An Emerging Medium: The Art of the Fashion Film
Fashion and film have long enjoyed a symbiotic relationship. Designers may draw inspiration from the silver screen in runway collections one season, then create costumes for a film the next (or, if they’re Tom Ford, they’ll hop in that director’s chair themselves). Over the past few decades, these worlds have merged in a different kind of way—they come together uniquely in fashion films.
As a term, “fashion film” lacks a formal definition. If you Google it, you’ll be pointed in the direction of features and documentaries about the industry: The September Issue, Bill Cunningham New York and, of course, The Devil Wears Prada. Classics like Blow Up and Who Are You, Polly Magoo? were released in the late ‘60s. Yet fashion films, as we currently understand them, are not these kinds of movies.
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Pioneering photographer and director Nick Knight was among the earliest to recognize the transformative potential technology could have on fashion. In the fall of 2000, Knight established SHOWstudio and less than 20 years later, it has revolutionized digital creative communication within the industry. SHOWstudio was the first platform to truly champion fashion show live streaming and advance the possibilities of fashion film. These days, both practices are ubiquitous.
Fashion films occupy a space between a commercial and a narrative short. While some would consider Steven Meisel’s wildly controversial 1995 Calvin Klein Jeans videos fashion films, in terms of this article, they do not apply. Those VHS-style visuals were (creepy) advertisements that formed part of a massive commercial campaign, advertised across buses and billboards. In contrast, Phil Morrison’s X-Girl movie, released the same year, is. The 16-minute, Godard-inspired short follows a teen Chloë Sevigny as she asks attendees (among them Naomi Campbell and Ethan Hawke) at a just-ended Marc Jacobs show about someone who doesn’t exist.
Today’s fashion films are typically independent projects that live on the internet. They feature collections, but don’t explicitly, or traditionally, advertise them. According to The Business of Fashion, a successful fashion film is “an authentic, standalone piece of storytelling [rather] than a mere marketing exercise.”
Designer Lazaro Hernandez best described the intent of a modern fashion film when speaking about Act da Fool, the first for his brand Proenza Schouler. “We thought it would be interesting to give a collection—which has a life on the runway, or in magazines—some sort of life on screen.” The project was helmed by director Harmony Korine, who, at 19, famously wrote the screenplay for Kids, a movie Hernandez and co-designer Jack McCollough consider among the most influential of their generation. Korine’s Proenza spots (especially the nightmarish Snowballs) persist as some of the most left-field fashion films in recent memory.
When creating Act Da Fool, Herendez said, that he “gave [Harmony] a general idea of what we were looking at when we were putting the collection together, and he kind of took that and just ran with it.”. “The movie is about these girls who are searching for themselves, and some sort of happiness. They’ve been beaten down, they’ve been disenfranchised, yet they still find something to believe in—the stars, friendship, themselves.”
When the New York design duo and the Gummo auteur released their first collaborative fashion film in 2010, it was not yet common practice for luxury brands to tap progressive filmmakers. Kenzo has since picked up that torch and sprinted with it. Under Opening Ceremony founders Carol Lim and Humberto Leon’s direction, Kenzo has commissioned Spike Jonze, Sean Baker, Gregg Araki and Kahlil Joseph to create original fashion films. Carrie Brownstein made her directorial debut with the Parisian house; Natasha Lyonne will make hers this fall. Often, these projects are revealed with their own glitzy premiere events.
Miuccia Prada has drawn inspiration from film (she’s a noted fan of Fassbinder and Fellini) and influenced it (after designing the navy wedding suit in Romeo + Juliet, Prada teamed back up with Baz Luhrmann and Leonardo DiCaprio for The Great Gatsby). Prada’s menswear campaign models are often actors, Miu Miu’s are often actresses. So, it’s not surprising that Prada has collaborated with some of cinema’s biggest names on original fashion films. David O. Russell and Roman Polanski each made a film for the esteemed house. Wes Anderson’s, featuring Jason Schwartzmann, is a narrative short with over a million views. Miu Miu has developed its own Women’s Tales series of short fashion films helmed by female directors. Ava DuVernay, Miranda July and Agnes Varda have all contributed.
In spite of the genre’s popularity and star-power, the fashion films have a lot more growing to do. “For years, fashion brands have struggled to fulfill the promise of the medium due to a range of issues,” argues The Business of Fashion. Among them: poor distribution strategies, budgetary constraints linked to print advertising and, in some instances, purely unappealing content. The publication notes that “[Beyoncé’s] Lemonade—which showcases fashion with far more power than any of the videos produced by fashion brands themselves—should be a wake up call.”
This year, the New York Fashion Film Festival celebrated its seventh consecutive year. Since 2011, the festival has not simply showcased an exciting slate of fashion films, but hosted panels exploring the influence, innovation and impact of the ever-evolving genre. This year’s NYFFF featured projects from industry leaders and bright emerging names including Harley Weir, Cass Bird, Roe Ethridge, Glen Luchford and Kristin-Lee Moolman.
Much of fashion’s best storytelling has been done on the pages of print magazines. But, “by 2019, online video will account for 80 percent of all consumer Internet traffic, according to California-based technology giant Cisco,” reports The Business of Fashion. As communication technology forges new frontiers, it’s the responsibility of fashion’s most innovative dreamers to evolve alongside it. The fashion film has already demonstrated its tremendous potential as a medium. Image-makers, magazines and brands themselves must now tackle this emerging media.
For those lusting for more, a quick list of films not to be missed:
Harley Weir’s work for Proenza Schouler including, Legs are Not Doors, PS I Love You, a forthcoming project benefiting Planned Parenthood.
Uniform, courtesty of NYC based Eckhaus Latta, who has collaborated with director Alexa Karolinski for years, is a personal favorite.
For those looking for a more satirical take on the medium, look no further than Matthew Frost’s Fashion Film.
Lastly, ambassador of Soviet youth Gosha Rubchinskiy’s, The Day of My Death.