WHEN MOST PEOPLE think of fashion, they think of splashy magazine editorials, whatever their favorite celebrity was last pictured in, and/or what they will wear to the office or on their next date. Spoiler alert: there is much more to fashion than meets the eye. The styles that define a season, and sometimes a generation, are the labor of love of designers and their loyal production teams, who rely in turn on steering from powerful financial backers and fashion journalists. Creativity, innovation, cultural forces and business expectations must converge before a collection reaches the runway, much less a sales rack. If learning what goes on behind the scenes in the fascinating and sometimes treacherous world of fashion is your thing, here are some ideas to keep you busy this summer.
“Dior and I,” a 2014 documentary feature film directed by Frédéric Tcheng, is an exclusive, insider look at the genesis of a collection at a revered French fashion house. It is a tribute to the creative genius of Raf Simons, the then newly appointed artistic director who was assigned the task of designing his first haute couture collection in less than eight weeks. This gargantuan task takes most designers six to eight months to complete. The film documents every detail of Mr. Simons’ creative process, from studying designs and fabric samples in the Dior archives and pinning prototypes on the models to making final adjustments before each one steps on to the runway. The show itself (which was a monumental success) takes place in a hotel particulier in one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in Paris, where in accordance with the designer’s wishes, the walls were covered from floor to ceiling in fresh flowers as a counterpoint to the abstract floral designs in the clothing worn by his models. In more intimate footage, Mr. Simons muses over the magnitude of his task, and the importance of defying expectations (“I am not a minimalist!” he says at one point, exasperated). Excerpts from Dior’s memoir recited in voiceover echo these sentiments, drawing subtle parallels between two great creative minds. The film also pays homage, in touching and unscripted footage, to the often forgotten petites mains – the seamstresses and craftsmen – who bring a designer’s vision to life. Perhaps as a reflection of the personalities of Simons and Dior themselves, the film is a measured, thoughtful and elegant presentation of both the art and business of fashion. (June 4 is the last day to see “Dior and I” at Landmark‘s E Street Cinema in D.C.)
Bertrand Bonello’s feature film “Saint Laurent,” on the other hand, is anything but measured. It is a flashy, colorful, in-your-face portrait not only of the man, but of an era – the late 60s to the 80s – where excess in all things except modesty reigned. Saint Laurent started his career as a designer for Dior in Paris where he contributed greatly to the ongoing success of the house, but he eventually left to found his own label with the support and guidance of his life-long partner Pierre Bergé, a ruthless and brilliant businessman. The film portrays the designer’s meteoric rise, but also the debauchery (in sometimes disturbing detail) that ultimately leads to his fall. This is not the first film on the subject. “Yves Saint Laurent,” directed by Jalil Lespert, was released last summer. Both seem to suggest that the genius and the madness of this great artist were inexorably intertwined, and his ultimate demise unavoidable. While fascinating, it is a somewhat less than satisfying explanation for the source of creativity. Were Saint Laurent’s mental illness and self-destructive habits really necessary in order for him to create great fashion? A newly sober John Galliano, the former artistic director at Dior who recently staged a dramatic comeback by taking over the helm at Maison Margiela, might have something to say about that. “Saint Laurent” is currently playing at the Angelica Pop-Up at Union Station.
Diane von Furstenberg’s autobiography, “The Woman I Wanted to Be,” is an intimate and candid look at a life well lived. Ms. von Furstenberg is many things: mother, wife, socialite, designer, muse and businesswoman, to name a few. Most of her adult life has been spent as a member (a princess, to be precise) of the jet-set that hops from one glamorous place or occasion to the next. She surrounds herself with wildly talented and successful people, including her husband Barry Diller, who happens to be one of the most powerful men in the entertainment industry. But what sets Ms. von Furstenberg apart from the other members of her elite tribe is a fierce desire to be her own person. She created the iconic silk jersey wrap dress in 1970 and defying the norms for her social class, went to work on building a fashion empire that now includes apparel, footwear and accessories. Her book describes the ups and downs of running a fashion business, which in her case included going from being called the “most marketable woman in fashion since Coco Chanel” in a 1976 Newsweek cover story to virtually losing her company a few decades later. Ms. von Furstenberg also speaks of her personal setbacks, including a battle with cancer, the untimely death of close family members and several failed romances. The book is a revealing look at the self-doubts, wisdom, humor and grit of the woman behind the fashion myth.
In “The Battle of Versailles,” author Robin Givhan (see MyLittleBird interview) brings to life a seminal moment in American fashion: the one where a group of American designers (Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows, Halston, Anne Klein and Oscar de la Renta) took on the French fashion establishment (Marc Bohan of Christian Dior, Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Emanuel Ungaro), and came out on top. It is hard to believe that before this runway show was staged at the Palace of Versailles in 1973, American designers were not considered to be in the same league, much less invited to present in the same venues, as French designers. A Pulitzer Prize winner in criticism for her fashion coverage and the Washington Post’s fashion critic, the depth of Ms. Givhan’s knowledge of the subject matter is matched only by the fluidity of her writing style. She recounts in careful detail, and with just the right amount of insider anecdotes the events leading up to, and the participants in, a fashion show that was supposed to be a fundraiser but turned into a performance that would forever alter the balance of power in the fashion world.
“China: Through the Looking Glass,” the new exhibition (through August 16, 2015) at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, organized by The Costume Institute in collaboration with the Department of Asian Art, is a breathtaking exploration of the influence of Chinese art and culture on Western fashion. Dramatic sights, sounds and lighting immerse visitors in a cultural journey that spans three floors of the museum. Traditional Chinese music is played throughout the exhibit and large screens display selected scenes from filmic representations of China, while more than 100 examples of haute couture and avant grade ready-to-wear is displayed in juxtaposition to Chinese paintings, costumes, porcelains and other art. In one section of the Asian wing, mannequins wearing haute couture evening gowns that incorporate traditional blue and white porcelain motifs strike poses before an encased “dress” made entirely from fragments of actual blue porcelain. In another room, ancient pottery and other common objects are displayed in cases alongside gowns by designers Lanvin and Saint Laurent, whose silhouettes or embellishments echo the shapes or adornments of the Chinese artifacts. A stunning installation in another section, a pagoda surrounding a mirrored lily pond, features mannequins in opulent gowns that seem to float in mid-air under a luminous moon. Although the exhibition focuses on China as a source of inspiration for modern designers, its real achievement is to prove, as if such proof is needed, that in fashion inspiration knows no boundaries – geographic, temporal or any other.
Sylvia Colella blogs about fashion and lifestyle-related subjects. A former Parisienne, she is obsessed with all things chic and glamorous.