2020, the year of the fashion film: As a pandemic forced an industry reckoning, a novel medium made an impact

The fashion film is an interesting anomaly — not an ad film, not a feature film, perhaps a niche subset of the short film genre.

Manjima Bhattacharjya December 23, 2020 13:19:03 IST
2020, the year of the fashion film: As a pandemic forced an industry reckoning, a novel medium made an impact

From the virtual Lakme Fashion Week 2020 collection for Pero

Read more from our '2020, the year of...' series.

2020 will be remembered by the fashion industry for many reasons — the end of “seasons” as the industry knew them, the near-death of small and large retailers, and the closure of fashion magazines. The industry faced a harsh evaluation of what fashion stands for, in what’s been called ‘fashion’s Darwinian shake-out’. But the highlight of the year has really been the emergence of the ‘fashion film’.

As everything migrated from offline to online, so did fashion weeks around the world, becoming virtual events and breaking several long-standing traditions of exclusivity by streaming them live for an online audience. The fashion film — a video capsule of about 5-11 minutes that showcases a designer’s clothes — replaced what would otherwise have been their presentation or fashion show at a physical fashion week.

I first came across fashion films at Lakme India Fashion Week in September this year. LIFW 2020 was also held virtually and for the first time was accessible to anyone (no doubt, many of the online events would have been invite-only). It was possible to register to view the fashion films at the appointed time on the website, as one might have if one were attending a show at fashion week. The mini films were of all kinds. From well-known designers to lesser-known ones, from the splashy inaugural kinds to the obscure ‘group show’ ones, and from elaborately themed ones to just models walking before a green screen.

Designers took their ensembles to different locations that gave off a distinct pandemic feel — a deserted Golconda fort, empty parking lots, desolate eateries and only a handful of models appearing in loops as compared to the pre-pandemic glut. In terms of content too there was a sense of the home-bound, a return-to-roots kind of feeling with a focus on saris, handloom, sustainable, organic, slow fashion.

2020 the year of the fashion film As a pandemic forced an industry reckoning a novel medium made an impact

Looks from the virtual Lakme Fashion Week 2020 collections of (L) Gaurang, (R) Raw Mango

What is gained and what is lost in using a fashion film rather than a fashion show to take your designs to the public? Was the touch and feel aspect of fashion missing? Surprisingly not, with many of the designers showing clear textural innovations that you could not touch or feel, but could see and sense. It is likely the online format did not really fulfill the business aspect of fashion week, the buying and the selling that takes place (although there was a separate section of the website devoted to this). But many would argue that fashion weeks ‘died’ or stopped being where business deals were made a long time back.

Instead, the drawback was that what you could see in a fashion film were too few clothes, that looked more like an edit rather than a collection. What emerged was a glimpse, a feel, a peek into an idea. In some cases, even that slim window offered a deeper connect with fashion brands. For instance, some designers used the opportunity to show the process of their craft (11:11’s film starts with the spinning of organic khadi on the charkha and details how the thread is then dyed and prepared to be made into cloth). Some tried to let the viewer into the designer’s head (Raw Mango with its nostalgia for a certain kind of family wedding) or tap into the brand’s feel (Pero with its bright and girly pajama tea-party, like a Bjork music video).

Refreshingly free of the Bollywood influence (except for Manish Malhotra’s film, centred on actor Kartik Aryan), it was a chance for smaller designers who don’t have the showstopper-power, to shine. It felt like a more equal playing ground. A few young and new designers hit bull’s eye with their fashion films while well-known designers visibly faltered. Without the glamourous guests from Bollywood in the front row, they appeared stumped by the challenge of translating their brand into a fashion film. Unlikely winners and losers is often the start of something exciting in every industry.

The fashion film heralds this turn. In some films the tension is evident, between the two creators involved, one the creator of the clothes (the designer) and the creator of the film (the director). It is understandable that one would want to focus on the clothes, while the other would want to see beyond them. Designers are designers, and not filmmakers, at the end of the day. The demands of a fashion film can leave them a little bewildered and challenged to distill their brand to its finest essence. Something that can take years to find.

Recently Chanel streamed its Metier d’Arts collection live from the chandeliered halls of a palatial French chateau — where the show would have been held anyway, had there been no pandemic. But instead of the 200 guests who would have been there, there was an audience of only one — actor Kristen Stewart. The show sent out a message of continuing regardless of setbacks and highlighted the inherent glamour of dressing up, even if you’re dressing up for yourself (and that audience of one). That was Chanel’s essence — that you be the queen of your castle. Chanel chose to go ahead with the fashion show even without any guests, unmasked models taking the catwalk with perfect six feet distances. Chanel streamed it live online, and made that their fashion film.

Of course, the connection between fashion and films has been both close and distant at the same time. Iconic films have made fashion icons, whether it was Audrey Hepburn’s little black dress and tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Uma Thurman’s yellow tracksuit in Kill Bill. But fashion has also tried to keep its distance from films, trying to evolve as design, as art and as an aesthetic, and not be eaten up by the shark that’s the movie industry. The fashion film is an interesting anomaly — not an ad film, not a feature film, perhaps a niche subset of the short film genre.

Miu Miu (Prada’s high fashion offshoot) has been commissioning fashion films since 2011, supporting women directors to make shorts (available on MUBI, Women’s Tales) that examine ‘the impact of clothes on everyday life’. The 20 films commissioned so far are strange, beautiful and fantastical. A nun who speaks a made-up language finds designer clothes washed ashore on a beach. A postman delivers a magic dress to a little girl. A New York loft apartment where clothes hang as décor watches a relationship sour. An app helps people connect through crowdsourcing touch-related services. The films are all obliged to use Miu Miu’s clothes within their context. While the clothes are not the centre of the films, what the films do is establish Miu Miu’s aesthetics and make a point of what they stand for. Obviously, women’s stories told by edgy women film makers, but specially a certain kind of freedom, a self-assuredness that clothes are part of a wider story of being a woman, of gender and identity, and the oddities of living in this century.

The best fashion film moment I’ve seen so far is the latest in Miu Miu’s series: French-Ethiopian filmmaker Mati Diop’s In My Room, a portrait of confinement made during the lockdown in Paris that premiered at the Venice International Film Festival 2020. There is one moment in the whole of the 20-minute film that actually focuses on a dress. But what a dress. With rhinestones studded across its breadth, it glitters on Diop alone in her room one lonely lockdown night, against the backdrop of a large window looking out onto Paris, also glittering. For an unforgettable minute, the dress is Paris. Paris is that dress. And that’s the victory of a good fashion film.

Manjima is a feminist researcher, writer, activist, and the author of Mannequin: Working Women in India's Glamour Industry (Zubaan, 2018). Read her column 'Curious Fashion' here.

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