Back in 2009, the first time Gareth Pugh decided to present a film instead of a runway show, he confessed that he had to tell a series of “white lies” to maintain his time slot on the official Paris Fashion Week calendar — and to make sure editors and retailers showed up. He repeated the experiment — and probably some fibbing — several times.
“We’ve done work with film as a replacement for a show quite extensively,” he said. “I never really found it’s been well received, but going forward, with this idea that fashion weeks have to turn digital in lieu of more physical presentations, I feel like people just have to be more receptive. So it’s like a new dawn.”
Indeed, fashion films, long on the fringes of the industry, are finally ready for their close-up.
Just listen to photographer Nick Knight, who frequently collaborates with Pugh and other cutting-edge designers.
“Every commission I get now is a film,” he told WWD in a recent interview. “They want still imagery, too, but they want film. Everybody wants film. Every single brand now knows that they want film, because that’s the medium they speak within. That’s taken 20 years to change fundamentally.”
According to Zenith Media projections published in September, the average person will spend 100 minutes a day watching online video in 2021, up from 84 minutes in 2019. That’s the equivalent of watching videos for 25 consecutive days around the clock.
“The forecasts were made well before the emergence of the coronavirus and are all now invalid,” noted Jonathan Barnard, Zenith’s head of forecasting and director of global intelligence. “Video consumption this year will now be substantially higher than we forecast then.”
Video consumption rates have accelerated at a global average of 32 percent a year between 2013 and 2018, boosted by improvements in display sizes and quality of mobile devices, faster mobile data connections, and the spread of connected TV sets, according to Zenith.
At present, China and Sweden harbor the hungriest eyeballs, with the average person in each country expected to spend 103 minutes a day watching online video this year. By 2021, Zenith expects Canada, India, Mexico, the U.K. and U.S. to join the 100-minutes-a-day crowd.
Organizers of digital fashion weeks this summer in London, Milan and Paris are touting videos and films as a chief format, setting the stage for a steep increase in such content.
Yet even proponents and creators of fashion on film confess that the medium is still a nascent one.
“We’re still in such an early phase of fashion film and what it could be, I think it still needs to be defined,” said Ruth Hogben, a director, photographer and creative director who has made films for the likes of Pugh and Lee Alexander McQueen and worked with Lady Gaga on her live performances. “The choices are endless with film. I’ve been on many judging panels at fashion film festivals, and it’s really difficult because it’s such a fine line. It’s not dance, and it’s not a feature film because that takes too long. I think it still needs to be defined. Think about the transition from drawing and illustration to fashion photography. It took time to understand what those codes and conventions were, and to discover the greats.”
According to Knight, fashion’s organizing bodies in the main capitals have so vigorously promoted catwalk shows for decades that designers have largely capitulated, shunting films and other alternative formats to the margins.
While fashion film is touted as a new medium, that is hardly the case “because Guy Bourdin was doing it, Richard Avedon was doing it. But let’s suggest it is a new medium because there was virtually no platform to show it on before, which is why hardly anybody knows the films of Guy Bourdin,” he said.
At present, “the main creators of fashion films are from the film world,” according to Philipp Ulita, managing director of Berlin Commercial, previously known as the Berlin Fashion Film Festival, renamed to reflect its embrace of music and other categories. “One can notice if a film is based on foresight and artistic vision from experts who know their tools and know how to interpret the given task. People go to schools for that.”
To be sure, fashion film festivals multiplied worldwide over the past decade, peaking around 2014. While some boast sponsors and affiliations with fashion brands and retailers, others remain somewhat off the radar of the mainstream fashion world.
“Unfortunately, there are not enough serious distribution channels in comparison to the quantity of material produced,” said Constanza Cavalli Etro, founder and director of Fashion Film Festival Milano, which is plotting a streaming format for its seventh edition later this year. “I believe in a way, there is more offer out there than demand. But I’m sure this will quickly change as the industry itself has changed in the last three months.”
Given that the coronavirus pandemic is scuttling the usual fashion weeks, this “will bring a new interest in the video format and storytelling,” Cavalli Etro predicted. “A greater number of brands will take advantage of this as their current and future means of communication in terms of reaching a wide digital audience and staying alive in this digital era.”
She urged brands and designers to “think about fashion films as an important tool for experiential marketing, a multimedia, multisensory experience through which, now more than ever, they can show the human side of the brand together with core values.”
The Milan festival received more than 1,000 submissions for its 2109 edition, up from about 350 its first year, including films from Nigeria, China, Mexico, Finland and Iceland. “This shows how fashion films are a tool for expression without borders,” said Cavalli Etro, who is also the wife of Etro’s men’s wear creative director Kean Etro. “Fashion films are really an all-encompassing medium and they are the new way for the creative industry to express itself.”
Beatrice Bloom, director of the London Fashion Film Festival, said the audience for its online platforms zoomed up 40 percent between January and May, reflecting a spike in online submissions and streaming during the lockdown period.
“When it comes to numbers, we see an influx of filmmakers and creatives in general,” Ulita echoed. “In terms of fashion films, and advertising in general, we witness a trend toward storytelling, content that takes us somewhere intellectually.”
That said, he allowed that some winners from previous years “fit the current zeitgeist more than they did before: quiet ones became louder and loud and colorful ones too loud. One could say they were ahead of their time.”
Kathryn Ferguson, a filmmaker and curator who spent several years working as Selfridges’ resident film director, said films can be made for a commercial purpose, or purely for creative expression.
“It’s such a malleable genre. Sometimes it’s used for sheer and blatant advertising potential but alternatively, it may result from brands commissioning a filmmaker they admire, someone who aligns with their ethos and aesthetic to create a piece of film that elevates their brand,” said Ferguson, also a film research fellow at London College of Fashion. “I haven’t detected a growing interest, but it’s obvious that brands are asking models and influencers to self-shoot in their own homes — to varying results.”
All parties agreed there is no template that brands and designers can follow when venturing into film and video — nor should there be.
“I just don’t think creativity works like that,” Hogben said. “There’s so many things to be invented within fashion film. I think it’s just an open door and open book, I don’t think there’s any rule that would fit all designers…you just have to be led by what’s in front of you.”
Hogben advocated freewheeling collaborations between fashion houses and any number of creative types, from visual artists to filmmakers and beyond.
“I think artists would be great, and people who have synergy with their visions. If you look at the work of someone like Michel Gondry, you imagine that in a fashion film, it’ll be incredible,” she enthused. “There are so many artists and filmmakers, people working with technology. A little bit of a break and rethinking and a shift from a different angle has never really hurt anyone creatively. Overcoming obstacles is always a good thing, and I think so many artists would jump at the chance to get into the minds of some of these great designers and collaborate.”
Knight said a common pitfall is to turn to Hollywood.
“David Lynch is an amazing director, but he’s not a fashion filmmaker any more than Sebastião Salgado, who is an amazing photographer, is not a fashion photographer,” he said. “The idea that you can just hire in a great film director and that will make it — it can give it some importance because you’ve got a celebrity director doing it, but as a great fashion film? Probably not. You need a fashion filmmaker, which in our generation is starting to be formed.”
In Hogben’s view, a crucial element is modeling talent.
“Supermodels are supermodels because they move in a way that doesn’t need to be directed,” she said, mentioning Raquel Zimmermann as a consummate pro. “An amazing supermodel understands who she is when she’s wearing a certain designer. He or she will move differently if she’s in a leather jacket from Fendi or a beautiful floral corset from Valentino. The models, I think, bring so much to the table on how to make a fashion film.”
Hogben highlighted how social media ignited over Gigi Hadid’s hair flick at the last Jacquemus runway show in Paris “because it was like, ‘Oh, some personality.'”
(Incidentally, Hogben held out hope Simon Porte Jacquemus would translate his dreamy Mediterranean universe into a fashion film. “It’ll be so idyllic, I’d want to live in it,” she said.)
On YouTube brand channels, runway footage still tends to rack up more views than other kinds of content, from J.W. Anderson’s hilarious mock-QVC commercials to Balenciaga’s mesmerizing “loop” videos.
But they have the capacity to break through.
Knight produced a high-energy video for Tom Ford’s spring 2016 collection that featured Lady Gaga in a riff on the Seventies television program “Soul Train.”
“That was a great way of Tom presenting his collection, which otherwise would have been presented to a couple of hundred people, most of which would have been late, cross, or bored,” he said. “This went out to a huge number of fans, seen by millions of people the day it was launched. You saw how sexy, dynamic, how full of life his collection felt.”
In Cavalli Etro’s view, emerging designers also can propel their notoriety with films. “It’s not difficult to become relevant on social media by using the digital world in the correct way if you have a great product,” she said, noting one of its 2014 festival winners, Rie Yamagata, had her film picked up by Nowness, and was invited the next season to show during New York Fashion Week. Agi & Sam and Grace Wales Bonner also participated in past editions.
A chief drawback to film is that viewers can’t touch the clothes or see them in real life and therefore you lose “the physical part, which is very important in fashion. But I think that if used correctly, video can overcome this problem and become the ultimate tool, especially with technology that we have today such as VR or AR,” she said.
Pugh lamented that physical runway shows in many ways resemble a tennis match, heads swinging one way, then the other as models file out, and trudge back.
Films, by contrast, give a designer more latitude to construct a mood, tell a story, provoke emotions and traverse a variety of atmospheres and settings.
“With film you’re much more able to express those worlds, you can do a lot of trickery, and I enjoy that aspect of it, that ability to be able to dig deeper into the world that you want to portray,” Pugh said. “It’s such an exciting time and people are going to be more receptive to new ideas.”
What’s more, “now without a physical, monolothic presence for a designer to sometimes hide behind, the story behind collections is going to have so much more value, so much worth,” he predicted.
Cavalli Etro agreed: “Through storytelling, it’s much easier to engage people and to touch on the emotional part that fashion can represent for everyone. Brands and designers can really show their soul, share their values, their universe, and go beyond the product itself.”
At Saint Laurent, creative director Anthony Vaccarello has given Wong Kar-wai, Bret Easton Ellis, Vanessa Beecroft and Gaspar Noé carte blanche to create films for its “Self” project, with some clocking more than 1.5 million views on the fashion house’s YouTube channel.
“The idea started from my wish to combine creative disciplines across art and fashion to reinforce and fuel the concept of diversity, individuality, self-confidence through an artistic lens,” Vaccarello told WWD. “That’s how the ‘Self’ project became an artistic commentary on society, enabling me to work with artists whose vision is similar to mine, but in different fields.”
Asked what a film can express that a fashion show or standard campaign cannot, Vaccarello said “everything starts from mutual respect and admiration, the rest is a natural consequence. The selection of the artists is crucial and is a very instinctive process based on the admiration and the respect I nurture for each of them and it’s incredible how in the results of their artworks you can find and feel Saint Laurent. The story and the principles are similar, it is just developed in different formats.”
To be sure, Vaccarello had a head start on fashion films, having introduced the “Self” project in 2018.
“We are already working on the upcoming chapters,” he said. “Films were and are important to me and my vision and always will be.”
Though her brand is less than three years old, Marine Serre has used film to showcase her “futurewear,” extrapolate on her recurrent theme of environmental apocalypse, express her love of science-fiction movies, and connect to young generations using immediate, high-tech means.
“I think it’s a really great way to speak to people,” she said. “I can let my imagination go, and not think so much about the commerciality of the garment. When I do movies, I’m really free,” she said.
Serre has collaborated with creative studio Blonstein and used CGI to create surreal landscapes for her fierce women to stride through. “‘Things that are kind of impossible become possible,” she said.
Indeed, she has already decided to forego a physical runway in September and pursue a digital showcase. While she didn’t go into detail about the format, she said films allow a designer to imagine “what the future is going to be.”
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