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Betting that film fans will buy into the 'Geisha' mystique

For years, marketers have struggled to translate the fantasy power of their films into sales at fashionable boutiques and department stores. They've sanctioned vivid yellow overcoats from "Dick Tracy," frilly cancan skirts from "Moulin Rouge!" and blue gemstone pendants from "Titanic."

Now, marketers are at it again, this time filled with hope that "Memoirs of a Geisha," which opens here Dec. 23, has what it takes to sell pricey shoes, beauty products, holiday finery and even tea. In return, they're betting that the association with upscale glamour will inspire consumers to see the film.

Work was still under way on the movie version of Arthur Golden's bestselling novel when executives at Sony Pictures met with an array of fashion and beauty companies to create tie-ins that are notably more sophisticated than most. Now that "Geisha" has arrived in theaters, shoppers are encountering products designed to reflect the geisha mystique, and also build buzz for the film.

The connections between the movie and the products may not be readily apparent, however.

Earlier this fall, Banana Republic launched a limited-edition collection of Asian-inspired holiday wear that shares the film's color palette and is heavy on the kimono sleeves, but lacks any vintage feel. Fresh has developed six bath, body and cosmetic products that are intended to suggest a geisha's beauty ritual -- if she were to abandon most of her traditional makeup scheme.

Icon, the company that transfers famous artwork onto shoes, put photo-print reproductions of abstract "Geisha" images onto shoes and leather goods -- but don't strain yourself trying to match the pictures to the film. The Republic of Tea has reissued the "Memoirs of a Geisha" cherry blossom-scented tea bags that were offered at Barnes & Noble when the novel came out eight years ago. The new tin features an image of star Ziyi Zhang as the legendary geisha Sayuri.

But never mind that most of the items have only the vaguest connection to the geisha life so artfully detailed in the book and depicted in the movie. Unlike many other merchandising tie-ins that aim to market a movie with logo-laden collectibles, the "Geisha" products are supposed to expand the moviegoing experience by adding scent, taste and touch.

If the film is a hit, the silk dresses and handbags might become tangible reminders of an arty experience -- and a template for future upscale movie tie-ins. But the odds of selling hundreds of thousands of dance skirts or corsets aren't good.

History shows that movies can inspire occasional fashion trends -- almost always after release, not before. Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger found fans clamoring for the sunglasses they wore in "Risky Business" and "The Terminator," respectively. The chain and pearl necklace Rene Russo wore in "Tin Cup" inspired a host of imitators.

Occasionally, Vogue may publish a few on-set photos (as it did recently with "Geisha") to highlight a costumer's work, but rarely to ignite a fashion trend. There's also the problem that the most awe-inspiring clothes often come from hard-to-copy period dramas, not contemporary tales featuring wardrobes readily available in stores.

Bloomingdale's is the retail leader in developing film-based promotions that land in stores as movies hit theaters. Yet that chain picks, at most, one movie a year, and then only if portions of its wardrobe amplify current fashion trends, said Kalman Ruttenstein, senior vice president for fashion direction. Last year, Bloomingdale's used "The Phantom of the Opera" as the theme for holiday windows at two Manhattan stores and for its Phantom Shops at five other stores. The movie's "opulence and romance" mirrored the lacy, Victorian looks then coming into fashion.

Bloomingdale's has been experimenting with tie-ins for more than 15 years. Ruttenstein said the promotions, which have included a guest appearance by "Moulin Rouge" star Nicole Kidman and 200 cancan dancers, are best at driving traffic to the store, not selling thousands of items.

"Geisha" tells the story of a young girl from a Japanese fishing village who is sold into slavery at a Kyoto geisha house in 1929. She eventually is allowed to become a geisha -- a woman trained in the arts of entertaining men -- and rises to the top of her field. The movie emphasizes that the women are not prostitutes but a classier, more selective and educated kind of escort -- a tantalizing subject for filmmakers and marketers interested in the glamorous, high-design aspects of the geishas' looks and lives.

Most of the movie-related products were inspired by the geisha's striking makeup, (which is rendered more subtly in the movie), some recognizable Japanese design motifs and traditional luxuries such as sake, pearls and silk.

Banana Republic skipped over the most notable feature of the movie costumes -- the elaborate kimono patterns and designs. Instead, it decorated select stores with framed images from the movie, created a sweepstakes, and offered a limited-edition collection that includes kimono-style sleeves and the occasional obi-waist dress.

"Our brand is about being a modern fashion brand," said Chris Nicklo, vice president of Banana Republic's brand management. "We think they'll love the wardrobe that (costume designer) Colleen Atwood designed, but we needed something that is modern and wearable today."

Several styles in the Banana Republic collection, which includes mandarin-collar jackets and rayon jersey wrap dresses, have sold out since their release in mid-October.

Other merchandise has a more direct link to the story, including the Republic of Tea's "Memoirs of a Geisha" product, with sencha green tea, cherry essence and label artwork taken from the film.

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