The Rise of the Fashion Film

When I started this blog in 2008 I would’ve never written about film. I’m the first to admit that I know nothing about the film industry, aside from what I’ve learnt flicking through Little White Lies magazine. It just eludes me. However, as we move into 2014 it’s impossible for me to ignore the prevalence, and importance, of the ‘fashion film’.

The theme of this year’s Costume Society study day was “Shooting Style: Fashion on Screen”. Both Nathaniel Beard and Pamela Church Gibson emphasised the importance of this medium. Nathanial presented footage of early fashion films, whereas Pamela gave an overview of its evolution and current examples. (My friend Lori tweeted throughout the conference, and put together this brilliant Storify thread of the day).

One of the earliest examples where this is evident is Rebel Without a Cause (1955). The film, unintentionally, instigated a soar in the sale of blouson jackets, which were worn by rebellious teen protagonist Jim Stark, played by James Dean. In an attempt to emulate the desirable persona of the lead character fans purchased similar clothing to replicate Stark’s style. The blouson jacket symbolised more than just a jacket, it was synonymously cool. The film industry recognised the potential in this market, and film merchandise was born. Now, sixty years later, fashion brands are actively promoted in films.

In the transformation film The Devil Wears Prada (2006), brands are name-checked throughout. During protagonist Andy’s make-over there is the line, ‘You’re in desperate need of Chanel’; this line that doesn’t appear in the book. Similarly, the Sex And The City films (2008 and 2010) have been described as ‘fabulous trunk shows’, which are essentially just a showcase of designers. In the first SATC film we know that Carrie wore a Vivienne Westwood wedding dress. It could have been any wedding dress, and the plot would not have been affected, but Vivienne Westwood was specifically marked out.

Baz Lurhmann’s version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (2013) is also a film about fashion. The beautiful, decadent imagery sparked a revival for Roaring Twenties style. It also became somewhat of an advert for Prada, despite the fact that the majority of the clothing had been made by costume designer Catherine Martin. Unlike the unintentional promotion of the blouson jacket worn by James Dean, fashion in these films isn’t an unsolicited tie-in. Luxury brands are being intentionally advertised; the devil wears Prada, and Carrie wears Manolo Blahnik.

Sex and the City, The Fashion Behind the Movie – What’s interesting about this clip is that they explicitly state that for the movie the clothing is more luxurious and more expensive. If you re-watch the early seasons of SATC – which are brilliant, by the way – the women have their own style but they’re definitely not wearing designer clothes. The series didn’t start off as the runway show that it became.

Unlike feature films that have a strong fashion focus, the fashion film is created by the brand. For luxury labels it has become as essential as a runway show or campaign images. The advantage being that a film is considerably cheaper to produce than the aforementioned. It can also be viewed globally unlike paid advertisements in magazines, which may only reach tens of thousands of people. Both Business of Fashion and WGSN have a round up and analysis of these films each season.

Websites such as SHOWstudio have been hugely influential in the development of these films by providing an international platform. Last month I blogged about an Inside Industry event I attended with Nick Knight. The SHOWstudio founder was convinced that the future of fashion communication is films:

“Fashion film is becoming what fashion photography used to be for magazines,” he said, “I think the internet is what magazines were, but much better. Fashion film shows a garment in movement, and I think every garment has been created to be seen in movement. So the idea that fashion photography always comprised that vision, to some degree, is true. I think if that vision needn’t be compromised, for example the garment can be seen in movement then that’s better for it, and better for understanding the designers’ vision. Therefore I think it’s inevitable that fashion film will become the predominant medium for showing fashion.”

Nick Knight’s thoughts on Fashion Film.

My first experience of this genre was around 2007/2008. I was a huge fan of Gareth Pugh’s work, so I was aware of the films he’d made with Nick Knight and Ruth Hogben. These films were hugely successful, but they just didn’t interest me. To me they looked like music videos or experimental art-house footage. I didn’t quite understand the point or importance of them. Jean-Luc Goddard once said, “Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end… but not necessarily in that order”. What was missing from fashion films in this period was the narrative to intrigue viewers; creating a motion editorial just wasn’t enough.

SHOWstudio – Gareth Pugh Autumn/Winter 2009 by Ruth Hogben.

However, this video was groundbreaking. It took a long time for luxury fashion to embrace the internet. I remember when I started university in 2008 it was almost impossible to find a fashion designer with a good website, let alone a successful social media presence. I think it was probably Burberry and Adidas who were the first to really incorporate technology into their marketing strategies (don’t quote me on that though), forcing the other brands to compete. Now, almost all brands have embraced the ‘fashion film’, albeit some more successfully than others. In their article “Why (Most) Fashion Films suck”, Portable TV commented:

“Considering the budget and talent that gets thrown at most of these branded promos, the majority of them should be impeccable works of art. Rather we often see over indulgent, overtly long and boring displays of narcissism which, outside the close knit world of fashion, barely get a mention. Despite all of the creativity, passion and sartorial genius within the industry, when it comes to marketing, fashion brands can be stubborn beasts”.

In particular, Chanel is usually the brand credited with creating the worst fashion films. Below is the full twenty-five minute film for “The Tale of A Fairy”, which was written and directed by Karl Lagerfeld to promote his 2011/2012 Cruise collection. Please don’t sit and watch it all, as I did, it doesn’t get better. It’s beautiful but incredibly self-indulgent and hollow. The story is tedious, and the acting is even worse. Choosing not to hire professional actors, the film instead stars Chanel ambassadors; Kristen McMenamy, Freja Beha, Bianca Balti, Baptiste Giabiconi, and Mark Vanderloo.

The Tale of a Fairy by Karl Lagerfeld.

However, some brands do get it right, and they’re getting better too. Lanvin is credited with having the first fashion film to go viral. The awkwardly dancing, well dressed models in his AW 2011/2012 film spoke to the internet, and the internet spoke back with an array of parody videos.

Lanvin – Autumn Winter 2011/2012.

Lanvin parody – NYFW 2012.

Another light-hearted film is “Fashion Film”, a video by Matthew Frost, which mocks the cliché “cool girl” fashion films. Created to celebrate the launch of Viva Vena, the diffusion line from Vena Cava, Fashion Film is a cheerful spoof of the serious but kinda stupid fashion videos. Lizzy Caplan (Janis from Mean Girls) stars as the quirky girl who just wanders around her cool house, looking cool and retro and stuff, narrating her cool, kinda quirky interior monologue. It’s hilarious. It also questions, what’s the difference between a fashion films and a commercial?

Viva Vena – Fashion Film 2013.

Similarly, Lena Dunham has created a brilliant short fashion film for Rachel Antonoff’s AW 2013 line, called “Best Friends”. Reminiscent of retro educational nature videos, and a little bit Wes Anderson-y in tone, the film observes the behaviours of two best friends living in New York. The narrator (Girls’ star Adam Driver) explains the phenomenon of the closeness of female friendships. It’s endearing, funny, and, like the Viva Vena film, works because the clothes aren’t centre-stage.

Rachel Antonoff – Lena Dunham’s Best Friends, AW 2013.

Over time, luxury brands began hiring major film directors and actors to make their fashion films. Kate Bosworth shot “Moonlight” for French designer Vanessa Bruno, and Dior used Marion Cotillard to star in the Lady Dior film. L.A.dy Dior is the fifth instalment, the others are: Lady Noir AffairLady RougeLady Blue ShanghaiLady Grey London.Directed by John Cameron Mitchell, the story parodies the life of a model preened to the point of meltdown, which results in the perfect image being taken. It’s based on a 1973 TV advertisement for label Jun Ropé, starring Lauren Hutton and Richard Avedon.

Lady Dior The Film – L.A.dy Dior

Arguably, however, it’s Miuccia Prada who has had the most success with fashion films. At Prada, Roman Polanski premiered “A Therapy” at Cannes Film Festival 2012. The film stars British actors Helena Bonham Carter as patient and Sir Ben Kingsley as a Freudian inspired therapist. The set is almost a modern adaptation of Freud’s Vienna office. Turns out Kingsley’s character has a bit of a ‘thing’ for his patient’s purple fur coat. Then comes the tagline: ‘Prada Suits Everyone’. Roman Polanski said, “It’s very refreshing to know that there are still places open to irony and wit and, for sure, Prada is one of them.”

Also, five days ago, Prada released a fashion film directed by Wes Anderson. Called “Castello Cavalcanti”, the eight-minute short stars frequent Anderson collaborator Jason Schwartzman as a race-car driver who crashes in a small Italian town in 1955, only to find that it’s the birthplace of his ancestors.

Prada – Castello Cavalcanti by Wes Anderson.

Over at Miu Miu, the “Woman’s Tales” series has been commissioned by Miuccia Prada, with an open brief, to encourage female directors. The latest two films were aired at the Venice International Film Festival in September. “The Door“, by L.A. director Ava DuVernay, is a lyrical blues piece in which a jilted Gabrielle Union is visited by friends coaxing her to eat, get dressed, go out, and start living again. “Le Donne della Vucciria“, by Palestinian director Hiam Abbass, shot in Palermo, presents marionette-makers dressing wooden puppets in miniature versions of the AW Miu Miu collection. The camera pans into the market square outside where adult women, clad in the same clothes, start clapping and dancing as a troupe of musicians arrive. The film I’ve chosen to include here is the second in the series; “Muta”,  by Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. It really creeps me out.

Miu Miu Women’s Tales – “Muta” by Lucrecia Martel.

Throughout this post I’ve tried to cover the relationship between cinema and clothing, and how this differs from a fashion brand-made fashion film. As well as an early example of fashion film, I’ve tried to present an overview of a couple of the fashion films that I like, as well as one that I really, really don’t. While Karl Lagerfeld’s stint as a director hasn’t really been successful so far, where does Tom Ford’s feature film, “A Single Man” fit into this genre? Is it a fashion film, or is it just a film about fashion?

I’m still new to fashion films so I’d love to hear what you think. Will fashion films replace photography? Do you have a favourite that I haven’t included here?