5 Great Documentaries on Iconic Fashion Designers

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5 Great Documentaries on Iconic Fashion Designers

No matter how much the general public brushes up on GQ and Vogue, it’s hard to really get the sense of the “insider” part of the high-fashion world. Because fashion shows tend to be reserved for the hyper-rich, hyper-elite, and are invite-only, it’s a particular kind of treat to watch real behind-the-scenes footage of the world’s most stylish people at work. This handful of docs show us the glamorous dreams—as well as the frantic cutting and sewing—behind five legendary fashion designers.

1. L’Amour Fou (2010)

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At first, this exceedingly quiet film seems to offer little in the way of insight: through the laconic accounts of long-time partner Pierre Bergé, the story of fashion industry icon Yves Saint Laurent is laid out in strikingly economical detail. He gained notoriety, and with it critical respect, as he lost much of a perspective on the bounds of his wealth and the impenetrability of his depression. In fact, upon learning Laurent had only a few weeks to live due to brain cancer, Bergé elected to keep the information from his partner—and husband, married only a few days before Laurent’s death—because he knew the designer wouldn’t be able to functionally deal with the news. In these moments, L’amour fou plays out like a touching, though slight, testament to a great artist and the unyielding love some people felt for him. It’s probably no surprise that as his profile rose, Laurent began to pull away, both physically and mentally, from the person with whom he chose to spend his life.

Yet, the film’s success lies in the way it thoughtfully dwells over every insignificant piece of rare art or expensive accoutrement amassed by the couple over their lifetimes, so much so that (especially with Laurent’s presence removed) Bergé’s home looks little more than a stuffy, poorly organized museum—fastidious and far from homely. And then, when Bergé endeavors to sell all of it on auction, the sense of loss grows to tenuous levels: Is he trying to find closure, or instead proving that everything they accumulated did nothing to make their lives any better, or any worse, when viewed in retrospect? Bergé, the inheritor of an astounding amount of money due to the auction (which Thoretton documents plainly, watching Bergé as he calmly hears one astronomical closing bid after another), finds nothing in the end but whatever security all that wealth provides … which, as we watch Bergé blankly stare out of a dreary window, Come Aguiar’s perfectly nuanced score accompanying his silence, feels like even more of nothing at all. —Dominic Sinacola


2. Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston (2010)

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For anyone with even a passing interest in the decadent New York culture of the ’70s or a wish for a time machine back to Studio 54, Ultrasuede is an enjoyable trip. Halston first shot to fame by outfitting Jacqueline Kennedy for her husband’s inauguration. He was to become a fixture of the disco movement, and his sweeping, minimal gowns—with luxurious fabrics and sexy cuts—were popular with everyone from Liza Minnelli to Anjelica Huston. Although this film has the odd quirk (mainly the filmmaker’s own vanity), it’s an enjoyably flashy watch nonetheless.


3. Valentino: The Last Emperor (2009)

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There are few more iconic names in fashion that that of Valentino Garavani, a man whose fledgling years in the industry were in Paris and Rome of the ’60s. The last word in elegance, Valentino broke through to the international smart set when he (like Halston) dressed Jacqueline Kennedy. One of the few remaining “big names” and couturiers left in the industry, Valentino was on the verge of retirement when this doc was made. The filmmakers capture the lavish lifestyle of the diminutive Italian—palatial residences, fresh-cut flowers and celebrity friends—along with his scintillating sartorial creations. But the film is also keen to show how tenacious—and occasionally nervous—Mr. Valentino is about his clothing, even after all these years.


4. Women He’s Undressed (2015)

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You may not have heard of Orry-Kelly, but you’ve definitely seen his gowns—and the women who have worn them: Ava Gardner, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe. The incredibly prolific Hollywood costume designer emigrated from Australia and had his first film credit in 1932. Around that time, he moved in with another immigrant—from England—who would become known as Cary Grant. Orry-Kelly’s career stretched into the ’60s, designing clothes for classics like Casablanca. His specialty was to sculpt and shape “problem” figures, hide pregnancies, lift busts, and otherwise keep the magic of Hollywood stars intact with his costuming. Director Gillian Anderson also examines some of Kelly’s personal life and apparently open homosexuality. Although the film suffers from a few tacky re-enactment scenes, the glamour of the old Hollywood setting keeps things suitably interesting.


5. Dior and I (2014)

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It’s hard not to be impressed by the hard craft that a designer like Raf Simons puts into executing a perfect runway show. During the filming of Dior and I, Simons was the brand new creative director at Christian Dior, and tasked with creating his debut collection. Simons had been a wunderkind at directional fashion design with his own label and then at Jil Sander, but Dior was a whole new sort of challenge. As much a tribute to the dogged work ethic and skill of the team of seamstresses as it is to Simons himself, this is a dedicated “behind-the-scenes” look, with all the drama it entails. You find yourself surprisingly breathless by the time the first model hits the catwalk. If the tension doesn’t get you, the setting—chateau walls spilling with roses—probably will.


Christina Newland is a writer on film and culture for VICE, Esquire, Sight & Sound, Little White Lies, and others. She’s a displaced New Yorker in love with ’70s Hollywood and boxing flicks.