It took more than 30 years before award-winning documentary filmmaker Susan Lacy, a pioneer of biographical portraits of cultural giants, turned her camera on a fashion figure.
And she immediately understood the appeal of the milieu. “Fashion is something that most people have some interest in, and some opinion about,” she said. “And people are looking for a good story and a good subject.”
Her latest movie, “Very Ralph,” debuting on HBO on Nov. 12 and devoted to American fashion icon Ralph Lauren, headlines another bumper crop of fashion documentaries out this year and underscores the growing popularity — and malleability — of the format.
Among the varied personalities also getting the treatment are Belgian iconoclast Martin Margiela, perhaps the most camera-shy designer of all time; Olivier Rousteing, creative director of Balmain, who documents his life incessantly on Instagram; Space Age couturier Pierre Cardin, also the subject of a retrospective now on at the Brooklyn Museum, and Chiara Ferragni, an influencer who parlayed her photo blog The Blonde Salad into a teeming lifestyle enterprise. The latter two movies are to be screened at the Venice International Film Festival.
Known for her thorough and incisive portrayals of Steven Spielberg, Jane Fonda, Bob Dylan, Judy Garland and Leonard Bernstein, to name a few, Lacy confessed she was not aware of those fashion-related productions but was not surprised in the least.
“Documentaries are kind of hitting a Golden Age,” she said. “And people like portraits.”
She also acknowledged “there’s a really big appetite for content,” using that c-word begrudgingly, referring to the streaming service and other digital channels that are fueling a frenzy of TV, film and video productions.
Film festival chiefs, producers and others agreed that it’s a heady time for fashion on film.
“I think documentaries in general are booming, and fashion films are thriving as a result,” said Cara Cusumano, director of the Tribeca Film Festival.
Echoing Lacy, she pointed out that several box-office successes of the last two years were documentaries, including “RBG,” “Free Solo” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” the latter about the beloved children’s TV star Mister Rogers.
“While none of these are fashion films, what they all have in common is incredible central characters, which we know the fashion world has in abundance. These figures are ripe for the big-screen treatment,” Cusumano explained. “Combined with the visual appeal of amazing fashion and the promise of behind-the-scenes access, a fashion doc has all the ingredients to land with audiences.”
The advent of social media and voracious consumption of digital content has sped fashion films to the forefront.
“As someone very much outside the fashion world, I’d say I was scarcely aware of fashion designers 20 years ago,” confessed Thom Powers, documentary programmer for the Toronto International Film Festival, and artistic director of documentary festival DOC NYC. “But their presence has increased in the media. Telling their story is a key component of building their brand. I think it’s their willingness to get their stories told that is the main driver.”
The Rousteing documentary promises to mix the personal and the professional, depicting the young Frenchman growing up with his adoptive parents in Bordeaux, France, to his designer success story, including “some of the struggles encountered in getting to where I am, the work that has gone into it and the critiques,” he told WWD last year.
There will be an advance screening on Sept. 28 in Paris during fashion week, and the film will debut on French cable station Canal+ on Oct. 16 and be released in French theaters later this year. International distribution has yet to be communicated by producer Studio Canal.
The makers of “House of Cardin” promise a rare peek into the mind of a genius, noting the designer “has granted the directors the exclusive access to his archives and his empire and promises unprecedented interviews at the sunset of a glorious career.”
Bronwyn Cosgrave, a journalist, curator and producer whose credits include “Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story” and “Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards,” attributes the popularity of feature-length fashion documentaries partly to the near demise of long-form journalism, and to fashion’s global march.
“They’re a marvelous platform so the consumer can go in and fully explore the world of that designer,” she said in an interview. “It is by no means a passing fad.”
(Her 2017 Blahnik film is slated for a screening on Sept. 18 in Paris, where the British shoe designer just planted his first boutique.)
Another sign of verve: Eminent directors are starting to make them, Cosgrave said, mentioning Lacy — who has enough Emmys to fill a bookcase — and also Luca Guadagnino, director of Oscar-nominated “Call Me By Your Name,” whose film “Salvatore Ferragamo: Shoemaker of Dreams” is due out in 2020.
Milosh Harajda, a creative consultant and producer of Fashion Film Festival Bratislava, credits Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat for fanning interest.
“Social media has made the backstage and creative process of the fashion houses accessible in a way that it had never been done or seen before,” he said. “Therefore, these short clips create a hunger and curiosity to explore the larger picture.”
“With the Internet, web sites and platforms like SHOWstudio and Nowness broadcasting fashion shows and digital fashion films, the previously exclusive world of high fashion has suddenly become readily available to a mass audience. This has only been accelerated by social media,” concurred Marketa Uhlirova, an art historian, senior research fellow at Central Saint Martins and cofounder of London’s Fashion in Film Festival. “More than ever, fashion has become a media industry as much as a garment industry.
“Looking back when I cofounded the Fashion in Film Festival in 2005, there was hardly anything around. We were struggling to find enough good material among contemporary productions,” she continued. “Now films and moving image content about fashion smack you in the face wherever you look.”
There are still barriers to break down. Cosgrave described the U.S. as a “tough market” for fashion documentaries in classic cinema channels.
“Distributors are very wary of these films because they don’t understand fashion and consider it elitist,” she said. “It’s very hard to sell a fashion documentary and get one in movie theaters.”
Most observers consider Matt Tyrnauer’s “Valentino: The Last Emperor” from 2008 as a breakthrough for the genre at the multiplex.
And now a host of new homes for documentaries have emerged on television and streaming platforms, including the forthcoming short-form channel for smartphones, Quibi, helmed by former eBay executive Meg Whitman. According to sources, cutting-edge fashion magazine Visionaire has been conscripted to create content.
Cusumano said the fashion world abounds with larger-than-life characters and “these figures are ripe for the big screen treatment. Combined with the visual appeal of amazing fashion and the promise of behind-the-scenes access, a fashion doc has all the ingredients to land with audiences.”
Cosgrave said she believes Lee Alexander McQueen, the fashion maverick who committed suicide in 2010, is sufficiently incendiary and influential to warrant additional documentaries after last year’s “McQueen.”
Then there’s John Galliano, who rocketed to fame — and then flamed out — at Dior, and is now cooking up a new brand of deconstruction at Maison Margiela.
“That’s the documentary everyone wants to make and there’s a market for it, because of his genius and his madness,” she said of the madcap designer, famous for taking his Dior bows dressed as a pirate, astronaut or hobo, depending on his seasonal theme.
One challenge for filmmakers is finding willing subjects, as designers tend to be exacting and wish to convey confidence and composure, according to Cosgrave. “They don’t want you to see the designer losing it, but that’s kind of what you need to sell a fashion documentary,” she said.
“The problem is that fashion designers are used to having control while the best films usually come from the documentary maker having control,” Powers agreed. “In case of ‘Valentino: The Last Emperor,’ director Tyrnauer had control and has described that Valentino hated the film until he saw it connected with audiences at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. Then he loved it.”
Lacy noted that the Halston documentary that came out earlier this year was something of a no-brainer in terms of appeal, given the associations with Studio 54 and the “sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll” elements, along with fashion.
“Ralph doesn’t do those things. He’s not particularly controversial…So I had to find a different way to tell the story — about a man who found his own way of looking at the American dream,” she said. “If there’s such a thing as a national designer in America, he’s it.”
An additional challenge for Lacy was the making of fashion. “How do you show the process for a man who doesn’t drape, sketch or sew?” she said. “Ralph didn’t even know what a designer was growing up. But he had a really great sense of amazing style.”
Besides recounting his rags-to-riches story, Lacy’s film articulates — with heaps of archive images and runway footage — what a pioneer Lauren was in creating a lifestyle brand, in creating cinematic advertising, and in championing diversity.
“Real stories are sometimes more interesting than made-up stories, and we’re living in a time when we’re trying to figure out what’s really going on,” Lacy said.
“One of my recent favorites is ‘The Gospel According to André’ about André Leon Talley,” Powers said when asked about about his favorite documentaries on style. “I think the best fashion films are about something else than just making clothes. Talley’s story is fascinating because he was so unique as a black man in a largely white industry.”
Looking ahead, observers foresee an expansion of formats — and subject matter.
Contrary to blistering critiques in several newspapers, Cosgrave praised Frédéric Tcheng for breaking the mold with his Halston documentary, which was inspired partly by the Oscar-winning “Inside Job” and included dramatic reenactments. (Tcheng also directed 2014’s “ Dior & I.”)
Filmmakers are also looking beyond classic designer portraits into new fashion turf. According to sources, Dior has created a documentary about its master perfumer François Demachy, who spends a good deal of time in the high-tech laboratories located in Grasse, considered the birthplace of modern perfumery. Ruth Finley, founder of the Fashion Calendar, will be the subject of a documentary directed by Christian D. Bruun that is due out next year, as reported.
Cosgrave said she was looking forward to the Ferragni film, which will give high-profile exposure to influencer culture, which is very of the now.
Indeed, instead of sticking to the “tried-and-tested” formula of biographical documentaries, filmmakers should look to the broader cultural, social and political context of fashion to find new and engaging subject matter, Uhlirova urged.
“I wish museums and film producers did more to steer away from the hagiographic accounts of single designers or fashion editors. To me, these simply replicate a formula that blatantly caters to popular demand and doesn’t move the conversation forward,” she said, pointing to the growing importance of issue-driven documentaries, including Andrew Morgan’s “The True Cost” or Ho Chao-ti’s “My Fancy High Heels,” which trace fashion through the supply chain.
“Very high on the agenda over the past decade have been social, political, environmental and health issues brought about by the fashion industry in today’s globalized world. It would also be great to see other social and political aspects of fashion being treated, including youth cultures globally, not just in the West, or the fast-changing landscape of fashion in the digital era and the new forms of power as well as other social and cultural relations that emerge from the digital turn,” she suggested.
To wit: American screenwriter and producer Lena Waithe has begun working on a documentary about sneaker culture, delving into the psychology of sneaker heads and modern-day consumers’ habits.
“I’m more intrigued with the people waiting in lines and spending their last dollar on an Off-White sneaker or the latest merch by Travis Scott. I want to talk to them and that’s what the whole documentary will capture. Why is there such a desire to own the latest and greatest? My question is, what does it do to someone’s life in the long term?” she asked. “There are opportunities for people to be saving and building wealth, but they’d rather be the cool kid or the person that has the latest thing — that’s what we want to get to the root of.”