders, playing Edina at her most Edinaish. She wears a shiny azure trousersuit, slogan T-shirt (“Frack Me,” it shouts) and earrings that look like Christmas tree baubles. Although the cameras can’t see it, Saunders is barefoot, making the distinctive gait she employs as Eddy all the more noticeable. It is slow, stuttery, stunted. It suggests a woman who has never bought a pair of shoes she can walk in.

Unlike the bitchy assistants and formidable editors that populate most films and TV programmes about fashion, Absolutely Fabulous has always gone beyond cliche in its depiction of the industry. In Patsy, it presents the business at its most unhinged – a magazine editor who hides drugs in her beehive and describes an upcoming issue as “Sex Bitch Aristo Sex Punk Whore Bitch Prozzy Lezzy Slut ... with lovely shoes”. As anyone who has peeked behind the distressed jute curtain of the fashion industry knows, such behaviour is far from preposterous.

Saunders and Lumley with Emma Bunton, one of the film’s many celebrity cameos.

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Ab Fab also illustrates the two main industry archetypes. There are the Patsys – insiders who set fashion rules but haven’t changed their own personal style since the 1980s. And there are the Edinas – who try all too hard to make the latest trends work regardless of self-doubt, camel toes and blisters. She is the patron saint of fashion victims.

Speaking to Saunders, it becomes clear that fashion is a complicated industry to send up. Certain unnamed designers have resisted lending the show clothes, which puts pressure on budgets. “If you want free things, you’ve got to pay for them,” she says. “So the best thing is always to pay for them, and not pay the other price, which is having to be nice, or do things. Or else someone gets upset. If you buy the clothes, you can take the piss out of whatever you want.”

There is also the issue of cosiness. Certain sectors of the fashion industry are keen to capitalise on the publicity viral clips can generate. The resulting humour tends to be gentle and celebratory.

Anna Wintour, for example, starred in a video with Amy Schumer last week. And when Zoolander 2 was released earlier this year, Wintour, Valentino and other fashion heavyweights appeared in cameo roles and were involved in splashy marketing stunts. Many of the film’s worst reviews stemmed from accusations that it was too close to the modelling industry it was supposedly satirising.

Cosiness could be an issue for Ab Fab, too. The film was not available for review – a slightly worrying sign – but it appears to have more fashion cameos than regular cast members.

The plot hinges on Edina accidentally killing Kate Moss – with whom Saunders is on first-name terms (“I realised I had written most of the film and sold it without ever actually asking Kate if that was OK,” she says, “but she was just like: ‘Yeah, yeah’”). Alexa Chung, Jean Paul Gaultier, Stella McCartney and Jerry Hall are among many who appear.

The film has already proved controversial. In December, comedian Margaret Cho accused it of “yellowface” when it emerged that Janette Tough – aka Jimmy Krankie – was playing a Japanese fashion designer named Huki Muki. “I love AbFab but #YELLOWFACE is something I cannot watch – I just can’t,” Cho said on Twitter. “It’s sad when heroes are no longer heroic.

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