Opinion: Is "peak fashion documentary" killing the fashion tome?
When I saw an article advertising a new fashion documentary on André Leon Talley I knew I knew we’d reached 'peak fashion documentary' territory. The larger-than-life (in-life?) American Vogue editor-at-large has a film called “The Gospel According To André” coming out in May.
It charts his humble beginnings growing up in North Carolina to being one of America’s most well-known fashion characters.
He just adds to the many designers, brands and egos who have released documentaries over the last few years. We all know how the treatment goes: a new designer diarising their first "crucial" collection, a celebration of an eccentric fashion "icon" or a big opening or event and the drama surrounding it. It’s all played out in the 90 minutes or so of devoted film. Done.
It’s all very watchable content, even for those who wouldn’t know their Simone Rocha from their Ferrero Rocher. Most recently we’ve had Westwood, Blahnik and Noten get the fash-doc once over, and with a new McQueen one on it’s way, the output shows no signs of slowing down.
"Fashion has become something of an entertainment industry, and the fashion doco' is an effective way of educating an audience keen on learning about the fashion industry's players, its big brands and the myths that surround them. Expect a lot more,” says Jamie Huckbody, European Editor for Harper's BAZAAR Australia.
Netflix and the like needs content and fashion is a truly visual medium with many can’t-make-them-up type characters perfectly cast in their Devil Wears Prada roles.
I wanted to write something about the rise of the fash-doc and its growth for while, but it was a visit to the London Book Fair that got me thinking about the reason why we’ve hit peak fashion documentary.
It’s basically replaced the fashion book for the younger generation.
There are definitely less fashion monographs being produced on brands and designers ATM. Large, definitive books just don’t seem as cool anymore, and feel almost dead in comparison to the documentary.
There’s also been a generational shift. Under the elegant expanse of Olympia, I looked at all these books and I thought, who is buying them? It’s the older, wealthier generations. The ones who have the luxury of time, money and space.
“Generation Rent”- younger people - aren’t buying these books anymore. Even if they could afford them, they’ve got nowhere to store them and they certainly don’t want the additional baggage of cart shelves of expensive books around every time they move. They often don’t even have enough room for the coffee table, let alone the door stopper books to go on it.
Why buy a weighty and expensive Taschen or Assouline when you can watch the documentary? You’re only going to look at the book once, anyway, most probably. You can stream a video anytime you like, plus we are all so used to consuming content in this way.
Huckbody disagrees, saying: "Over the past three years, I've been working very closely with the millennial generation as a university lecturer, and there is still a huge appetite for books; especially books that offer an insight into 'other worlds'. This might be anything from the black and white photography of Karlheinz Weinberger to the books that are published alongside fashion exhibitions such as the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty book. For a lot of 'Generation Rent', the book offers a different experience to a picture glanced momentarily on social media."
I agree that social media is a very quick, disposable and, sometimes, unsatisfactory medium for fashion history and I’m not going to go to the extreme and pronounce the book dead (just yet!), I’m just saying the fashion documentary has proven massively popular and it’s a modern case of you've bought the designer T-shirt now watch the documentary on it.
Traditional forms of consuming information are changing and adapting and the fashion book was always ripe to be replaced by film. Film can illustrate movement, show catwalks, people and really gives consumers a feel for what they are seeing. Add the music of the time, interviews and you get a 360 view, albeit one the brand or designer wants you to see, but then, hey, books can be just as commissioned or narcissistic.
Not all films meet with the subject’s approval. We recently saw Westwood fall out with the makers of her documentary and encourage people not to see it. It had the opposite effect, gave it more exposure and we all know that it’s good for her anarchic image.
Some of these documentaries won’t do its subjects justice, others will surprise you with how interesting they actually are.
What is great is, by replacing the book, fashion has got a much larger audience. It would have been a select, passionate few buying these books originally, but now everybody has access to give the documentary the first 10 mins and see if it piques their interest enough to watch it until the end.
Marcus Jaye is founder & creative director of thechicgeek.co.uk. Read more here.