As “Zoolander 2” begins on the streets of Rome with a chase scene straight out of the “Mission: Impossible” movies, Derek Zoolander — once a really, really ridiculously good-looking three-time male model of the year and still an incredibly poor speller — is nowhere to be found.
But when the world’s top music stars fall victim to mysterious assassins, all wearing Derek’s signature Blue Steel pout in their final social media posts, the dimwitted but lovable model emerges from his self-imposed hiding to help Interpol. And he finds himself back in a fashion world he scarcely recognizes.
Nearly as different is the way that industry has responded to “Zoolander” in the 15 years since Derek (Ben Stiller) and his model nemesis, Hansel (Owen Wilson), made their debuts.
“The first time around, we were outside of the fashion world,” said Mr. Stiller, the director and co-writer of both films. For the new movie, which opens Friday, Feb. 12, just in time for New York Fashion Week, designers and models clamored for parts in the film or in its inventive (and extensive) social-media marketing push.
Derek and Hansel’s long absence from the screen may actually work to their advantage. The fashion industry has since harnessed social media to increasingly global ends. And the symbiotic relationship of pop culture and fashion has become even tighter.
“It’s about vanity and ego,” Mr. Stiller said of the original idea of the movie. “And I think there is something that’s happened since our phones have turned into cameras that connects with the idea of being obsessed with ourselves.”
Self-obsession is something fashion knows about. During production of the first “Zoolander,” most in that world didn’t quite know what to make of Mr. Stiller’s intentions. Mr. Wilson recalled that several male models walked off the set, upset at the portrayal of their profession. Nearly all the cameos were a result of guerrilla filmmaking during commercial breaks and on the red carpet at the VH1 Fashion Awards. And look-alikes played the star chamber of designers orchestrating the dastardly plot of the evil mastermind Mugatu (Will Ferrell).
In “Zoolander 2,” the cabal features the real thing: The designers Marc Jacobs, Tommy Hilfiger, Valentino and Alexander Wang clambered aboard to send up themselves and trade insults with Mr. Ferrell’s character. Mr. Jacobs is such a fan of the original that during a recent St. Bart’s vacation, he filmed a homage to the orange mocha Frappuccino scene, in which Derek and his model roommates, favorite beverage in hand, go for a joy ride that ends in fiery tragedy.
And Mr. Hilfiger was so game to participate, he willingly donned dark purple robes — they were like heavy velveteen drapery, he said — for his scene shot last summer at the sweltering Cinecittà studios in Rome.
“He led me down a path, you could say,” Mr. Hilfiger said of Mr. Stiller. “He would give me the line, then say give me more. Do more. Ad-lib.”
Mr. Stiller’s Baedeker to this strange, intimidating world was Anna Wintour, the all-powerful arbiter of style and maker of careers as editor in chief of Vogue. “Being able to have Anna there to sort of validate what we were doing was the biggest thing and opened a lot of doors for us,” Mr. Stiller said.
A fan of the first movie, Ms. Wintour steered him to relevant designers and models and explained how social media had upended the business. Her introduction to the creative directors of Valentino, Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli, resulted in Derek and Hansel walking in the designer’s show during Paris Fashion Week last March to announce that “Zoolander 2” was on. It was a surprise, headline-grabbing stunt, much more effective than a news release.
Ms. Wintour, who was in on the secret, of course, appears in the movie, playing herself and giving as good as she gets in a verbal smackdown with Mugatu.
Justin Theroux, who played a diabolical D.J. in the original and is a co-writer of the new one, likens the “Zoolander” movies, which have a lighter satirical touch than say, Robert Altman’s “Ready to Wear,” to his experience with a Hollywood parody he helped write, “Tropic Thunder.” “That’s the beauty of this kind of satire,” he said. “People will say, I know exactly what kind of actor that is, or I’ve worked with models just like that, but they don’t think they’re actually the object of the ridicule. So it’s a wonderful game of finger-pointing where no one really gets hurt and everybody gets to enjoy it.”
And the designers and models understand that poking a little fun at themselves can be good business in a globally interconnected culture.
The Hollywood talent agency William Morris Endeavor in 2013 bought IMG, which owns, operates or represents 13 fashion weeks, including those in New York and Milan, and represents models like Karlie Kloss and Miranda Kerr. The TV show “Project Runway” may not have discovered the next big designer, but it helped turbocharge Michael Kors’s visibility and fortunes. And not too long before Ms. Wintour put Mr. Stiller as Derek Zoolander on the cover of February’s Vogue (alongside Penélope Cruz), Kanye West and Kim Kardashian received that honor.
“Who would have ever thought that would happen?” said Mr. Hilfiger, who’s used Beyoncé, Kate Hudson and Usher in his company’s advertising and created campaigns that lovingly aped “The Royal Tenenbaums.”
Instagram is the perfect vehicle for an image-driven industry, and today’s supermodels are the ones with the biggest social media presences, where a self-deprecating tidbit about their personal lives resonates much more than their latest magazine cover. The creators and marketers of “Zoolander 2” are milking those connections with abandon.
To accompany the Paris premiere at the end of January, Cara Delevingne treated her more than 26 million Instagram followers to the highs and lows of her three-hour relationship with Derek. On Jan. 31, as the junket moved on to Rome, Derek and Hansel, clad in Valentino duds, appeared suddenly in the windows of the flagship Valentino store, synchronizing their changing poses about every 10 seconds. Their lark was edited into a short music video and posted, of course, on Instagram.
Mr. Stiller’s production company, Red Hour, has been busy creating content for the peripheral characters in the movie, like a faux infomercial featuring Kristen Wiig’s surgically enhanced designer, Alexanya Atoz, hawking her Youth Milk concoction made from desert flower cactus and distilled water from natural street puddles in Indonesia. (Because, as she says, “When you look old, you feel sad.”) As of Feb. 2, the infomercial has been viewed 11.5 million times. And Red Hour has created the Blue Steel Selfie Studio, so fans can share their version of Derek’s signature pursed-lip, drawn-in-cheek stare.
Mr. Stiller seems a bit baffled by the enduring popularity of “Zoolander” and its clueless leading characters.
“When the first movie came out, it wasn’t really a hit,” he said with a self-deprecating laugh.
Released just a few weeks after Sept. 11, the movie took in little more than $45 million at the domestic box office. Yet its mix of slapstick silliness and gentle satire has given it a successful afterlife on DVD and streaming services.
“I really don’t think I’ve ever been part of a movie that its fans had such a strong connection to it,” Mr. Stiller said. They begged him for a sequel when he was promoting other movies. “So it kind of spurred me to want to look into making it happen.”
Also prodding him was Brad Grey, who became chairman and chief executive of Paramount Pictures in 2005. For the studio chieftain, Mr. Stiller represented a movie business anomaly: an American whose comedies travel well. Even though “Zoolander” did little business overseas — just $15.6 million — Mr. Grey was encouraged by the international success of his other films like the “Night at the Museum” series.
Still, it took another decade for “Zoolander 2” to start filming. There were matters of scheduling and a budget to hammer out — which ultimately came in at slightly more than $50 million — and finding a concept that could carry a 90-minute movie. An early draft set the sequel in Miami circa 2005, then a thriving fashion scene. But when Mr. Ferrell — by then a leading man in his own right — wasn’t quite ready to revisit Mugatu, the project was put on the back burner.
Then, in 2009, Mr. Stiller, Mr. Theroux and John Hamburg hit upon what became the eventual scenario of “Zoolander 2”: Expanding Derek and Hansel’s world, they set most of the movie in Europe, and made Mugatu’s revenge attempt the catalyst. Story lines about the responsibilities of fatherhood were folded in amid the fashion-world excess and a cavalcade of pop-culture cameos (Justin Bieber, Benedict Cumberbatch, Kiefer Sutherland, Ariana Grande, Willie Nelson, even Jim Lehrer!).
But the broad comedy of the original remains. “AC/DC and the Ramones — there’s not a lot of growth in their sound,” Mr. Wilson said. “Sometimes you just find the right sound, and you keep doing that.”
Mr. Stiller, just before leaving New York for premieres in Sydney, Paris, Madrid, Berlin, London and Rome, seemed wonder-struck at the attention the new movie is receiving. “It’s like Derek’s having a resurgence,” Mr. Stiller said. “He’s been out of it for a few years, and now he’s having an upswing. He finally got his Vogue cover. So I’m happy for him. Because it’s a tough business.”