A documentary usually brings about a revelation about its subject that is previously hidden from the public eye. This could not ring truer in the case of fashion documentaries that focus on the hitherto elusive lives of fashion designers and editors. Movies about fashion, such as the hit “The Devil Wears Prada,” might play a satiric take on the world, but this relatively new genre gives us a fly-on-the-wall account on what is happening inside design studios, ateliers, magazine boardroom, and these people’s globetrotting lives.
Here are five (and a half) documentaries that is guaranteed to satisfy your fashion appetite. You might have to scour the Amazon or iTunes to watch them, but some are accessible on YouTube for free.
1. “The September Issue” (2009)
Vogue is often dubbed as the “fashion bible,” and who would argue with that? The magazine features the crème de la crème of fashion and is regarded as the main authority: a tiny mention on one page can launch a designer’s career. Directed by R.J. Cutler, “The September Issue” chronicles the making of Vogue’s September 2007 issue, the thickest one to date, totaling at 840 pages. The main “characters” are Anna Wintour, the revered editor-in-chief, and Grace Coddington, the brilliant creative director. The dynamic between the two serves as the main plot in this documentary. Most of the time, they have different point of views, especially in deciding which clothes can be featured inside the magazine. Coddington once jokingly told Vogue Paris, “We have a real mutual respect for each other, even though sometimes I feel like killing her.”
Other than them, the camera is also directed on André Leon Talley, the extravagant editor-at-large as well as a smattering of designers, from Karl Lagerfeld to Thakoon, a young American designer. “The September Issue” goes to show that behind the glossy and glamorous pages of Vogue, hours of hard work are being put into it. And for an avid reader, this documentary is a true gem.
2. “Valentino: The Last Emperor” (2008)
Valentino Garavani is famous for his red dress, a divine concoction of fabric that epitomizes true Roman beauty. After decades in fashion, though, he is going to retire after a new investor buys his company. “Valentino: The Last Emperor,” directed by Matt Tyrnauer, explores the virtuoso’s closing act as well as his lavish personal life (apparently, he is a dog lover, owning six pugs). But amidst it all, the film focuses also on Valentino’s relationship with his business partner and life companion, Giancarlo Giammetti. Seeing them still together after years of ups and downs in their business is exceptionally moving.
With élan and grace, Valentino makes a grand exit by holding his brand’s 50th anniversary bash in Rome and a final, breathtaking couture show. Needless to say, this documentary is such a magnificent treat—even the TIME magazine aptly calls it “flawless.”
3. “Bill Cunningham New York” (2010)
Way before the deluge of street-style photographers/bloggers that includes Scott Schuman of the Sartorialist and Tommy Ton, Bill Cunningham has been scouring the streets of New York with his bicycle to photograph the most stylish habitués in the city. Through his lens, he discovers new trends and record socialites’ parties on “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” column for the New York Times’ style section. Bill started photographing early and worked for various media, including the Women’s Wear Daily and Details, before coming to the Times. A man of panache, he even still takes pictures of the attendees in his own party to celebrate award from the French Ministry of Culture.
This touching documentary shows us how dedicated Cunningham is to his work even in his late 80s — an inspiring figure indeed for anyone who works in fashion.
4. “Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton” (2007)
If fashion is to be likened to the music world, then Marc Jacobs would be its rock star: eccentric with mind-blowing works and tons of fans. Produced and directed by Loïc Prigent, a well-known fashion filmmaker, “Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton” focuses on Jacobs as he balances role as the artistic directors in two different houses: his own American namesake line and Louis Vuitton, the French label he revived in 1997.
Told through Prigent’s witty and humorous eyes, the documentary trails Jacobs as he shuttles between New York and Paris to get his designs done. One of the most enticing scenes is where Jacobs creates the look of the next season’s bag for Vuitton, which is the best-selling item for the house. “Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton” is entertaining through and through.
5. “The Client” (2011)
Also a Loïc Prigent’s production, “The Client” is a short documentary that follows Carine Roitfeld through an Haute Couture fashion week in Paris after her departure from Vogue Paris as its editor-in-chief. Since she does not have an obligation anymore to pinpoint the best looks on the runway and come up with ideas for fashion spread, she has a new role in the front-row seat: a client. Her “Alice in Wonderland”-ish adventure brings her through the froths and bubbles of the greatest couturiers in the City of Light, including Riccardo Tisci for Givenchy and Azzedine Alaïa. You can also see how Roitfeld has a great sense of humor in her signature French accent. (“Your models are a bit fat,” she quipped to Karl Lagerfeld when a Chanel suit doesn’t fit her “couture body” properly.)
More importantly, she got to wear all those brilliant dresses straight from the runway to be shot by W magazine. Okay, so she’s not a client per se here, but still, the film gives us an intimate look on the glamorous life of a couture client, who can afford a $50,000 dress, whose fitting takes at least 3 times. For Roitfeld, though, it’s just another day at work.
You can watch Roitfeld’s adventure on YouTube here.
5 & ½. “Fashion 1 Hari” (2010)
Why half? Well, simply because this Indonesian production is a semi-documentary. “Fashion 1 Hari” (“1 Day of Fashion”) is directed by Syahmedi Dean and produced by Boedi Basoeki and starring some of the most prominent fashion editors in the country. Samuel Mulia, for example becomes the Miranda Priestly-esque editor-in-chief who governs his stylish minions in a fictional magazine. All in all, it tries to give a behind-the-scene look to the state of fashion media in Indonesia, from editorial meeting to photo shoot. The “documentary” part is when these fashion editors go on a reporting trip to Milan, Paris, and London—quite a big feat for Indonesian media.
At only about 40 minutes, the movie might be a bit too short, yet it is interesting to see how fashion media in this country works. Maybe next time, documentaries on the burgeoning young Indonesian designers will be a great watch.
You can enjoy the full movie here.
Fashion documentaries are seemingly getting more popular these days, what with lots of new productions in the upcoming list that include “Mademoiselle C” which documents Carine Roitfeld’s journey in creating her new magazine, along with Ari Seth Cohen’s “Advanced Style,” based on his street style blog, featuring stylish elderly women.
Watch them and be inspired.