Fashion documentary producer Bronwyn Cosgrave ('Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story') ranks the top 10 such films of the 2010s.
Twenty-five years since the release of Douglas Keeve’s Unzipped — which is considered the first fashion documentary and one of the finest — the genre is flourishing.
If fashion docs were once focused on household names (such as Valentino and Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour), the 2010s saw the release of movies portraying a variety of industry cult figures, plus explorations of hot-button issues including diversity and cheap clothing’s environmental impact.
While the driving force behind these movies used to be first-time directors (who had an ‘in’ or a connection to their subject), recently, veteran art world and social issues filmmakers have crossed over to the realm of style with spectacular results.
These are the top 10 fashion documentaries of the decade.
This portrayal of the "human and environmental cost" of cheap garments (or fast fashion), as well as its dangerous hold over consumers, remains the last word on the subject, in terms of filmmaking.
The True Cost was produced over two years, from 2013, by the then-budding documentarian Andrew Morgan. He made the devastated locality of Rana Plaza (the eight-story garment manufacturing plant, which imploded in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, claiming over 1,000 lives) the first stop on his global tour. He also conferred with devastated laborers, as well as innocent bystanders, whose lives have been destroyed by exposure to toxic chemicals involved in the harvesting of genetically modified cotton.
While 25 major apparel brands refused Morgan’s request to address the havoc their Third World garment-manufacturing practices generates, a lineup of ethical fashion A-listers — People Tree founder Safia Minney, Stella McCartney and activist Livia Firth — speak up. Firth also promoted the film’s "less is more" "time to act" messaging by serving as its executive producer.
Franca Sozzani (editor-in-chief of Italian Vogue for 28 years, from 1988 until her passing in 2016) reveals her life story to her director son, Francesco Carrozzini, while reclining in the backseat of a limo cruising the streets of New York City — clad in furs and donning diamond chandelier earrings all the while, she resembles a latter-day empress.
While this film reveals a slice of a bygone fashion age, Carrozzini pushed it beyond a memoir by portraying his mother’s role in pioneering a brand of modern photography that merged fashion with unsparing social commentary. Sozzani’s collaborators (including Peter Lindbergh, Paolo Roversi, Deborah Turbeville and Bruce Weber) speak to the significance of the landmark Italian Vogues on which they worked, such as the July 2008 "Black Issue," which sparked fashion’s ongoing conversation about diversity.
Inspired by Charles Ferguson’s Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job, Frédéric Tcheng told this story of Roy "Halston" Frowick as a business parable. The film Halston depicts how the designer’s anointed status as the maker of the pillbox hat that Jacqueline Kennedy wore to the 1961 presidential inauguration of her husband, John F. Kennedy — as well as his leading position in 1970s New York fashion — was shattered when Halston sold his brand to Norton Simon, Inc. and conceived fashion’s first lower-priced line for JCPenney in 1983.
Fictional dramatic scenes depict Cornelia Guest portraying Halston’s stylish assistant, D.D. Ryan, and Tavi Genvinson as a secretary-detective attempting to discover "the man behind the sunglasses," as Tcheng has referred to his subject. They come off as daring experimentalism, due to Markus Kirschner’s slick production design and Chris Johnson’s lush cinematography.
To preserve Yves Saint Laurent’s final Paris fashion show at the Pompidou Centre in 2002, as well as its preparations, the late Pierre Bergé (YSL’s CEO and co-founder) appointed the documentarian Olivier Meyrou to capture it all.
But after Meyrou’s film portrayed its protagonist as a tragedian (ravaged by his battle with depression and substance abuse) at its 2007 Berlin Film Festival premiere, Celebration’s distribution was blocked. While this backstory lent drama to the film’s release this year, its beauty remains Meyrou’s unsparing portrait of a tired and aged Saint Laurent, as well as the careful attention paid to him by his loyal team. Loulou de la Falaise and Betty Catroux (Saint Laurent’s iconic muses) are fascinating to observe, even if their legendary effervescence is noticeably diminished.
Like Boyhood, Grace Jones: Bloodlight and Bami was 12 years in the making, and the production of Hurricane, her 10th album, drives this film.
Director-producer Sophie Fiennes crafted a balanced portrait of her subject, whose career has been defined by modeling and music. Discussing the doc during its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2017, Fiennes acknowledged milliner Philip Treacy — who served as art director and designer for the Hurricane tour — to be a key collaborator. Indeed, Treacy’s hats are as integral to Bloodlight and Bami as Manolo Blahniks were to Sex and the City. There’s a new one atop the performer in most every scene, and the Swarovski-encrusted Treacy bowler hat brandished by Jones during a concert upstages the star after a laser beam ricochets off of it.
Typically, runway footage in fashion documentaries works as a default, which patches together the story. Not so with McQueen. The late Lee "Alexander" McQueen created some of fashion’s most spectacular shows. Attuned to the cinematic quality, directors Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui made McQueen's presentations the throughline of a compelling tragedy.
While members of McQueen’s inner circle are absent from this movie (and the brand was off-limits), McQueen’s older sister Janet McQueen and her designer son Gary speak to his greatness, while dazzling archival footage makes up for any lost intimacy. Ettedgui — son of the late London fashion tycoon Joseph Ettedgui — also put his contacts to work and resurrected fashion names long forgotten with McQueen’s rise including Koji Tatsuno, John McKitterick (designer of the streetwear brand, Red or Dead) and Romeo Gigli.
Mira Chai Hyde (McQueen’s onetime roommate and longtime head of his fashion show hair and makeup) effusively recounts some innocent highs she experienced in McQueen’s heyday, such as flying to New York on the Concorde to deliver one of his dresses for Sharon Stone to wear on a Richard Avedon shoot. Detmar Blow, the widow of McQueen’s muse Isabella Blow, succinctly reveals his undoing: "With the money came drugs."
A few years before Gucci collaborated with Dapper Dan, Sacha Jenkins told the Harlem haberdasher’s story — along with those of brands like Cross Colors, Phat Farm, Fubu, Karl Kani, Mecca, Sean John, Rocawear and Walker Wear — in this vibrant history of hip-hop fashion.
Jenkins (who edited 2018’s best-selling Beastie Boys Book) reveals how African chieftains’ ceremonial garb and nattily dressed churchgoers contributed to hip-hop style. And he meticulously explores how it all crossed over from "gangwear" to "urban" apparel, circa rap’s explosion and LL Cool J brandishing a Fubu baseball cap in a 1999 Gap TV commercial.
Hectah Arias’ vibrant animation enlivens historical archive footage. Tyler Strickland’s feisty soundtrack means that those performers who might not have factored in as talking heads, like Little Richard — described by André Leon Talley as “Liberace without the sequins” — still had their say.
LVMH funded Dior and I, the doc about Raf Simons joining the house as its artistic director in April 2012. Director Frédéric Tcheng derived intimacy and conjured the pressure-cooker environ of contemporary fashion by primarily situating the story within Maison Dior’s 11 Rue François 1er Paris headquarters. He also kept the input of talking heads to a minimum, positioning Dior’s technical team of seamstresses, tailors and executives as the voices of authority.
Simon’s challenge to transform a Sterling Ruby abstract canvas into a textile for ballgowns, debuting in his fall/winter 2012 Dior couture show, lent tension and suspense to the film. The designer shedding tears amidst that blockbuster show, which marked his debut, evoked the demands placed upon him to ceaselessly conjure the new.
Several documentarians have tackled Vogue. Although the directorial trio behind this portrait of Diana Vreeland — who served as the magazine's editor-in-chief for eight years, from 1963 — are the ones who truly capture its fantasy-like environ and dynamism.
Vreeland’s Voguettes — including models China Machado and Penelope Tree, as well as Vreeland's editorial protégé Polly Mellen and cultural heavyweights such as John Richardson — reveal how she transformed the magazine from a polite etiquette manual to the last word on contemporary style. And then she went on to re-energize the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s sleepy Costume Institute by curating show-stopping exhibitions.
The film’s truly special aspect is its voiceover narration by Vreeland and journalist George Plimpton. This was based on audio tapes of their conversations that she recorded to write her wacky autobiography, D.V.
Martin Margiela: In His Own Words is the third and most definitive film about the famously elusive Belgian designer, because (as the title suggests) while narrating his personal story, Marigela answers long-open questions about his unusual choice to go silent in the early '90s.
Back then, Margiela emerged as the superstar of fashion’s renegade deconstruction movement. With thriller-like intensity — powered by smart commentary, fantastically cut archive footage and a hypnotic soundtrack from the Belgian band, Deus — director Reiner Holzemer unravels Margiela’s refusal to be the public spokesperson of his sought-after fashion brand, or the designer of it, after he sold off its majority stake.
Bronwyn Cosgrave has produced fashion documentaries including Manolo: The Boy Who Made Shoes for Lizards, Larger Than Life: The Kevyn Aucoin Story and The Queen’s New Clothes, which won the Short Film Audience Award at the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival.