Zoolander 2, starring Ben Stiller as the pouting male model of the title, opened in cinemas last week. Back in 2001, the original film remorselessly made fun of the inherent ridiculousness of fashion, and the perceived stupidity of fashion folk. Its targets included runway trends (‘Derelicte’, a collection ‘inspired by the homeless’), fragrance advertisements (“Moisture is the essence of wetness, and wetness is the essence of beauty,” read the tagline of one spoof) and the narcissism and vapidity of models (Derek Zoolander’s greatest regret is that he can’t turn left). But Zoolander’s central joke, that a male model could ever be an influential global superstar, may have hurt the most.

Ben Stiller asked many real-life fashion luminaries to appear in Zoolander as themselves, and most refused. Perhaps they’re not so stupid after all; or maybe they were still smarting from the last time they collaborated with Hollywood on a big-budget, star-studded fashion satire.

Robert Altman’s Pret-a-Porter, the uniquely daft film that paved the way for the Zoolanders and Devil Wears Pradas of this world, was shot during Paris’ spring fashion week in 1994 and starred Julia Roberts, Tim Robbins, Kim Basinger, Sophia Loren, Richard E Grant and an often naked, heavily pregnant Ute Lemper. A critical and commercial flop, it led to a defamation suit from the Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld and so damaged Altman’s career that it would years for the once-revered director to recover.

Altman set out to make a scurrilous exposé, but Pret-a-Porter wound up being a time capsule so specific that, come its release that December, critics complained it was already dated as hell. And not just critics: the entire fashion world, many of them featured in it, pounced on Altman’s film with unseemly glee. Some complained that it was too bitchy a portrait; others that it wasn’t nearly bitchy enough.

Altman was given privileged access to the top catwalk shows of that season, mixing up fictional characters, played by his typically pedigreed cast, with scenesters playing themselves. Show tickets warned attendees they’d be filmed, but promised that the filming “will be no more intrusive than . . . customary documentary film and TV crews." Altman wrote to fashion editors beforehand,  instructing them how to behave ‘on set’: 'If you should want to address one of our actors . . . please remember to use the character's name (or do what most of us do when faced with uncertainty - call them 'Darling')”.

Yet despite its looney-tunes parade of fashionistas, Pret-a-Porter wasn’t obviously a comedy; it doesn’t have Zoolander’s cartoonish sight gags or one-liners. Altman certainly wasn’t inviting a straightforward send-up when he got the likes of Jean-Paul Gaultier on camera to expound on human beauty ( “I think there is not only one idea of beauty,” he says. “There is a lot of different kinds of beauty... I try to show, like, uh, a kind of tolerance”). Amid the scenes which merely advance its frivolous, hither-and-thither plot, Prêt-à-Porter is almost a documentary, really: it has characters speculate on the short skirt coming back, and pontificating, without any sign of humour, on the nature of their art.

Though Altman’s made-up characters – including a weird trio of female magazine editors; Richard E. Grant as a kiss-curled drama queen; Basinger as a fakely enthused TV reporter – are broad caricatures, they’re probably closer to the real-life figures next to them on screen than many of the latter liked to think. In one scene Tracey Ullman’s Vogue editor has a tantrum after spotting her rival from Elle wearing the same outfit; those in the know conceded that this was very true to life. (The lady from Elle, puckishly played by Linda Hunt, went on to inspire the look of Edna Mode, the drawling superhero costumière in Pixar’s The Incredibles.)

The designer Katherine Hamnett, recognising that everyone in the fashion world felt obscurely betrayed by the film, wondered if this was because they’d expected to be “rejuvenated” and “ennobled” in agreeing to appear, and then were not. Still, the film annoyed her just as much, because all she thought Altman was trying to say was that fashion was “stupid, trivial and exhibitionist”, and that he’d thereby “got it wrong”. For anyone putting their reputations on the line to do Altman’s bidding, there certainly wasn’t the safety net of being in on the joke at all: what was the joke? They could either declare it feeble or admit they hadn’t really got it. Whereas the coarser jabs to follow, from a Zoolander or Brüno, were so blatant and punchlined that everyone knew where they stood.

Sophia Loren in Pret-a-Porter Credit: Snap/Rex/Shutterstock

Prêt-à-Porter had all sounded like such a great idea on paper. Career-wise, Altman was riding higher than he’d been at any point since his 1970s heyday, thanks to the one-two comeback punch of The Player (1992) and Short Cuts (1993). The Player, a comedy about a murderous movie executive, had been received - slightly to its director’s own bemusement - as a biting-the-hand-that-feeds attack on Hollywood. He would subsequently pooh-pooh it as nowhere near damning enough. Still, switching circuses to the world of Parisian haute couture sounded like good business sense, especially with this many stars a-knocking again, and a roll-call of globally renowned designers almost clambering over themselves to apperar.

Karl Lagerfeld, the odd man out, wanted none of it, perhaps not reckoning with Altman’s legendary capacity to bear a grudge. Lagerfeld found himself name-checked unflatteringly in the film as revenge, when Grant’s fluttering character mentions “Karl’s fan”. Hardly the most withering slur, but he still took major offence. The likes of Thierry Mugler, Sonia Rykiel and Vivienne Westwood were all happy to play along, on the other hand, and several – Gaultier, Christian Lacroix, Issey Miyake – even got to show off their new collections while they were at it. The biggest trouble was casting Basinger’s role, which was offered to Lily Tomlin, Anjelica Huston and Meryl Streep first. All of them were otherwise engaged, or possibly worried about being front-of-house at a fiasco. Tomlin, a veteran of four previous Altman films, now admits she “just wasn’t sure” about doing it.

Worse ruptions were to follow, and not only with Lagerfeld, who went to court to have his name bleeped out of the film’s German release print. Altman had commissioned the script from a recent acquaintance, the San Francisco Examiner film critic Barbara Shulgasser, who became the latest in a long line of Altman scribes to have their work all but tossed out when it came to the shooting stage. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to Shulgasser: from as far back as McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971) and Nashville (1975), Altman tended to use screenplays as a mere selling tool for his films in pre-production. In  fact he sent Shulgasser’s work along to Miramax, who were stumping up the $15m budget, without even bothering to read it.

The feud escalated when Shulgasser wrote a pre-release feature for Vanity Fair, which poked fun at Altman’s procrastinations on the shooting script, calling him “miserable and scared” as he sat at the typewriter hammering out new material. She ungallantly labelled the completed film a “cameothon” and dished the dirt on several of its stars’ on-set diva antics, notably Lauren Bacall and Danny Aiello. Altman went ballistic, didn’t invite Shulgasser to the film’s New York premiere, and blamed the first round of negative reviews largely on her piece.

The critical mauling, his worst since the dire years of the mid-1980s, stung him badly – in interviews he confessed to being “shocked” and “rocked” by it, and even said he was “more or less through making movies” afterwards, though not decisively enough to stop him making an additional seven before his death in 2006.

Everyone who met Altman after 1994 noted his new attention to details of tailoring – he suddenly got all dapper. But figuring out the director’s real attitude to catwalk fashion is a funny old tease if you go back to Prêt-à-Porter now, which is neither some singular triumph of off-key satire nor anything like the farrago everyone said it was at the time. The film occupies a strange space, managing to sit both in and outside its subject: it’s half-mocking, half-deferential, like a curtsey with a tongue stuck out.

The trouble is, it’s also pretty silly. Everyone keeps stepping in dog muck and dragging it around their dressing rooms – a pretty crude way to cut these egomaniacs down to size. Many got hung up on the details they thought Altman had fluffed. The editor Harriet Jagger admitted that fashionistas do compare hotel rooms, as Ullman and Hunt’s character’s do in the film, but she claimed the editors of Vogue, Elle and Bazaar “would never dream of staying at the same hotel”. Altman spends half his movie humiliating these three, snapped in demeaning poses when they each try to butter up Stephen Rea’s boorish photographer; but then he ends the film with a lavish ode to the glory of the female form - an entirely nude runway show. There’s no more blatant illustration of the emperor having no clothes than a procession of naked supermodels trotting down the catwalk.

In stark contrast to the reception given to Pret-a-Porter, the fashion world came to love Zoolander. As the sequel’s screenwriter Justin Theroux recently explained to the Telegraph: “The people we’re satirising never think that they are the butt of the joke... So people will say: 'Oh that was such a great send-up of so-and-so,’ and you’ll be thinking: 'But it was you!’ ”

According to Theroux, fashion designers and models  were “lining up to be involved” in the sequel. The stars walked the catwalk in character at Valentino’s Paris show last spring, and the film features cameos from Anna Wintour, Marc Jacobs, Kate Moss, and many more. But Karl Lagerfeld refused to take part, telling one reporter that he “didn’t like” the Valentino stunt; Robert Altman would have smiled at that.