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25 Fantastic Fashion Documentaries to See Before You Die

09/03/2020

A classic fashion documentary has some recognisable mainstays. There’s the absurd stuff – the pre-runway mayhem, the designer tantrums, the editorial iciness and obscene displays of wealth – along with the examination of artistry, the veneration of genius. There’s the slick otherworldliness, the lushness of gorgeously constructed garments-on-parade, and the envy it all inspires; the fashion world is a visual one, after all, practically built to be filmed and designed to incite desire. Below is a round-up of some fashion doc must-sees, both those that follow the genre formula to a satisfying tee, and those that break free and surprise us.

1. Dior and I (2014)

In 2012, 55 years after Christian Dior’s death, the modern and minimalist Raf Simons took over the helm at Dior. This documentary follows the eight-week lead-up to his inaugural show, as the house grapples with his newness (he goes by his first name? He comes from menswear?) and as Simons grapples with the weight of a weighty legacy.

 

2. The September Issue (2009)

There is no heftier fashion-world object than the September issue of American Vogue, and this late-aughts deep-dive into its construction remains impossible not to recommend. For two divine hours, the most glamorous people in the world at the height of their powers (Anna Wintour, of course, with André Leon Talley, Hamish Bowles, and an outrageously fun Grace Coddington, among others) have strangely specific aesthetic debates with situation-room seriousness. Are jackets the new coats? How much Rodarte is too much Rodarte?

 

3. The First Monday in May (2016)

If watching Anna Wintour speed-walk down romantically gilded museum hallways without spilling her venti Starbucks sounds like a good time, this close look at the execution of the annual Met Ball is for you. It zeros in on 2015’s China: Through the Looking Glass exhibition, offering a little examination of the Costume Institute’s selected fashion objects, plus a lot of fretting about the star-studded gala seating chart. Its own, buzzy kind of fun.

 

4. The Gospel According to André (2018)

Some pieces of gospel, according to André Leon Talley: “You can be aristocratic without having been born into an aristocratic family”; “Fashion should have more joie de vivre!”; “Huge roosters on evening clothes… Why not?” The former editor-at-large of American Vogue is famously imposing, at six-foot-six with flash and dynamism to match, but in this doc he’s cast as a resilient figure – a queer black man born in the segregation-era South, fleshed out here with sincerity and seriousness.

 

5. Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989)

The story goes: when German filmmaker Wim Wenders was first commissioned by the Centre Pompidou to make a documentary about Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto, he said, “Fashion? I’ll have nothing of it.” He clearly came around, but didn’t make a straightforward fashion documentary at all – this unusual classic is, instead, a philosophical essay about two modes of visual communication, a look at the connections between Yamamoto’s chosen medium and Wenders’ own.

 

6. Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)

Valentino Garavani dominated haute couture for nearly half a century, became renowned to the point of mononym, but the sun must set on every empire. Director Matt Tyrnauer, of Vanity Fair, had intimate access to Valentino in the two years before his 2007 retirement: this is the private-jet stuff, the frazzled, pre-runway stuff, plus a singularly close look at the romantic and business partnership (with Giancarlo Giammetti) that powered an industry giant.

 

7. Mademoiselle C (2013)

After ten years at the helm of French Vogue, Carine Roitfeld announced she’d be stepping down to launch her own magazine. This film chronicles transition – Roitfeld moving workplaces, taking the next step, becoming a grandmother – without sacrificing the chic weirdness required of any fashion doc worth its salt (like this incredible 63 seconds, which captures Karl Lagerfeld concentrating on pushing a baby carriage).

 

8. Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

“I don’t decide anything,” insisted Bill Cunningham, who for decades forecasted fashion trends before they happened, “I let the street speak to me”. This delightful portrait of the iconic (and eccentric, and vaguely hermetic) New York Times street-fashion photographer was made several years before his death, when the then-80-year-old still bicycled around New York City every day, camera in tow, looking for what comes next.

 

9. McQueen (2018)

Lee Alexander McQueen, the kid from London’s East End who sent shockwaves through the fashion world, believed that a garment should either “repulse” or “exhilarate”, or else had no business on a catwalk. This intimate doc from Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui is less interested in the enfant terrible’s brand than in his psychology – it’s a portrait of the complexity behind the theatrics, a moving analysis of a dark, romantic mind.

 

10. The Boy Who Made Shoes For Lizards (2017)

If you don’t have a laudatory talking head from Rihanna, have you even made a fashion documentary? Manolo Blahnik makes some of the most high-end, celebrity-beloved shoes in the world, but he’s also a sweet, quirky 70-something in round glasses and a pastel suit, whose greatest professed joy in life is to cobble by hand in a factory. There’s a lot of smile-inducing juxtaposition here.

 

11. Dries (2017)

Dries Van Noten is known for being intellectually independent, pop-culturally indifferent, and rather private, but filmmaker Reiner Holzemer was granted close access for a year. The resulting documentary aims to examine Van Noten’s unique philosophy of fashion, which begins with a critique of the category itself: “‘Fashion’ means something which is over after six months,” Van Noten reflects on camera. “I would like to find a word which is more timeless.”

 

12. Jeremy Scott: The People’s Designer (2015)

How did Jeremy Scott – maybe the spiritual opposite of Dries Van Noten, the winged-shoes-guy who loves the camp and cartoonish – become the high-profile creative director of Moschino? Scott has an eye for repurposing pop symbology in creative ways, and this doc tracks exactly how he used it, to propel himself from humble Missouri farm beginnings into a celebrity-suffused dream (look out for gushing monologues from Katy Perry, Miley Cyrus, A$AP Rocky, and more).

 

13. Lagerfeld Confidential (2007)

Few people on this list are so recognisably iconographic as Karl Lagerfeld was, with his white ponytail, his fingerless gloves, and his air of detachment, his extra-terrestrial chic. Now, a year after his death, is an opportune moment to return to this doc, if only to get back in touch with his Lagerfeld-isms: “I don’t want to be real in other people’s minds,” the Chanel creative director insists on camera, “I want to be an apparition”.

 

14. L’Amour Fou (2010)

This documentary, made two years after Yves Saint Laurent’s death, centres on a major posthumous sale of the staggering artworks he collected, over decades, with partner Pierre Bergé. The “crazy love” of its title might refer to the love between these men, or their shared love of accumulating beautiful things, or YSL’s deep, mad romance with clothes – a love that mingled with chronic depression all his life, and that Bergé curates for us here, lightly and devotedly.

 

15. The True Cost (2015)

To break with designer biographies for a moment, and come back to reality: The True Cost chronicles the human exploitation that undergirds the fast-fashion industry, the unsafe and unlivable conditions for garment workers in some of the world’s poorest countries. Filmmaker Andrew Morgan takes an unflinching look at where global connectivity meets insatiable consumerism, particularly in the world of mass-produced clothing, and reminds us who really pays for convenience.

 

16. Halston (2019)

Halston is now synonymous with debauchery and disco, with Studio 54 and ultrasuede and Liza Minnelli, but he wasn’t always; director Frédéric Tcheng’s main project here is to uncover who the Iowa-born Roy Halston Frowick really was, long before he put Jackie O in a pillbox hat. It’s worth noting that this is the second documentary attempt to posthumously understand the king of 70s design in the last few years – Ultrasuede was another, and neither was received particularly well. Either we haven’t quite cracked the mystery of Halston yet, or we never will.

 

17. Helmut Newton: Frames from the Edge (1989)

Frames From the Edge follows fashion photographer Helmut Newton at work in his 80s heyday, staging and capturing the sexualised, often-nude images of women that became his legacy. Newton has undoubtedly “shaped and crystallised the erotic fantasies of our time”, with photos sanctified in Vogue and elsewhere (though, fair warning, it’s rare for a camera to encourage the specific brand of discomfort in viewers that this one does, when it surveys Newton surveying potential models).

 

18. Catwalk (1995)

The early 90s was the age of the supermodel, and Christy Turlington was then one of the most celebrated supermodels in the world. Catwalk follows her through the spring shows in Milan, Paris, and New York, and there remains an insider kind of fun in revisiting it – in watching Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell preening in dressing rooms, and in seeing powerful fashion-world men, like Gianni Versace, trip over themselves to tell Turlington how well she’s done.

 

19. Unzipped (1995)

Unzipped shares a lot with Catwalk (same release year, same major players), but it’s more playful, un-self-serious, and features Isaac Mizrahi quoting Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? on cue. The cult doc, shot in granular black and white, follows the launch of Mizrahi’s autumn 1994 collection, plus each surrounding moment of industry mayhem and madness (like this conversation between Mizrahi and Eartha Kitt, which borders on indescribable).

 

20. Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011)

Diana Vreeland’s grandson once told a reporter that “my grandmother is no longer a person. She is an adjective.” The longtime Harper’s Bazaar mainstay and editor-in-chief of Vogue passed into the realm of adjectival legend even before her death in 1989, but this documentary aims to capture her personhood, from her early childhood in turn-of-the-century Paris (she was obsessed with the Ballet Russes, and always at odds with her mother) to the sharp sense of humour she forever carried with her.

 

21. Iris (2014)

You likely know Iris Apfel, even if you think you don’t: the nonagenarian fashion icon, with the saucer-round glasses and costume bangles reaching toward her elbows, has had a recognisable visual signature all her life. In this penultimate film from director Albert Maysles – who has been documenting stunningly eccentric women since Grey Gardens in 1975 – we are granted delightful access to a character who has advised nine different American presidents on interior design, and whose clothing and accessory collection is so extensive it once warranted an exhibit at the Met.

 

22. Girl Model (2011)

This character-driven look at the underside of the modelling industry follows Nadya, a 13-year-old Siberian girl, as she’s recruited to move to Tokyo with a modelling contract and promises of wealth and wellbeing. The neglect for that very wellbeing, and the advantage taken of Nadya as she learns to navigate the professional modelling world, is heartbreaking, even if predictable – in this industry, we’re distressingly reminded, young female bodies are both overtly monetised and easily dispensable.

 

23. Issey Miyake Moves (2002)

This doc highlights Japanese designer Issey Miyake’s innovative fabric work, his particular method of pleating and twisting garments so that they “move” – or live, as one of his collaborators describes in the film, “closer to Earth” than flat fabrics do. Miyake is a philosophical and meticulous human being, as much an architect and thinker as he is a maker of clothes, and this thoughtful film follows his lead.

 

24. Fresh Dressed (2015)

Fresh Dressed is a detailed chronicle of the symbiotic relationship between hip hop and clothing, from b-boy style and the culture of the Bronx in the 70s all the way through to the catwalks of today. It offers a fantastic mix of historical documentation and contemporary cultural critique (like, why did some rappers stop wearing FUBU and Sean John, and start reaching for Gucci?), all from fashion industry insiders and familiar music-world faces, like Kanye and Pharrell Williams.

 

25. Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist (2018)

Did Vivienne Westwood invent punk? She certainly dressed it, when it proliferated in the UK in the 1970s; she cultivated it, synthesised and translated and sold it, and brought it into the mainstream consciousness through her anarchic design aesthetic. And, as we see in this doc, Westwood continues to embody an establishment-oppositional sensibility well into her 70s, from her social and environmental activism to her obvious exasperation with being a documentary subject (saying “just get it over with” to the would-be chronicler of your life’s work? Very punk).

 

 

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