Our industry panel featured the fashion film veteran Raven Smith, formerly a commissioning director at NOWNESS; independent filmmaker and photographer Stella Scott who has been working with a diverse range of clients across fashion and fine art; and Isaac Lock, a writer and more recently also a filmmaker known for his astute and often funny output. The aim of the panel was to grapple with the question of where fashion film is at right now. More specifically, we wanted to probe how it operates within today’s fast-changing fashion and media landscape, and what its values might be beyond commercial application. Finally, we also wanted to address the bigger issue of how the moving image has changed the fashion industry so far.
There has been some talk among the fashion industry recently about whether it’s enough for fashion film to just show clothes in motion. When talking to all kinds of fashion practitioners and critics, I have often sensed a certain level of dissatisfaction with fashion film – its quality and its perceived limitations. It is sometimes argued that fashion film has not yet fulfilled its promise, or conversely, that it has already exhausted itself, accompanied by suggestions that storytelling may be a way forward. So it seemed pertinent to use the issue of narrative as a way to frame our discussion. Certainly, the work of all the three panellists veers strongly towards narrative and this (though not exactly pre-mediated) presented itself as an interesting contrast to the kind of material that Lucy showcased in the session before, which clearly privileged display and visual spectacle – which I take as a useful challenge our own working definition of fashion film within this project, aligned with Tom Gunning and Andre Gaudreault’s concept of the ‘cinema of attractions’.
And sure enough, in their response to the films in the preceding shorts programme, the panel felt that images of fashion in motion alone were no longer satisfactory in our digital age and that we now need to move beyond this type of fashion film towards more sophisticated ways in which to capture the attention of the blasé spectator/user. It was suggested that fashion needs to be packaged into enticing stories, into entertainment. In fact, Isaac made a provocative point that perhaps the biggest change the moving image has brought to fashion was causing it to turn into more of a media and entertainment industry.
The idea that we are somehow progressing from merely showing towards telling needs further unpacking, however. Not only does it echo an older notion – now much challenged by cinema historians – that film became more sophisticated and mature with narrative, its ‘true’ essence, and that everything before this was its ‘primitive stage’. But it also risks to overemphasise the storytelling aspect in works which are clearly still heavily centred on display. When I talked to Stella before the panel, she kept emphasising the role of storytelling but then, on reflection, said she wanted to be challenged on precisely this point – she felt there was more to be said about the importance of how clothes in her films are presented, shown, filmed. The film excerpt we showed as part of our panel, of Bobby Gillespie (2017, the first episode of The Performers series co-produced by GQ and Gucci), is a case in point. In it, the camera systematically guides us through the details of the different Gucci looks Gillespie channels (occasionally affording a longer shot of him posing or walking), finding in them an improbable – but compelling – match to the musician’s comments about Jean Genet.
It is worth mentioning that all three panellists are in some way connected to NOWNESS as a particular platform with a particular take on fashion film, different to that of, say, SHOWstudio. Raven spent six years there, so in some ways embodies its editorial mentality. Clearly, like fashion brands, today’s fashion media platforms are navigating a fiercely competitive climate in which they vie for our attention. We are bombarded with content everywhere, and for this Raven has an apt analogy of ‘internet chicken nuggets’. The challenge, according to Raven, is in taking back more creative control, in moving towards ‘bigger’ nuggets – i.e., in slowing down, taking greater care and investing in more meaningful projects, which may equally demand of the spectator/user a greater investment.
There is a moment in the final credits of Isaac’s film Black (2018, part of Nowness’ tongue-in-cheek Fashion Disciples series) where a team of creatives argue over the status of the film they have just been making – is it advertising, or is it ‘editorial’? This neatly opened up a discussion about the meaning of authorship (if not auteurism) in the somewhat hazy world of brand-sanctioned artistic freedom in which brands expect image-makers to produce ‘creative content’ rather than conventional ‘commercials’. We talked about the difference between projects where brands work directly with image-makers, giving them greater trust and space to express their visions, as opposed to letting agencies control the process. As Chris Breward later pointed out, much of this discussion was in essence a moral debate of art versus commerce – an old debate that does not seem to want to go away. However, in discussing the nuances between fashion film and advertising, between artistic freedom and brand control (and everything in between), we didn’t so much dwell on whether fashion is ‘art’ or whether commerce devalues art – in fact, both Stella and Isaac didn’t seem to perceive great conflict in making the films they want to make while incorporating, perhaps even naturalising, brands’ and funders’ own agendas within. Rather, the discussion brought home, to me at least, how fashion film in the digital era has become a new iteration of this old debate, specific to the early 21st century.
– Marketa Uhlirova