Why Aren’t Fashion Documentaries More Critical?
Can the films serve as more than fluffy marketing material to fuel clothing sales?
The history of fashion has been captured for decades in runway photographs, detailed interviews, and news articles. But fashion documentaries are another thing altogether, with a long history of a lack of criticality: Robert Altman’s light Ready to Wear film (1994) was reviewed as uncritical, and the same goes for Isaac Mizrahi’s documentary Unzipped (1995), which follows the designer in the 1990s, as his staff carefully deconstruct the designer’s genius (without getting fired). Film critic Janet Maslin called the fashion documentary Catwalk (1996) a “wildly uncritical look at the Milan, Paris and New York fashion shows,” adding that models are “like the world’s most spoiled sorority sisters.”
Have fashion documentaries always been this uncritical? Just fluffy marketing material used to sell more clothes? The price that filmmakers pay to gain behind-the-scenes access to sacred fashion houses is often, flattering portraits. As the New York Times notes, “any fashion brand in possession of a good story must be in want of a documentary.”
Over the past years, there has been a new wave of fashion documentaries, from Maison Margiela to Olivier Rousteing, Manolo Blahnik, Dries Van Noten, Zac Posen, and Ralph Lauren. And this year, expect new documentaries on French designer Pierre Cardin, as well as fashion blogger Chiara Ferragni. They may get to show off their chic taste and extravagant lives, while offering a sneak backstage to the fashion world. But they seldom offer more than a glamorized, cursory look at their subject.
There’s a recurring motif of “designer puts together their last show ever.” Valentino: The Last Emperor follows Valentino Garavani as he stages his last show in 2007. It’s a similar format for the Yves Saint Laurent documentary, Celebration, which steps into the designer’s studio as he stages his last runway collection before retiring in 2002.
After British designer Alexander McQueen’s passing in 2010, the McQueen doc was released, detailing his archives, making it feel like a museum exhibition on the screen. McQueen as a tortured genius, but the question arises — when does a director focus on someone’s personal troubles, their rise and fall, rather than what makes them so special as a designer?
Most of the recent fashion documentaries feel to lack in the risk-taking department. They don’t shake things up, are careful to protect the brand, and never really tell the full story. Is this the future of fashion storytelling? Does a director only get approved for access if the documentarian’s message is “on brand?” Then why are these films being marketed as the “designer in his own words,” if the director gets final word?
Take the new Maison Margiela documentary Martin Margiela: In His Own Words, as he walks us through his childhood love of fashion, his collections from the 1990s, which are kept partly in shoeboxes, but respects the legendarily reclusive designer’s request to leave his face out of the entire film. The documentary lags in parts because of that, but also, it doesn’t challenge why the designer (who retired years ago) so desperately still wants to protect his image. He isn’t Daft Punk, right? He’s less likely to get mobbed on the streets.
Olivier Rousteing, the 34-year-old director of Balmain and close friends with the Kardashians, was the subject of a recent documentary called Wonder Boy, which premiered at Paris Fashion Week last fall. It squares in on Rousteing’s family origins as an adopted child, chasing his Somalian-Ethiopian roots. It’s also about his social profile. “People don’t label Balmain, but they label me, because of my social media,” he said in an interview. “They think I am the designer who loves myself, because I post so many selfies.” His millennial narcissism is unpacked, but how exactly he climbed the ranks of the Parisian fashion world is less touched on. The director Anissa Bonnefont said she had the approval of the “final cut,” but she also admitted to becoming like a sister to the designer over the course of shooting in 2017 and 2018, meaning it was subjective.
Dior and I, the 2015 feature on how “stressful” the luxury fashion house gets, shooting behind-the-scenes with Raf Simons. A review claimed it didn’t take risks, a shallow fantasy of fashion that “uncritically embraces the values of that industry.” It goes to show how a rare, up-close portrait of a legendary fashion house comes at a price, which often means the film won’t be edgy or rock the boat.
Even the recent Vivienne Westwood documentary Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, was criticized for failing to ask big questions, a mediocre bore for the punk designer with a confrontational ethos. Even Westwood herself was disappointed that more of her environmental activism wasn’t in it.
But what about challenging the geniuses behind the brands? One documentary which questions them is the Roy Halston Frowick documentary, entitled Halston, which premiered at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. The filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng follows the New York designer’s career trajectory through 1970s on Wall Street, but also his drug addiction and the biggest mistakes he made in his career, whether it was licensing and legal mishaps, to losing control of the company because of bad hires, his domineering management style and friends who turned on him. It’s a powerful documentary precisely because it provides a balanced argument for the viewer to decide if he was a genius, a monster or both.
The Laurent documentary, directed by Olivier Meyrou, was meant for release in 2007, but was so critical, that Laurent’s business partner Pierre Bergé stopped it from being released. It wasn’t until shortly before Bergé died that he agreed to release the film. When it screened last fall, it showed how reclusive, ill and withdrawn Laurent was, while Bergé bossed around staff. It’s easy to see why it is controversial — it exposed who really ran the company, and how toxic it was. In a similar vein, The True Cost (2015), which takes a critical look at clothing sweatshops in India, exploitation of workers’ rights and the cost of pollution, and fashion business ethics, feels more honest than most of the fashion documentary releases we see.
It seems worth noting that the documentaries on the great women fashion designers, like Donna Karan, Stella McCartney or Miuccia Prada, are largely absent from the canon. While many films focus on fashion editors like Diana Vreeland, Anna Wintour, Grace Coddington, and Carine Roitfeld, women designers are largely left out of the conversation. We’ve still got work to do.
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