By Katie Shuff
With a plethora of fashion documentaries now available via Netflix, it would appear that fashion cinematography is having a ‘moment’. Be it an all-access insight into the dramas of a renowned fashion house, or a wry look at the life of a model, it seems that there is a documentary out there to cover it. The latest offering comes courtesy of renowned couture house Christian Dior, who rather surprisingly opened its prestigious doors to allow director Frédéric Tcheng to film Raf Simons’s potentially challenging arrival as Dior’s newest Creative Director. Charged with the task of producing his first haute couture collection in just eight weeks after John Galliano’s impromptu departure in 2011, the film follows the immense stress and jubilation which comes hand in hand with carrying out such a demanding task. It is this more pressing dilemma (most couture houses have over six months to prepare an haute couture collection) which allows Dior and I to stand out from the crowd.
With as many fashion documentaries as there are catwalk collections these days, it is unsurprising to find an emerging pattern in the way that these so-called ‘access all areas’ films are structured. The go-to formula of building up to a big star-studded event, followed by a potentially show-stopping crisis which is finally resolved by a last minute miracle, often render fashion exposés rather predictable and a little clichéd. This does not necessarily make them any less entertaining, but it does leave those wanting a more meaningful and helpful insight into the real fashion industry a little disappointed. Dior and I, however, sets out to correct this, providing a more realistic look into the real workings of a distinguished couture house.
From the outset, Tcheng focuses on the remarkable work of the Dior team, enabling him to challenge the growing myth of a one-man creative director who single-handedly masterminds an entire collection. Rather than sketching himself, Simons prepares a file containing an abundance of visual stimuli evoking the concept that he wishes to achieve. Every member of the design team then receives a copy of this file and is left to sketch over a hundred looks, and it is Simons’s job to choose and refine his favourites. Dior and I makes no apologies for the fact that Simons is the visual curator who pieces the various designs into a coherent story. Whilst some would argue that this compromises the role of the creative director, it is this honest and in-depth look into the actual design process that makes Dior and I a refreshing and truly insightful fashion documentary.
Whilst the five part series, Signé Chanel, also explores the roles of the seamstresses in the atelier, there is still a strong sense that Karl Lagerfeld is very much the looming figure. With Dior and I, the audience begins to appreciate the genuine dialogue between Simons and his team. Simons’s own affirmation that ‘fashion is about dialogue’ sheds further light onto the role of creative director and the liberty afforded to his team of designers. Tcheng’s portrayal of Simon’s arrival makes no overt attempt to cover up Simons’s initial awkwardness or fear as he is introduced to his new team for the first time, creating a real sense of sincerity, rarely seen amongst those in the eccentric world of fashion. Indeed, Simons’s humble character provides a refreshing contrast to those creative directors more akin to the celebrities who sit front row. The fact that more screen time is given to the team – think clips of seamstresses meticulously beading a piece of chiffon – in addition to Simon’s right-hand man, Pieter Muller, only reaffirms Simons’s desire to be anonymous, allowing the film to delve further into the real design process.
Whilst there is no mistaking that it is this insight into the actual design process that makes Dior and I stand out as one of the best fashion films of recent years, there are also a handful of other documentaries that are worth seeking out if you want yet more sartorial drama. Bill Cunningham New York, for example, is a fun, though at times poignant, reflection on the outstanding, game-changing career of street style photographer, Bill Cunningham, who at the age of eighty-four still rides around New York on his bike documenting the street style of his great city. Arguably the king of street style photography, a now integral part of the fashion industry, this documentary reveals the unique thought process behind this now legendary photographer. The revelation that WWD mocked his ‘runway to street’ segment by changing his final copy proves that he is a true fashion visionary.
Catwalk, released in 1995, provides a more candid insight into the lives of the elite model rat pack. The film follows Christy Turlington as she navigates herself through three gruelling fashion weeks. The grainy, homemade video style film treats the audience to intimate snippets, such as Naomi Campbell enjoying herself at a pre-night out party, catty remarks from Helena Christensen, and a slightly awkward looking Kate Moss dancing at a fashion week party. These short clips provide a real glimpse in to the whirlwind life of the elite supermodel during her heyday.
Perhaps one of the most poignant fashion documentaries to be released is the combined story of Lee McQueen and Isabella Blow, in McQueen and I. The story of this ill-fated duo showcases the rise and fall of their tumultuous relationship, their defiant attitude to their respected careers, and the ultimate hardship of failure and the loss of loved ones. The documentary, which called on the loved ones of Isabella and Lee to provide intimate revelations and anecdotes, makes the ultimate suicides of the extremely talented pair even more touching and harrowing.
Last but not least, no look into the growth of the fashion documentary would be complete without reference to The September Issue. As the real life counterpart to The Devil Wears Prada, the film follows the Queen of Fashion herself, Anna Wintour, and her right hand woman, the visionary Grace Coddington, as they prepare for their biggest issue of the year. Whilst at times the drama feels rather clichéd, the film does provide a few glimpses of what it is really like to work for the ultimate fashion magazine, making any young journalist who has dreamed of working for Vogue skip with excitement. The quirky relationship between Wintour and Coddington also adds to the film’s appeal, and proves that it is possible to stand up to the Ice Queen.
Whilst catwalk trends may come and go, it seems that the fashion documentary is here to stay. Like with any fashion trend, some documentaries are better than others, and some need to be left on the catwalk. But if an insightful, honest and dramatic take on the fashion film trend appeals, Dior and I is the perfect fit.
Photographs: diorandimovie.com, independent.co.uk, zeitgeistfilms.com, vogue.it and cdmi.condenaste.co.uk.