Stream Films About Fashion I: Documentaries

The September Issue 2009 Directed by R.J. Cutler. In fashion, September is the new year, time to introduce fresh trends. 144 year-old Vogue tries to outdo itself with a telephone book-sized September issue, stuffed with advertising and editorial content as well as longer fashion spreads – a kind of muscle flexing. The film barely covers a portrait of then editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, with a behind the scenes look at the creation of Vogue’s 2007 edition. Like The First Monday in May (see below), it tracks the process over many months to deadline.

We see Wintour regularly lock horns with former model, then Creative Director Grace Coddington (considered the best stylist in fashion bar none), the only person who’ll stand up to her, watch the decisive boss cut employees off at the knees where submissions are concerned, observe her looking bored or irritated as designers show lines and sit at runway shows in her sunglasses. Iconic designers naturally celebrate the dragon lady while Vogue does nothing to soften her image.

Never polite, but always soft-spoken, she shows anything unsaid. Heads of department stores and couturiers alike appear submissive. Publisher Tom Florio calls Wintour “the most important figure in a 300 billion dollar industry.” Particulars are less present here than primary personalities, but it’s a glimpse at something you won’t otherwise see. NOTE: Ms. Coddington is no longer with Vogue. Employees carefully pronounce Anna’s name “Ona,” as in “on.” Free with Amazon Prime.

The Times of Bill Cunningham 2010 Directed by Mark Bozak. Narrated by Sarah Jessica Parker. Photographer/Fashion Historian Bill Cunningham, whose impromptu photos captured New York’s fashion at its highest and lowest for 38 years in his New York Times “On the Street” and “Evening Hours” sections, was arguably the nicest, most modest, and talented artist in his field. (We met several times working on the same project.) Ubiquitous in his blue smock, out on his bicycle  in all weather, unwilling to accept food or drink at a lavish event, he enthusiastically lived to “document” until his death in 2016.

Cunningham was born to a conservative Boston family and had no idea where his passion for fashion came from. He worked at Bonwit Teller in Boston, then New York, here doubling as a milliner (the label was “William J.”), eventually opening his own small salon. Stationed near Paris in the army, all the corporal’s leaves were spent at runway shows. When he returned, Cunningham fell in with the two well connected ladies who owned Chez Ninon dressing much of New York society. Except for Gloria Swanson, Hollywood stars, he notes, had no style off the screen.

The ladies mentioned Cunningham to John Fairchild, securing him a job at Women’s Wear Daily as a writer. When gifted with a camera, the young man took to the streets. He quit WWD because it used his work to mock. “I couldn’t live with myself.” An inadvertent photo of Greta Garbo provided entrée to The New York Times. The photographer swears he was looking at her nutria coat when he took the shot. The rest is history. Permission to  photograph was no longer necessary. People vied for inclusion. Still, the artist’s opinion was, “I’m just the fluff. I fill around the ads, if we have any.”

Bill Cunningham wore only hand-me-downs (from the best sources) or thrift shops clothes and lived for 50 years in a tiny Carnegie Hall Studio crammed with filing cabinets of photos and a single mattress. He was immensely generous to those in need. The film interweaves footage and still shots with a one-on-one interview by its director. Only once does he retreat – a question about the height of AIDS viscerally affecting. “More than anyone else in the city, he (Cunningham) has the whole visual history of the last 40 or 50 years of New York.” (Oscar de la Renta) Rent on Amazon Prime.

Bill Cunningham New York 2011 Directed by Richard Press. This film has less to do with Cunningham’s past than his then present. We see him in his cluttered apartment (and that of elderly artist neighbors), meticulously working on layout with an art director at the New York Times, bicycling (he owned 29 bicycles to date, 28 having been stolen), photographing in all weather, at glamorous New York events, and at Fashion Week in Paris. When Cunningham started there, fashion houses took their own photos. Only he and another professional showed up for St. Laurent’s first ready-to-wear presentation.

Repeat subjects Iris Apfel, Anna Wintour, and Patrick McDonald aka The Dandy speak. Annette de la Renta calls him the kindest man. “He would never print a cruel picture.” Harold Koda of The Metropolitan Museum notes, “These are not paparazzi shots, they encapsulate life.”All agree, Cunningham is a true egalitarian. He was given a camera with the instructions, “use it like a notebook,” around the time street style emerged in the 1960s. At the start, it frustrated him to see all that color and not be able to afford color film.

Annie Flanders, founder of Details Magazine “a platform to unknown downtown designers), where the photographer would go after his “day job,” says he would never accept payment. “If you don’t take money, they can’t tell you what to do, kid. Money’s the cheapest thing, liberty/freedom the most expensive.” (The magazine published up to 125 of Cunningham’s photos per issue.) No one knows anything about his private life, though a very few direct questions are answered at the end. “I try to play a straight game. In New York that’s almost impossible.” Free with Amazon Prime.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s 2013 Directed by Matthew Miele. The history of New York City luxury goods department store Bergdorf Goodman mirrors social eras through which it and the well heeled have thus far endured. It grew from a tailor shop near Union Square, to 32nd Street, Rockefeller Center, and finally Fifth Avenue/Army Plaza. (The Goodmans once lived in a 17 room penthouse above the store.)

The film features predictable praise from designers who aspire to be represented or are championed, on-the-job glimpses of top Personal Shopper/now Director of Personal Shopping, Betty Halbreich,* anecdotes from Andrew Goodman as well as former and current Fashion Directors Dawn Mello and Linda Fargo, both star-makers.

What’s most captivating and deserves a documentary of its own is following Display Director/now Senior Director for Display Presentation, David Hoey, as he puts together the store’s magnificent Christmas windows, arguably the best in the city since single competitor Simon Doonan retired from Barney’s. The film’s title is lifted from the caption of a 1990 Victoria Roberts  cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker. Free with Amazon Prime * (Halbreich’s memoir I’ll Drink to That: A Life in Style, with a Twist is recommended to style mavens.)

The First Monday in May 2016 Directed by Andrew Rossi. Once a year, the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates opening its showcase Costume Institute exhibition and hosts a multi-million dollar fundraiser called The Met Ball. Founded in 1948, it remains the biggest, most important fashion party in the country. In 1995, Anna Wintour of Conde Nast assumed the chair and has ruled with a stylish iron hand ever since, raising considerable money. What was once attended by society and fashion is now peopled (about 500 to dine) with the addition of music and movie stars.

This documentary takes us through a year of preparation for the splendid Chinese-inspired fashion exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass that integrated apparel and accessories with museum artifacts. We follow Institute Director Harold Koda, Head Curator Andrew Bolton, and Wintour from concept to red carpet. There are designers, visits to China and Paris, parentheses in basement workrooms where clothes are handled like delicate glassware; meetings with director (of the accompanying show) Baz Luhrman, lighting and production designers, Wintour’s devoted minions.

Dividing the film into segments, we get closer and closer as the deadline looms like a thriller, diplomacy is the watchword (at least in front of the camera), and perfectionism reigns. Time spent at the preceding Alexander McQueen Exhibit doesn’t fit. Otherwise, this is an entertaining and fascinating look at what the enormous enterprise takes to come together –oh the seating issues! – as well as public interest in fashion. By the time attendees parade before a vase covered by 250,000 roses and present to press, one can’t help but think of Gomorra. Rent on Amazon Prime.

The Gospel According to Andre (Journalist and Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley) 2018 Directed by Kate Novack. André Leon Talley was raised by his cleaning lady grandmother in the segregated, Jim Crow South to become an influential tastemaker, curator, and larger than life fixture on the social scene. No longer slim, the 6’6” style arbiter is extremely unmissable in flamboyant, bespoke caftans, capes, and coats. Multiple degrees in French literature served him well. Talley says Julia Child propelled him towards France.

Talley arrived in New York with a letter of introduction to Diana Vreeland, then running the Metropolitan Museum’s Costume Institute. He became her good right arm. Vreeland then set him up with Interview Magazine. As the first non-white-blonde-debutante to be at Andy Warhol’s front desk, he garnered attention. Nights meant Studio54. Women’s Wear Daily hired him next. The journalist arrived in Paris (for them) with 13 pieces of non-matched luggage – a gaff that wouldn’t happen again. After that, he landed at Vogue, first under Grace Mirabella, then Anna Wintour.

Designers describe, praise, and/or ask for feedback. Wintour is less unabashedly positive. Wealthy friends ask Talley along to advise on garment choice and fit. He sits in the front row at European shows and stops celebrities at The Met Ball, complaining when they pass. “He helped break down a lot of walls.” “His bombastic personality gave people energy.” “He was like the only black Rockette.” A woman at St. Laurent called him “Queen Kong.”

A vivid portrait. Rent on Amazon Prime. Discarded by Anna Wintour, Talley has just authored a second memoir called The Chiffon Trenches (the first was “A.L.T.”) if you want more of him.

Iris 2014 Directed by Albert Maysles. Iris Apfel, 90 at the time this film was made, calls herself “an octogenarian starlet.” Having become late in life a fashion icon/stylist/licensor/ teacher, she’s enjoying the hell out of every exhausting minute. “I was influenced by my mother who worshiped at the altar of accessories” says the woman known to wear ten different bracelets on each arm with three to six oversize necklaces. When Iris was a teenager Mrs. Loehman, who oversaw her family store, told the girl she would never be pretty, but she had style.

Iris Barrel worked for an interior designer, then opened her own successful decorating business. Two years after marrying Carl Apfel, they launched Old World Weavers which reproduced fabrics from the 17th through 20th century. Nine American presidents utilized the firm for White House restoration. Their fabrics are in homes and museums all over the world. The couple traveled widely twice a year accruing references, fabrics, decorative objects, toys and clothes that caught her eye. Iris negotiates!

When the Apfels sold the business, she concentrated on wearables. Bespoke pants were made of upholstery fabric, jackets of woven blankets. Ethnic and antique pieces were mixed with couture. Iris’s sense of play arrives by way of self presentation and quick, dry wit. The most recent chapter of her life began when the Metropolitan Museum had a Costume Institute exhibit cancelled and asked whether they might show part of her collection. With no budget for promotion, it was a roaring success and put her on the map.

Iris was interviewed. She consulted, started a college program, appeared in ads, licensed jewelry to HSN, and accepted speaking engagements. Captivating everyone around her, she made new friends. There are several books. The best thing is, of course, to see and hear the woman herself. As always, Albert Maysles does a wonderful job integrating her private and public life, illuminating a persona that exemplifies iconoclastic taste and joie de vie. Fun! Rent on Amazon Prime.  

Making the Cut Season 1. Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn ride again! This competition, unlike the pair’s previous seasons on Project Runway, features established international designers who’ve worked many years in the field, yet are far from household names. Competition to be recognized as the next global brand (we’ll see) spans over a season with runway shows at the end of each challenge, and designer rather than celebrity judges.

There’s no novelty for novelty’s sake in this iteration of the formula. Contestants are likewise not selected for unstable/outrageous characters. Marketing savvy and point of view are paramount. The pot is one million dollars. Winning looks can be purchased online. Intriguing. Free with Amazon Prime.

Top Bigstock photo: Legendary photographer Bill Cunningham documenting the NYC LGBT Gay Pride March in Manhattan on June 30, 2013.

About Alix Cohen (918 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.