Thursday, June 24, 2010

Power & Beauty: the New Wave of fashion documentaries

by Nadia Buick
Last year I co-wrote an article on The September Issue with my partner, Huw Walmsley-Evans, for the Brisbane International Film Festival ( That documentary was one of a number of films in the 2009 BIFF program that could be read through the lens of fashion, and indeed the relationship between fashion and film has a long history. But while most of us accept that clothing and fashion themselves are inherent to the visual landscape and character portrayal in film, there is a recent trend that is taking things a little further.  

 Grace Coddington & Anna Wintour
The September Issue itself was a rare example of a behind-the-scenes look at the sometimes troubling world of American Vogue, and its editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour. What The September Issue sought to provide the audience with was the day to day realities of Vogue. The film’s director, R.J. Cutler, is a vocal exponent of cinéma verite, literally “truthful cinema”, and his approach is ideal for the world of fashion. For many, the falseness and facades of the fashion industry, its collusion with commerciality and seeming obsession with idealised beauty make it all together toxic, and irredeemable. In this equation, figures like Wintour, arguably the most powerful woman in the fashion world, are tantamount to the devil (and have been called as such: Wintour was the inspiration behind The Devil Wears Prada). But what Cutler’s film reveals is human relationships, rivalries and power relations. It’s not Hollywood; you’re not tricked into loving Wintour in the end, but there is a complexity that makes this (little) New Wave of fashion documentaries so refreshing. I call it a New Wave because there’s certainly an Old Wave of fashion documentaries and films that dramatise the fashion world (think Robert Altman’s Pret-a-porter), which have done a poor job of even attempting to address anything other than a cavalcade of clichés. 

But moving back to the New Wave for now. Like The September Issue, Valentino: The Last Emperor is an impeccable documentary about a larger-than-life fashion heavyweight. I left the cinema relieved after seeing this film because it resisted the temptation to portray the designer as some kind of ‘genius’. Again, what Valentino: The Last Emperor presents is complex relationships, real situations and struggles for dominance. And beauty; that dirty word which also happens to be the reason why many people hate fashion; beauty is at the centre of Valentino: The Last Emperor. But beauty is complicated, especially when you're in the business of creating it. In each of these films, what the central figure (Wintour and Valentino) does and creates is reliant upon a key relationship with an indispensable partner. In the case of Valentino, it is his life partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, who also happens to be his business partner. Valentino: The Last Emperor is above all else a love story, a portrait of this remarkable partnership that has lasted over 40 years. And in a similar way, what makes The September Issue so compelling is the central relationship between Wintour and Grace Coddington, Vogue’s creative director. Their relationship is tumultuous to say the least, but seeing the reality of these ‘couples’ on screen is what allows the audience to gain a realistic, and intellectually engaging portrait of the fashion industry.

Valentino Garavani

One recent documentary which didn’t succeed in this task was Lagerfeld Confidential, Rudolphe Marconi’s study of Chanel designer Karl Lagerfeld. Watching this film, it’s hard to believe that the director spent over two years filming Lagerfeld. It seems Marconi’s intention was to simply film whatever was happening in Lagerfeld’s daily life, which seems like it could be vicariously exciting, but is somehow reduced to countless journeys to and from unnamed locations, events and people. Rather than allowing the viewer into this world, Marconi’s technique distances us from getting any kind of insight into Lagerfeld’s existence. Instead we are merely witness to the questions Marconi wants to ask, the things Marconi sees. In the end, this proves to be, frankly, a boring outcome for what should have been an interesting film, not quite Old Wave, but certainly not New Wave either.

I’ve been thinking about fashion films for a while, and plan to continue posting about more of them on this blog in the future. But what triggered this retrospective look at recent fashion documentaries was an article Alison sent me written by Georgina Safe last week in The Australian, about another fashion documentary that has just screened at the Sydney Film Festival on legendary photographer Bill Cunningham. I’m yet to see it, but I certainly hope it’s of the same quality as The September Issue and Valentino: The Last Emperor; maybe then I really can get away with calling it a New Wave.

(And if you’re keen to see more fashion films on the big screen, The Australian Cinematheque is curating a program of wonderful films to co-incide with GoMA’s Valentino exhibition in August

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