As today is the first Monday in May, we should be enjoying the red carpet photographs from the Met Gala, one of the biggest fashion events of the year. Unfortunately last year’s event, which had one of the most exciting sounding concepts in years – About Time: Fashion and Duration (inspired by Sally Potter’s Orlando) – was cancelled and this year’s has been delayed until September. With everything that has been going on in the last eighteen months (and before that, of course), it is easy to feel guilty for missing frivolous things like travel, going to the cinema, awards shows (red carpet fashion just hasn’t been the same over zoom) and other luxuries, but we also need bright spots in our lives – things to be reminded of and to look forward to.
In terms of fashion on film, biopic wise, they seem to come in pairs, so 2009 had both Coco Before Chanel (directed by Anne Fontaine) and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (directed by Jan Kounen) and in 2014 we got Yves Saint Laurent (directed by Jalil Lespert) and Saint Laurent (directed by Bertrand Bonello). In 2018, there was Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, which had brilliant performances by Edgar Ramirez as Gianni Versace, Penelope Cruz as Donatella Versace and Ricky Martin as Gianni’s partner Antonio D’Amico. In two weeks Ryan Murphy will be taking on the world of fashion again with a new miniseries about Halston (starring Ewan McGregor), coming to Netflix. Later this year, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci (starring Adam Driver and Lady Gaga) will be premiering and there have already been many leaked photos from the set that have circulated. So, fashion seems to be having something of a moment in film and TV.
Since 2015, there has been a surge in documentary films about fashion. Here I take you through eight documentaries that have come out in the last five years to get you prepped for fashion’s current moment in the spotlight. Strike a pose!
Jeremy Scott: The People’s Designer (Vlad Yudin, 2015) – VOD ★★★
Jeremy Scott is an American version of Alexander McQueen, hailing from a working class background in Missouri and shaking up the world of high-end fashion with his radical ideas. Much like when McQueen went to Givenchy in the 90s, Scott went to Moschino and brought fast food, SpongeBob and consumerism to the ateliers of Milan. Scott is popular with Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Rita Ora and Rihanna, who all appear in this documentary, but as with many documentaries on this list, perhaps the most fascinating figure is an older lady – in this case French stylist Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele who pulls absolutely zero verbal punches. I do find it interesting that Scott is deemed worthy of a documentary, when exciting contemporary designers such as Iris van Herpen or Kate and Laura Mulleavy (Rodarte) are not. Despite fashion being primarily targeted and marketed at women (and being looked down upon as an artform for that reason), it is still an industry dominated by white, gay male designers and stylists (the subject of every one of these docs fits that description) and most filmmakers (who get their films funded and made) are also men, so who gets uplifted and celebrated is worthy of discussion and examination.
Women He’s Undressed (Gillian Armstrong, 2015) – Kanopy, Tubi ★★★★
Despite this documentary being about a costume designer, not a fashion designer, I wanted to include it because it’s the only one directed by a woman – the great Australian director Gillian Armstrong. Orry-Kelly was an Australian costume designer in the Hollywood studio system from the early 1930s until the early 1960s and a winner of three Oscars for costume design. He worked on Casablanca, Some Like it Hot as well as the musicals Oklahoma! and An American in Paris and had a close working relationship with Bette Davis. Before moving to Hollywood, he shared an apartment in New York with his boyfriend Archie Leach, who would later become Cary Grant. Grant famously lived with Randolph Scott for years in Hollywood and his fractious relationship with Orry-Kelly is probably the most fascinating part of this life story. What really elevates this doc, however, is Armstrong’s hybrid style, with an actor playing Orry-Kelly in theatrical segments that work very well to illustrate the narrative. The title of this doc is frankly awful and off-putting, but the film is much better!
Dior and I (Frédéric Tcheng, 2015) – Prime Video ★★★
This documentary follows Belgian designer Raf Simons coming into Dior and the creation of his first haute couture collection for them. This is probably the weakest documentary on the list because Simons isn’t a particularly charismatic or compelling figure and we don’t learn that much about him. The two most interesting figures in this doc are the ‘premieres’ of the ateliers – Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly – who have worked at Dior for decades, weathering the storms of each new creative director, such as John Galliano, as they come and go like whirlwinds. The other thing that doesn’t really work in this doc is the attempt to set up Christian Dior as a ghostly figure haunting the ateliers and haunting Simons himself, but it feels highly contrived rather than based on anything anyone is actually feeling. Tcheng does a much better job trying a risky technique with Halston (later down the list), but pulls it off more successfully.
The First Monday in May (Andrew Rossi, 2016) – Hulu ★★★★★
Along with McQueen (further down the list), The First Monday in May is one of my all-time favourite documentaries, so they are my top two recommendations from this selection. This documentary focuses on Andrew Bolton, who is putting together a costume exhibition called China: Through the Looking Glass at the Met. The doc is an insight into the creation of the exhibition, with the collaboration of film directors Wong Kar-Wai and Baz Luhrmann, as well as the preparation for the Met Gala (the party that marks the exhibit’s opening) by Anna Wintour and her team at Vogue. Although Wintour appears in pretty much every doc on this list, because she is THE titan of the fashion industry, this one features her probably the most since 2009’s The September Issue (directed by RJ Cutler). Seating plans have never been so fascinating.
Bolton is a similar character to Simons, I guess, in that he’s a very softly-spoken man, but from Lancashire instead of Belgium. However, his passion and determination (and stress towards the end) are all palpable throughout. Bolton was the curator of Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty – the exhibition launched just a year after McQueen’s death (which became one of the most-visited exhibitions of all time). This documentary has so many fascinating elements woven together – seeing behind the scenes at one of the world’s leading museums, all of the creativity and artistic input into the staging of the exhibition, the fraught cultural discussions with China (about whether a Mao uniform can be included, for example) and the fraught social discussions over who can sit with who at the Gala. There is art, fashion, celebrities, gossip, intrigue and Rihanna in a spectacular yellow dress – what more could you possibly want?
Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards (Michael Roberts, 2017) – VOD ★★★½
This documentary focuses on Spanish shoe designer Manolo Blahnik, whose brand was propelled into mega-fame by Sex and the City. Perhaps surprisingly, Blahnik comes across as very much an elderly and refined English gentleman, who enjoys gardening, having lived in Bath for years and having had a boutique in Chelsea since the early 70s. Like Pierre Cardin, he did have a wild life in the 60s and 70s however and was a model in campaigns with Angelica Huston and others. One of Blahnik’s muses was Isabella Blow, who is a hugely important figure in the McQueen documentary (next on the list). The interconnectedness of these documentaries is something I really love, with Anna Wintour, of course being one of the main talking heads in this one. Blahnik comes across as a solitary and crotchety figure, the very first few shots amusingly involve him arguing with the director. He’s extremely fastidious – of his personal appearance, of his home and his work life. He retains a high level of personal involvement and control in his business, despite being in his 70s and how huge it has gotten. I’m glad I watched this because Blahnik was not at all what I was expecting.
McQueen (Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui, 2018) – Hulu ★★★★★
McQueen was in my Top 3 films of 2018 and emotionally devastated me so much, I haven’t been able to watch it again, until I was preparing for this article. It’s hard to overstate how much I love Lee Alexander McQueen: the man, Alexander McQueen: the brand and McQueen: the film. Again, this is a film that feels tailor-made for me, especially through its use of my favourite composer Michael Nyman’s music (who was a collaborator of McQueen’s). The documentary follows McQueen’s journey from being the son of a cabbie in East London, to being a Savile Row apprentice, going to St Martin’s, going to Milan with no money and being hired as an apprentice (a similar journey to Jeremy Scott with Paris) and eventually being recruited by Givenchy. One of the huge takeaways is Lee’s tight circle of friends who worked with him in the early days for no money and were a huge factor in his success.
McQueen’s close but fraught relationship with London socialite Isabella Blow is central to the story and the contributions from her husband, as well as Lee’s sister and nephew are heartbreaking. The point at which I start crying is when the robots start spray-painting the dress at the No 13 show and I don’t stop from that point until the end. McQueen’s vast wells of originality and artistry are apparent from very early on, with his final show at St Martin’s being Jack the Ripper themed and him following that up fairly soon after with The Highland Rape. Bringing fetish-wear and dark, controversial, provocative themes into the shows was deliberately designed to bring publicity and much-needed money to his own McQueen label in the early days. Lee would be interviewed by the likes of The Clothes Show, but he asked them not to show his face because he was still signed on to the dole (unemployment benefit). Much like Love, Antosha (the Anton Yelchin documentary), this film will rip your heart out, but it’s worth putting yourself through the wringer because of how endlessly inspiring it is. An overwhelming, intense experience, but one I can’t recommend enough.
Halston (Frédéric Tcheng, 2019) – Prime Video ★★★★
Halston got his start as a milliner at Bergdorf’s in the early 60s. In the 70s, Halston became known for taking a single piece of fabric (often chiffon), cutting it on the bias and turning it into a simple but fabulous floaty dress. Iman got her start modelling for Halston and he was one of the first American designers to take a show to Paris. Jewellery designer Elsa Peretti and member of the Andy Warhol inner circle Pat Ast continue the theme of amazing middle-aged (or older) ladies who steal these docs from under their subject’s noses. And of course, Liza Minelli is a huge force in Halston’s story and I’m looking forward to the Studio 54 scenes in the Ryan Murphy show. Halston had a hit perfume and started to put his name to a wide range of products and also went to China, which are just some of the many similarities between him and Cardin (next on the list). At its peak, the company moved into Olympic Tower, where Halston had a spectacular mirrored office and the tailors had a workroom with large windows and a catwalk. Halston ‘selling out’ to big business was the start of the downward spiral and in 1984 there was a coup d’etat and Halston was forced out of his own company. For some reason, the conceit of this documentary – there is a narrator who is looking through archives, unearthing information about Halston while a jazzy noir score plays – works where the “ghost of Dior” conceit by the same director does not. I would definitely recommend watching this if you’re planning on watching the Ryan Murphy mini-series.
House of Cardin (P. David Ebersole and Todd Hughes, 2019) – newly available on VOD ★★★½
Pierre Cardin was a fashion designer whose heyday was from the 50s to the 80s and was one of the first who turned his name into a brand and franchised it all over a vast range of products. He created innovative space-age 60s designs with interesting forms such as the bubble. He wanted to move away from haute couture to ready-to-wear, wanting to be more populist with his designs and the way he went about his business. Cardin was also very much ahead of his time in terms of taking fashion to countries such as China and Russia before they had opened up to the West. He was also ahead of his time in terms of the models he chose – Black women, male models and the Japanese model Hiroko Matsumoto. He had an affair with Jeanne Moreau in the 60s, despite mostly having relationships with men, including one very long-term partner, Andre Oliver. Cardin became the owner of Maxim’s restaurant in Paris (where he has a large collection of art nouveau objects and beaux arts furniture) and had a theatre space where everyone from Dionne Warwick to Alice Cooper performed.
House of Cardin is a fairly run-of-the-mill documentary, which flits about time-wise and could benefit from a tighter structure and also has quite an irritating choice of music. However, Cardin’s story is interesting none-the-less and it makes a good companion piece to Halston, who was very much Cardin’s equivalent, in New York instead of Paris.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents House of Cardin on Digital Download from 26 April, 2021
Ryan Murphy’s Halston (starring Ewan McGregor) will be on Netflix from 14 May, 2021 – Watch the Trailer Here
It will be the 15th Anniversary of The Devil Wears Prada in June 2021, so expect yet more think pieces on who the real villain is.
As well as documentaries about fashion designers, there have been two about photographers (who are very much part of the fashion world) which came out last year – Helmut Newton: The Bad and The Beautiful and That Click (about Douglas Kirkland) – I wrote about them here.
If you only watch two documentaries from this list, I want to reiterate that they should be The First Monday in May and McQueen – two of the best documentaries on any subject from the last decade.