10 Essential Fashion Documentaries

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New York Fashion Week opened earlier this week, and we’re celebrating with a list of essential fashion documentaries that go behind the scenes of the industry. Legendary designers, the business of modeling, and Fashion Week itself are all explored in these insider docs covering the catwalks of Italy and Paris, art galleries during the 1980s, and the streets of New York City on an old Schwinn with camera in hand. Feel free to add to add your own picks, below.

Notebook on Cities and Clothes

Wim Wenders directed Notebook on Cities and Clothes shortly after his modern fairy tale, Wings of Desire, was released. The director pondered the nature of art, fashion, identity, and the creative process with Yohji Yamamoto in the 1989 doc. The masterful fashion designer is as quietly elegant as his work. Wenders fills his silences with poetic and philosophical commentary as Yamamoto prepares for a show in Paris. Wenders’ work relies strongly on a sense of place, so meditations on Paris and Tokyo are a welcome addition to the conversation.

Girl Model

Girl Model was one of our staff picks, and the faces of those hollow-cheeked Siberian girls haven’t left our minds since. Weary former model turned model scout Ashley recruits teen girls from a small village for a whirlwind trip to Japan. There, the naive hopefuls are left to fend for themselves and fed with empty promises of contracts and big money. The cycle of exploitation sparked by Ashley and the youth-obsessed agents in Japan is stomach-turning, but directors Ashley Sabin and David Redmon refrain from commenting on the deceitful practices. Girl Model ensures that you’ll never look at another fashion ad the same way again.

Bill Cunningham New York

A humble and charming character, Bill Cunningham has been biking through the streets of New York for decades, snapping images of fashionable strangers and uptown fixtures for the Times’ Style section. The 2010 documentary follows the cheery fashion photographer on the go and inside his tiny apartment, crammed full with boxes and filing cabinets containing his work. (He still shoots with film, too.) There’s no private bathroom, closet, or true bed to speak of there, but the documentary makes it clear that Cunningham’s simplicity doesn’t hinder his passion in the slightest.

The Tents

For years, the large white tents in New York’s Bryant Park marked the start of a week-long, global fashion and media event — or “a utopian village where everyone has cute shoes,” as Queer Eye’s Carson Kressley says in a trailer for The Tents. Go behind the scenes of New York Fashion Week and find out how it all began, as told by some of the greatest designers and insiders.

The Legend of Leigh Bowery

Postmodern pop provocateur Leigh Bowery is the highlight of this 2002 documentary. “I think of myself as a canvas,” he once mused. The queer icon captivated gallery goers and club regulars with his avant-garde style that blurred the lines between fashion and performance art.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel

Fashion pioneer Diana Vreeland changed the face of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but the notable fashion editor led an endlessly eccentric private life. (For starters, she styled her hair with black lacquer and described her flaming red apartment as “a garden in hell.”) It’s all explored in this illuminating documentary featuring the elite designers, photographers, and fashion icons Vreeland influenced throughout her fascinating career.

The September Issue

Fashion’s feared and revered editrix Anna Wintour has been described as the most influential figure in the global fashion industry. R.J. Cutler documents the icy grande dame as she prepares for the magazine’s epic September 2007 issue, which ran over 800 pages and weighed five pounds. We’re treated to a peek inside the Vogue office, where creative director Grace Coddington works as Wintour’s right-hand woman, and we get to know Wintour better — but just a little. As Roger Ebert said in his review: “Although we see her taste constantly at work, the only definite things we learn about it is that she approves of fur and disapproves of black. She shows great affection in a scene with her bright daughter, Katherine. Otherwise, like the Sphinx, she regards.”

Catwalk

Catwalk is a time capsule of one of fashion’s most exciting eras, when the supermodel rose to prominence and beauty standards started to rapidly change. Iconic models Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni are featured, with a particular focus on Turlington, during Spring Fashion Week in the early 1990s. Relish behind-the-scenes footage from the fashion heyday, and look for Gianni Versace (captured a few years before his death) and young John Galliano between photoshoots and runway extravaganzas.

For some “Where are they now?” action, check out About Face: Supermodels Then and Now to listen to industry beauties reflect on their career struggles and triumphs, age, and more.

Valentino: The Last Emperor

Before Valentino retired in 2008, the Italian designer palled around with Andy Warhol, created his signature red dress, outfitted some of the most stylish women in the world (Elizabeth Taylor, Audrey Hepburn, and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis included), and became a master of haute couture fashion. The documentary, which took almost three years to make, captures Valentino nearing the final days of his 45-year career. Director Matt Tyrnauer has immortalized one of the industry’s last true couturiers, who helped define fashion as an art form before brand marketing took over.

Masters of Style: John Galliano

The disgraced John Galliano was dismissed as the head designer from Christian Dior after making anti-semitic remarks in 2011. He made a comeback of sorts earlier this year when he showed a new collection during February New York Fashion Week (with help from Oscar de la Renta and Anna Wintour). But the former Givenchy designer was captured during what might have been the height of his career in 2001 for an installment in the documentary series Masters of Style. It was the same year that Galliano was awarded the Commander of the Order of the British Empire, and he seemed as determined and passionate as ever. Masters of Style reminds us that although fashion’s flamboyant bad boy has temporarily faded from the spotlight, his talent and drive is truly unstoppable.