Personality Drives Fashion

A character we can relate to brings fashion to life on film

Fashion documentaries, like fashion itself, are aspirational. They’re about getting special access to the people and processes behind a world we often experience only through very intentionally constructed visuals (editorials, clothing displays, staged blogger street style). A good documentary shows us how our fantasy fashion worlds are constructed, and forces us to think about them differently. But as our appetite for more access, more insight, more fashion grows, the quality of the offerings can suffer.

In Matthew Miele’s newest documentary, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, what we are promised is an insider’s look at one of the most famous high-end department stores to grace New York’s Fifth Avenue. What we get instead is over 100 interviews with designers, celebrities and employees espousing the store’s luxury and exclusivity for the better part of an hour and a half. Christian Louboutin calls it the epitome of luxury in a department store. Oscar de la Renta tells us there is no place better than Bergdorf’s to help a woman express her femininity. The idea that women can’t wait to become lawyers so that they can afford to buy a pair of shoes at Bergdorf’s is bandied about. Despite over a hundred years worth of history and personalities to choose from, Scatter My Ashes doesn’t do what is essential in storytelling: it doesn’t find a focus.

Interesting personalities are passed over for big names. In the fashion world, Linda Fargo, Bergdorf’s artistic director and head buyer, is as powerful as Anna Wintour. Fargo’s purchasing decisions can make a designer’s career and also decide for the public, via the trickle down effect of fashion, what the next big trend will be. With Fargo on board, Miele had the opportunity to show us how retail buying at such a high level shapes all tiers of the industry. Instead, we briefly see Fargo turn down an unimaginative line from Ally Hilfiger and are none the wiser as to what drives her decisions or how the whole process works.

Then there’s Betty Halbreich, one of the store’s top personal shoppers. A woman well past middle age, Halbreich tells it like it is, not hesitating to let million-dollar clients know when things look terrible. Bergdorf’s best personal shoppers, like Betty, draw in around $500,000 (USD) in commissions per year but we only get minutes to hear from her.

Finally, there’s David Hoey, Bergdorf’s senior director of visual presentation. Hoey spends the better part of the year choosing a theme, commissioning special designer dresses, and corralling a team of artists to create mosaic sea-life and jewel-encrusted polar bears, all to suit his vision for Bergdorf’s annual holiday windows. He is the interesting personality who can drive the story and guide the viewer behind the scenes of elite visual merchandising. Unfortunately Miele does not commit to making him the centre of the plotline, splicing his story in amongst designer cameos and depriving us of a character we can relate to.

In the movie, Hoey describes the task of window dressing for the masses: “you have to be very highbrow and silly at the same time,” he says, “so everyone will enjoy it.” Miele tries to apply the same formula to editing Scatter My Ashes, but with fashion documentaries, we don’t want the shallow overview we already have. We want flaws and toil and reality. We want someone whose shoes we could imagine filling.

Here are six fashion documentaries whose subjects let us dare to dream, in a way Scatter My Ashes never quite manages:

Boss Women: Anna Wintour – Magazine Editor
Anna Wintour is notoriously calculated and reserved. She has done more for the VOGUE brand than any editor-in-chief before her, but has shared very little about herself in the process. In this 50-minute long BBC documentary, we hear much more from Anna about her process, and even her family, than we ever see in The September Issue, reminding us that underneath the armour, a living, breathing human (albeit a very shrewd one) does exist.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
It’s hard to tell how many stories are true and how many are made up in this 2011 documentary, but as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, editor at VOGUE, and special consultant at the Metropolitain Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Vreeland was an expert at turning fantasy into reality. Through interview clips and narrated excerpts from her biography, The Eye Has to Travel demonstrates how Vreeland personified fashion’s artistry and storytelling down to the very last fibre of her being.

Visionaires: Tom Ford
Tom Ford bluffed his way into a design position with Gucci on a Parson’s degree in architecture and worked his way up to the top job there, at Yves Saint Laurent, and eventually at his own namesake label. In an intimate piece for the OWN Network, Ford reveals his creative process (it includes taking three or four baths a day), talks about his childhood (“I remember telling my mother ‘your hair’s wrong, this is wrong, I hate those shoes, you shouldn’t wear that, that sofa’s ugly’”), and insists that he just has a knack for knowing what the next big trend will be. He is self-confident to the point that it is hard to like him, but he has such clarity of vision and is so accomplished that you can’t help but admire him.

Bill Cunningham’s New York
In Bill Cunningham’s New York, we see how Cunningham’s weekly On the Street column is put together, going behind the scenes at The New York Times and with New York elite to dispel the fabricated fairytale world depicted in the final product. The former milliner’s child-like enthusiasm is infectious, and his unique photographic vision and unusual personality push the story forward and keep us engaged.

The September Issue
The September Issue is a look at the process behind putting together VOGUE’s famed September issue, the largest magazine of the year. Viewers get to see the incredible amount of detail it takes to put together a VOGUE editorial spread and what role a creative director like Grace Coddington plays. She doesn’t put on airs or shy from conflict, but remains perfectly likeable, and that makes her a star.

Valentino: The Last Emperor
We can’t help but be drawn into Valentino: The Last Emperor with its extravagance (palaces and yachts and thousands of hand-sewn sequins) and simplicity (a sketch of a gown drawn with a mere flick of the wrist). “This was the best thing for me to make dresses, I am a disaster in everything else,” he tells us. It seems unlikely. Watching him deftly maneuver his last collection is both fascinating and bittersweet and even though we may never imagine ourselves living his life, this film serves as a good reminder to value and nurture our talents, however limited we may believe them to be.

Fashion Education

A collection of Wornette-approved fashion links from around the web

History: What Did The Renaissance Man Wear? Historian Recreates Outfit from The 16th Century
Change your outfit and change your fortune. Sounds like a fairytale, doesn’t it? Maybe not. A researcher at the University of Cambridge has discovered that dressing for success may have helped one German wine merchant’s son-turned accountant catapult into the nobility. Dr. Ulinka Rublack and dress historian Jenny Tiramani have recreated a piece worn by Matthäus Schwarz based on one of the many detailed portraits Schwarz had commissioned of himself wearing items from his prized wardrobe. The replicated outfit is helping to illuminate the role fashion played politically and socially during the Renaissance. The original item, which was worn by Schwarz on the occasion of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V’s return to Germany after a period of Protestant uprising, demonstrated his respect for the Emperor and commitment to the Catholic faith, and according to Rublack, played a role in Schwarz’s ennoblement a decade later.

Home Economics: Standard Apparel: Our Clothes Don’t Fit and They’re Falling Apart
Sometimes a short piece manages to say so much with just a few carefully selected words. Such is the case with this piece by Linda Besner. As “the first generation for whom made-to-measure clothing is exotic” explains Besner, we adorn ourselves with items manufactured to a standard size meant to fit everyone and no one at the same time. Never before had I considered placing the blame on anyone but myself for the feeling of shame I get when I try something on and it doesn’t fit. By reminding us that for generations clothing was made to the specific measurements of the individual, Besner helps us realize the absurdity of constructing pieces for someone without knowing any specifics about their shape and size. She also touches on other important topics such as garment quality and the human costs of mass production, but what struck me hardest was the thought of just how many women might have a better body image if all of our clothes were custom made to fit.

Social Studies: Pop-Up Museum of Queer History Tumblr
In the 12th issue of WORN, Max Mosher took a look at the evolution of fashion in the gay community in his piece entitled “Out of the Closet.” It is an informative look into a history of the LGBT community that is not widely known or accessible. The Brooklyn-based Pop-Up Museum of Queer History, a grassroots organization dedicated to creating temporary exhibits celebrating LGBT history does the same thing with it’s Tumblr. Quick, digestible posts like this one of a couple in 1946 Greenwich Village give us a window into a way of life that was at that time largely hidden from view. Even though wearing men’s clothing had become more acceptable during the World War II, the sartorial choices of the two women in this photo would still have drawn attention to themselves.

Sex Education: My Gucci Addiction
Until I read this article by Friday Night Lights author and contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Buzz Bissinger, it had never occurred to me how gendered my interaction with fashion media has been. I rarely read about fashion from the male perspective. Bissinger’s account of his complicated relationship to fashion and addiction is a very personal story that doesn’t speak to the fashion experience for all men, but it does dispel the all too commonly held idea that an unhealthy addiction to shopping is the plight of women alone. Bissinger has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on designer items, feeding his leather fetish and providing him with the kind of stimulation he once got from writing. Bissinger himself doesn’t discriminate between women’s and men’s fashion, wearing both and seeing the former as having an “unfair monopoly on feeling sexy.” Nevertheless, clothing has given him a way to “transcend the rigid definitions of sexuality and gender” and reading this piece might help do a bit of the same for the rest of us.

Art: Rumours I’ve Heard about Anna Wintour
As the most talked about woman in fashion and the Queen of Condé Nast, Wintour holds in her hands the power to turn—whether we like it or not—the tides of fashion. But with great power comes great scrutiny, and Wintour has had more than her fair share. Sometimes, however, the rumours come in the form of gently prodding, oddly flattering cartoons like these by illustrator Lisa Hanawalt, published by The Hairpin a few years ago. “Anna Wintour does not have bowel movements. But she does lay stunning eggs,” reads the text on one hilarious drawing in the series. What Hanawalt imagines happening to those eggs is even better.

Funny Devil Face Wears Prada

So here I am, finally working at a real fashion magazine! It’s always been one of my dreams to become a fashion journalist; it’s right up there on my list of childhood aspirations, just below sorceress and rock star. Even so, while I know WORN isn’t your typical fashion publication, I was, at first, a little confused. How come no one has asked me to get them a latte yet? Why has no one thrown a coat on my desk? Where’s my trip to Paris? And why, may I ask, have I already gone into my third month of work without an obligatory song and dance number?

Then I remembered: like many of my childhood dreams, my ideas of what it’s like to work at a fashion magazine are based solely and solidly on what may not be the most realistic of representations. Mainly, movies.

Specifically, there are two films which, while separated by decades, present pretty much the same accepted ideas about the cut-throat world of fashion magazine employment, and which have formed my fashion fantasies: The Devil Wears Prada, and its eerily similar predecessor, Funny Face.

Both films start with the same premise: a young, bookish brunette falls into a hard-to-get gig at a fashion magazine by complete accident. She meets a demanding, influential fashion editor, who insists on a makeover. The bookish brunette resists but is eventually swayed by the glamour of the fashion industry, visits Paris, falls in love, and tries to come to terms with her new identity. This is standard stuff!
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Contest! *cough* The September Issue! *cough*

In grade six, after winning the highly prestigious role of Prancer in the school’s Christmas play, I was convinced of my intimate relationship with luck. I can’t say that wearing festive antlers and a shapeless taupe onesie was the pinnacle of my fashion career, but it was certainly a moment of elementary school glory.

For your sake, oh devoted (Montreal) readers, I hope you have some of that same Prancer luck in you, because it’s time for a contest. For reasons I can’t begin to unders
tand, the long-awaited movie The September Issue is finally coming out in Canada — in October. Yes, the strange month discrepancy annoys me, but the chance to win free tickets does not. In fact, anything free is a friend of mine.
So let’s cut to the chase and dole these hot tamales out to the most deserving ladies and gents. Up for grabs are 10 run-of-engagement passes, valid at all times in Quebec theatres where the movie is playing. The September Issue hits theatres October 23rd. The rules are simple: In the comments write a single sentence starring Ms. Wintour herself, and please, fictional is obviously better. Don’t really know what I’m talking about because it’s late and my brain is casually chugging along in energy saver mode? Here’s an example of something I’m looking for:

Laughing gingerly at the flashing TV screen, Anna fished for another handful of popcorn before speaking to the empty room, “The Hills is really heating up this season!”

We will judge our favourites based on personal biases, comedic value, creativity, and proximity to our hearts. And remember, only enter if you live in Quebec. And now, may the fallacies begin! Deadline is September 20th!

P.S. folks — Here are the links to the official sites (The September Issue+ Les Films Seville)

- Carmen Vicente