10 Fashion Documentaries That Will Take You Back to a Better Time
During the 2008 film Valentino: The Last Emperor, Karl Lagerfeld approaches Valentino Garavani moments after the closure of his final runway collection before retirement and whispers in his ear: "Compared to us, the rest just make rags." It's an exchange that captures more than what is being said, framing two prolific dressmakers as they reflect on a combined century plus of work. It's also a triumph of access, a rare glimpse at two of fashion's baddest bitches linking up. "I had about six cameras going that night," the film's director Matt Tyrnauer recalls. "The most important camera stayed backstage on Valentino the whole time, so when Karl came back, and they embraced, Valentino in tears, we were able to capture an immortal moment in the history of fashion. These were the last emperors — and they knew it."
You can study a designer, look at every piece of clothing that ever sent down a runway, watch their interviews, read their books, but there's nothing quite like seeing them unfiltered in front of a lens they've probably forgotten is there. The fashion documentary, like the art form and artists it aims to capture, is broad in range, spanning decades, giving rare behind-the-scenes glimpses, and zeroing in on those audacious enough to have crafted a fashion legacy. If fashion is about training the gaze, the fashion doc is about turning the gaze on its head.
As we all stay indoors as much as possible, now is the time to catch up on the genre. In trying to zero in on which to focus on, I became overwhelmed with choice: old classics, and hidden gems discovered through the magic of social media. Below, we'll get into ten of my faves, but I want to take a moment to recommend some others first (in reverse chronological order): Martin Margiela: In His Own Words (2019, dir. Reiner Holzemer), Halston (2019, dir. Frédéric Tcheng), Very Ralph (2019, dir. Susan Lacy), The Gospel According To André (2018, dir. Kate Novack), House of Z (2017, dir. Sandy Chronopoulos), The Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story (2017, dir. Tiffany Bartok), Kevyn Aucoin Beauty & the Beast in Me (2017, dir. Lori Kaye), The First Monday In May (2016, dir. Andrew Rossi), The Legacy Of Alexander McQueen (2015, dir. Loïc Prigent), Jeremy Scott: The People's Designer (2015, dir. Vlad Yudin), Iris (2014, dir. Albert Maysles), Saint Laurent (2014, dir. Bertrand Bonello), Mademoiselle C (2013, dir. Fabien Constant), Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf (2013, dir. Matthew Miele), L'Amour Fou (2011, dir. Pierre Thoretton), Bill Cunningham New York (2011, dir. Richard Press), The September Issue (2009, dir. R.J. Cutler), Lagerfeld Confidential (2007, dir. Rodolphe Marconi), Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton (2007, dir. Loïc Prigent), Seamless (2005, dir. Douglas Keeve), Boss Woman: Anna Wintour (2000, dir Christine Hall) and Richard Avedon - Darkness and Light (1994, dir. Helen Whitney).
And here are ten of my favorites, with a bit about what makes them so good.
Unzipped (1995, dir. Douglas Keeve)
Required viewing for any fashion lover, this time capsule of an era (only 25 years ago, but one that seems like the byzantine empire by way of distance from now) begins immediately following Isaac Mizrahi's poorly reviewed Spring/Summer 1994 collection. It's the unobtrusive, stream-of-conscious view of a designer who feels everything in a New York that these days appears bizarrely quaint. "I hate mediocre things said about me," he says smoking a cigarette in extreme close-up on his face. "Either say something great or say it stank or ignore it… ignore it if you don't like it." He's speaking to the camera, but his words are clearly in conversation with his critics. The film has got Eartha Kitt, Sandra Bernhard, Naomi Campbell and more in mostly grainy black and white footage from Mizrahi's escapades about town and in fittings. His mother, Sarah Mizrahi, is particularly delightful. It's grand and parochial, eccentric yet grounded, and such a great reminder of Mizrahi's je ne sais quoi. "All I want to do is fur pants but I know that if I do them I'll get stoned off of Seventh Avenue," he says while watching Nanook of the North from bed.
Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009, dir. Matt Tyrnauer)
Among the most decorated fashion docs (and for good reason), Valentino: The Last Emperor is actually two documentaries seamlessly woven together. There's the empire in crisis, as the Valentino Fashion Group is sold to Marzotto Group, and there's the love story of Valentino Garavani and his partner in life and in work Giancarlo Giammetti. "For years the fashion press had written reams about Valentino, and swallowed whole the typical 'genius at work' storyline that the House of Valentino expertly fed them," recalls director Matt Tyrnauer, who says he quickly discovered that the real story of Valentino had never been told.
"It was in fact a double act: Valentino and Giammetti, and that the greatest achievement of these two innovative Romans was the story of their relationship. It was a marriage, something they took some pains to hide over the years." After spending a few weeks on assignment in Rome to write a story about Valentino for Vanity Fair, Tyrnauer asked the pair if they would consider participating in a documentary about their lives. Much to his surprise, they said yes. "I knew from the outset that I was making a film not specifically about fashion. It was a film about a relationship — an unconventional love story — with the vanishing world of haute couture as the backdrop."
McQueen (2018, dirs. Peter Ettedgui, Ian Bonhôte)
A film as haunting as the man it seeks to capture, this Alexander McQueen documentary, which came just three years on the heels of Loïc Prigent's The Legacy Of Alexander McQueen, uses runway footage as the backdrop of his life story, meticulously grafting in interviews with his close-knit team and family members throughout. There's the obvious melancholy of watching a film about a figure who ultimately cut their own life short, but there's also the tremendous beauty of visiting (or revisiting) the breadth of his work and getting a more rounded sense of the person beyond the tortured soul he's often presented as.
Among the highlights of the film are look backs at some of his most awe-inspiring collections, including VOSS, his 2001 Spring/Summer collection, which had his audience seated around a mirrored cube that revealed itself to be a mental-hospital filled with models. Of particular fascination for the fashion-obsessed will be the time the doc spends on Lee's tenure at Givenchy, which includes learning that tailors weren't allowed into the design atelier at Givenchy until McQueen, never one to concern himself with hierarchy, took over in October 1996.
Dior and I (2014, dir. Frédéric Tcheng)
Any documentarian will tell you that luck is essential in the alchemy of a great film, and luck's something Dior and I has in spades. It portrays the merging of the House of Christian Dior with its then-new creative director Raf Simons, and the tensions that ultimately ensue in bringing heritage into conversation with modernity.
The storyline is about bringing a designer then known for his minimalist menswear to a house built on femininity and extravagance. But it's really a character study of the deeply emotional Raf Simons at a time of great pressure in his professional life. "Frankly, I'm surprised I got to film any of it," the film's director Frédéric Tcheng says. "It all happened so quickly after the official announcement of Raf's appointment. And getting Raf on board was not easy. He's not someone who craves the spotlight, to put it mildly." And it's this very tension — a private person in a public act — that makes the doc so compelling. "It's precisely the fact that he is not 'camera-ready,'" says Tcheng. "He's withholding, and because of that, the emotional journey becomes more rewarding for the audience."
Catwalk (1995, dir. Robert Leacock)
Not to be confused with Catwalk: Tales from the Cat Show Circuit, Robert Leacock's 1995 film is easily part of the definitive fashion doc canon, presenting a candid look at fashion's elite without filter. "From shady exchanges with Veronica Webb to young Kate Moss and John Galliano drinking backstage to a dance party at Carla Bruni.... you get to see so much behind-the-scenes, plus the Malcolm Mclaren soundtrack/score is legend," says stylist Ian Bradley.
The New York Times's Janet Maslin called the film "wildly uncritical" which misses the point altogether in celebrating the heyday of the supermodel, and giving an early glimpse at what would become commonplace celebrity access but at the time was quite guerilla filmmaking. It's not a great documentary film so much as it is a great documentation of fashion history. Worth it for the runway footage alone, which features (in addition to those mentioned above) Nadja Auermann, Naomi Campbell, Helena Christensen, Cindy Crawford, Gail Elliott, Linda Evangelista, Shalom Harlow, Yasmin Le Bon, Sarah Murdoch and Nikki Taylor. That Veronica Webb shade that Bradley mentioned is not to be missed. "Oh I did want to bring up that your crew's on video, mine's on film," Turlington tells Webb backstage before they hit the Versace runway. "You're so sweet Christy. And nothing's gone to your head," Webb fires back. Historic!
Versailles '73: American Runway Revolution (2012, dir. Deborah Riley Draper)
We all know the Gaga clip — the "talented, brilliant, incredible, amazing…" that she first uttered in a 2015 interview describing Ryan Murphy. What she should have been referencing was this film, which revisits a defining moment in fashion history which saw the the French haute couture establishment (Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emmanuel Ungaro) in a "battle" against American designers: Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Oscar de la Renta and Halston.
"A true must for us fashion girls, as it serves as a history lesson and a road map of the state of the industry at the time — including key players, and even some of the drama between them," says Jose Criales-Unzueta, a designer and fashion/culture commentator. "It really explains and lays out the elements (cultural, racial, gender, etc) that came together to enable American designers to burst into the global fashion scene and give American fashion a place on the map." Come for the archival footage, stay for interviews with fashion giants including Bethann Hardison, Pat Cleveland, Grace Mirabella and more.
Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012, dirs. Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Frédéric Tcheng, Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt)
Perhaps no figure looms over American fashion with as much legend as Diana Vreeland, who reigned over Vogue as the magazine's editor-in-chief from 1963 to 1971 and is captured here through archival interviews as well as interviews with those that knew her best including her children — who notably loved their mother but may not have liked her very much.
"She gave interviews with the sharpness of Bette Davis, or the causticness of '90s Madonna, and like her, set out to make herself the most popular girl in town," wrote Diego Semerene in his Slant review of the film, which is co-directed by Vreeland's own granddaughter-in-law, Lisa. "She knew that beauty was not just about the physicality, it was about the person inside," Lisa told Teen Vogue upon the film's release. "And she appreciated celebrities and let models become personalities. Life was changing at that time, but she got it and she put it in the pages."
Dries (2017, dir. Reiner Holzemer)
"The fashion industry has been dying in its own grave, and people like Dries keep the flame alive. He is a treasure and should be treated as such," Iris Apfel says of Dries Van Noten in the documentary Dries, which chronicles the gentile romanticism of the Belgian designer's process as well as his home life with partner Patrick Vangheluwe on their 7-acre plot of land outside of Antwerp. If you're looking for a bit of culture to mellow the harshness of reality, Dries is it.
"Personally I think the film was most successful showing Dries in his element with all his little quirks: in his house and walking in his garden, in meetings at the studio, hanging out with Patrick, or those little moments backstage at the shows, says Spencer Phipps, creative director of PHIPPS INTERNATIONAL and former menswear designer at Dries van Noten, who appears in the film. Come for the fashion; stay for the mesmerizing home decor, like a scene early on in the film in which van Noten simply arranges just-picked flowers on a desk in such a way that I might have shed a tear, at what I could not tell you.
Franca: Chaos and Creation (2016, dir. Francesco Carrozzini)
"Why do I have to talk to you?" she asks. "Because I'm the one filming," he responds. Zeroing in on the life of Franca Sozzani, the editor-in-chief of Vogue Italia from 1988 until her death in 2016, this film is part fashion documentary, part loving homage from son to mother. In that sense, part of the joy of the documentary (which came out just months before her death) is Sozzani's discomfort with herself as the subject pushing up against Carrozzini's desire to have her reflect upon her legacy.
"When I went to my mother with the idea of the film she asked me: 'And who would my voice be?' I answered, 'Mom, this is a documentary about you, you will play yourself' and she answered: 'Well then forget about it, I'll never do it!'" Carrozini recalls. Asked about his favorite moment in the film, which features interviews with Karl Lagerfeld, Baz Luhrmann, Courtney Love and more, Carrozzini points to a tense fight in the car over his mother's tendency to digress, saying "that sums up exactly who were were as mother and son."
In Vogue: The Editors Eye (2012, dirs. Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato)
This HBO documentary, brought forth from the great minds that created RuPaul's Drag Race, is a celebration and centering of the editor's role within a fashion magazine. "They have always been our secret weapon, so it seemed to me that we could celebrate Vogue, and also, at the same time, celebrate these great editors," Anna Wintour said of the film, which features Grace Coddington, Alber Elbaz, Nicolas Ghesquière and Sarah Jessica Parker among its many interviews.
"There are too many delicious moments in the film to pick one," Barbato says when asked. "Phyllis Posnick describing a photo of Irving Penn's that had a woman wearing a football and saying 'that needed a model who knew how she looked with a football on her face' is definitely one" he says. "Another great memory was when legendary editor Babs Simpson asked if Lady Gaga was a boy or girl after we handed her a photo of Gaga from a Vogue shoot," says Barbato. There's also this fantastic dub track from sound bites of the film which is absolutely worth a listen.
Welcome to Wear Me Out, a column by pop culture fiend Evan Ross Katz that takes a look at the week in celebrity dressing. From award shows and movie premieres to grocery store runs, he'll keep you up to date on what your favorite celebs have recently worn to the biggest and most inconsequential events.
Screenshot via YouTube