/ 18 December 2022

The best fashion documentaries to watch these holidays

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Iris Apfel in Iris shows off her unique style. Photo: Bruce Weber/Magnolia Pictures

It has never been more fashionable to be into fashion. TikTok users coin their own trends and fashion aesthetics while Instagram strutters are photographed wearing the latest, ubiquitous it-bags.

Before you pay the R250 a month to access Naomi Campbell’s modelling Masterclass, watch the documentaries that are the foundation of a solid fashion library of required watching. This billion-dollar industry has fashion icons and publications as shining beacons of hope, but also tortured hands who make the world’s clothes. 

Gospel According to André (2017) 

André Leone Talley was a flamboyant fashion journalist who broke into the industry in the 1980s and became a highly successful editor at publications such as Vogue and Women’s Wear Daily.

Gospel According to André explores the bombastic personality of Talley, who grew up in the segregated South of the United States and moved to New York City, where he was taken under the wing of Diana Vreeland, and befriended by Andy Warhol and his artistic juggernauts.

He was everything that the mainstream didn’t want him to be — a tall, outstanding, gay, black man who cemented his place of influence and importance in fashion. Talley said “you can be aristocratic without being born into an aristocratic family”, and that was his affirmation to securing oneself in spheres where one is not automatically welcomed.

Gospel According to André can be streamed through Apple TV.  

The September Issue (2009)

The September Issue follows a daunting day at Vogue, under the tight, military-like, yet embellished control of editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. The September issue of the magazine is the biggest edition of the publication as September is the January of the fashion world in the Northern Hemisphere — a time to make a statement, to be groundbreaking and news-making.

Even though the documentary focuses on Wintour, other just-as-intimidating legends are key figures in the documentary; because there wouldn’t be a Vogue without them. Grace Coddington, a young Edward Enningul and André Leone Talley make an appearance, including Talley’s famous quote, “it’s a famine of beauty”, when speaking on an unimpressive fashion collection.

In one year, almost 13 million women will pick up this highly anticipated issue of the magazine. And so, there is a lot of pressure to deliver.

The September Issue is prescribed viewing (and reading) for those wanting to understand who are some of the most important figures in fashion media, not just at Vogue. The September issue of Vogue is a compendium of who’s who in fashion, but The September Issue is a unique look at the people who pave the way for today’s fashion media.

The September Issue can be streamed through Apple TV.  

Iris (2015) 

The physical embodiment of style is forever and Iris Apfel’s style has spanned over 75 years of influence in fashion and interior design.

“Anyone can be fashionable because you can buy what’s trendy and in vogue, but you can’t buy style. It comes from within,” Apfel says in the 2015 documentary Iris.

Apfel’s approach to fashion and style is poetic, fun and funky. Her clothing and accessories compose a new vision everyday, but her words — compared to Anna Wintour — make Apfel less intimidating despite her legendary status.

In Iris, audiences see the more playful side to those who take style — not fashion — seriously. Apfel’s pulse is her excitement about living, noting she “was the first woman to wear jeans. It sounds crazy because it was”.

Apfel’s textile company Old World Weavers was also integral to the more optimistic side of America’s presidents. Apfel and her late husband, Carl Apfel, provided fabrics for nine US presidencies.

Iris can be streamed via Netflix.

Franca: Chaos and Creation (2016)

Franca: Chaos and Creation tells the story of the late Franca Sozzani, a former editor of Vogue Italia before she died from lung cancer in 2016. Rebellion was her calling card. Her images are all about pushing fashion to what it isn’t. Sozzani’s Vogue showed models boxing, on the frontlines and on surgical tables.

The fashion-uninitiated might look at her imagery and ask, “What does this have to do with fashion?” But for those who understand fashion as artistic expression, Sozzani’s Vogue shows one’s ability to do fashion exactly how one wants to, which transcends the boxes inside which fashion tends to stick.

It’s incredible to think institutions such as Vogue and its parent company Condé Nast allowed an editor-in-chief to publish such macabre and experimental imagery in the name of fashion. She was also the first to feature an all-black-modelled editorial in Vogue featuring Naomi Campbell.

Franca is a great documentary that shows how one’s style conviction that deviates from the style norms is just as important as the safer, more commercial side of fashion media. There is even space for it at Vogue.

Franca’s editorial style and the reactions to it can be compared to that of the late Alexander McQueen, whose creations were dark and disturbing to most, but to the fashion world were cerebral and perfectly well-timed.

Franca: Chaos and Creation can be streamed on Netflix. 

The True Cost (2015)

The True Cost is the fashion-facing exposé of the ugly side of fashion by Andrew Morgan, the director whose work focuses on modern society’s dominant industrial culture.

The True Cost speaks to the promise of globalisation, a win-win scenario where consumers in wealthier cities buy goods at cheaper prices, while people in poorer countries get jobs that are supposed to lift them out of poverty. But this often does not happen.

Despite the glamour of fashion media and fashion’s importance to one’s identity, it is a profit-driven industry and clothing is the product. The True Cost is a stark reminder of the contrast between truth versus reality, a concept that drives the fashion industrial complex.  

For a long time, behind our clothing was an untold story of the garment workers in India, Cambodia, and Vietnam, who pay the price for cheap clothing. Garment factories collapse, workers breathe in toxic fumes and microfibres, while living beneath the global poverty line.

The True Cost explores how the fashion industry today is based on materialism more than personal style and conviction, which come at the expense of the planet and the hands of those who mass produce the world’s trend-driven clothing. Difficult viewing, The True Cost is a necessary watch for anyone learning about fashion and those already within the industry as a reminder that the fashion industry is not always as glamorous as it seems.

The True Cost can be streamed on YouTube.

The First Monday in May (2016)

The Met Ball, or as it is colloquially known, the Met Gala, is one of those rare events that brings the eyes of fashion folk and non-fashion folk to the same stage.

On the first Monday in May every year, the ultra-exclusive Met Gala takes place at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art where the dual power of art and fashion collide. There is a life-long debate of whether fashion is art, but what is certain is that both fashion and art hold the power to create a fantasy, and the Met Gala theatre allows for fantastical storytelling.

The Met Ball is the biggest social fashion event of the year, yet it’s the most elusive, because no one knows what happens inside, unless you’re one of the few handpicked guests to score an invite. The Met Ball is also chaired by Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, with guest chairs every year.

The First Monday in May is an incredibly special film that takes fashion outsiders and insiders into the fashion event of the year. It also reminds audiences that the Met Gala is a fundraiser and not just a dress-up party for celebrities.

The First Monday in May can be streamed on Apple TV.  

Scenes from ‘The First Monday in May’ and ‘The True Cost’. Screen grab: Disarming Films

Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 (2018)

Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 speaks to the power of social capital, politics and rule-breaking subcultures within the fashion industry and beyond.

The Nike Air Jordan 1 is the iconic, controversial shoe made for basketball legend Michael Jordan that made footwear history in 1985. The Nike Air Jordan 1 is one of the most sought-after sneakers for sports fans and sneakerheads alike.

Nike’s creative director at the time, Peter Moore, raced to design a perfect sneaker for its newly signed rookie basketball player. Jordan was not a fan of Nike’s signature sneaker design in the 1980s.

Jordan’s new sneaker silhouette was paired with a black and red colourway to match the colours of his team, the Chicago Bulls, but the shoe was controversial within the National Basketball Association, (NBA). 

The majority of basketball shoes had a white base, but the Air Jordan 1 was bold and loud, leading the NBA to ban the shoe, which only brought more attention to it.

Nike ignored the NBA’s letter to take the shoe off the court, and paid a $5 000 fine for every game that Jordan played wearing the shoes.

The documentary also illustrates the weight of social capital that the world’s biggest brands carry. At the time, these brands were Adidas and Converse, with Nike slowly on the up. The Air Jordan brand spawned from the signature shoe, and demonstrates the need for credible endorsement for fashion products to land in the hands, or on the feet, of the right consumers.  

The Nike Air Jordan 1 is an icon not only in sports, but for fashion. 

Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 can be streamed on Apple TV.  

Unbanned: The Legend of AJ1 speaks to the power of social capital, politics and rule-breaking subcultures within the fashion industry and beyond.

McQueen (2018)

The late Alexander McQueen was one of the most prolific, macabre, and skilful fashion designers in history. Like Franca Sozzani, the genius in McQueen’s clothes lay in the violence, darkness and artistic controversy interwoven throughout his clothes.

“I don’t want to do a show that feels like you went to Sunday lunch. I want you to feel repulsed or exhilarated,” McQueen said after one of his most infamous shows, Spring/Summer 2001. In the show’s dramatic finale, a giant glass box shatters to reveal writer Michelle Orey reclining fully nude across a chaise longue, wearing only a full-face mask and a breathing tube.

McQueen took both the fashion world and himself to the depths of the human mind, which can push one to lose one’s mind. McQueen operated within fashion as a genius, but one cannot ignore McQueen as a fashion anarchist and a tortured artist. In McQueen, the designer’s clothes are beautiful, offensive, colourful and outrageous. McQueen’s death by suicide was a blow to the fashion world. 

From his time with the sharp tailors on Savile Row, at the head of Givenchy, to the death of his muse, fashion director Elizabeth Blow, McQueen was always one of those genius designers who was destined for doom.

McQueen can be streamed on Apple TV.