The best fashion documentaries of all time
If you are in need of something inspiring and other-worldly to watch, to take your mind off the current world situ, may we suggest delving into the fantasy-esque realm of high fashion?
By Jenny Brownlees
A notoriously elusive and secretive industry, we’re rarely granted the opportunity to peek behind the curtain and access such a prestigious world, or get close to those who live and breathe within it.
These up close and personal documentaries not only offer a chance for you to expand your fashion knowledge but are a real visual treat, with the often cinematic contents leaving you feeling as if you’re right there amongst the glitz and the glamour.
Celebrate the genius of industry icons, discover those who make it work behind-the-scenes, and enjoy access to fashion shows, A-list events and magazine launches. If you’ve got time on your hands, these joyful documentaries provide an opportunity to find out more about the fashion industries big players from history up to the present day, to spark your own creativity as well as offering some much-needed escapism.
7 Days Out (2019)
The Chanel Haute Couture show is a key date the fashion calendar for those in the industry. A true spectacular in every sense of the word, although lasting only minutes it is planned meticulously for months on end. 7 Days Out focuses on the week leading up to Chanel’s S/S 18 couture collection, and give viewers the inside scoop on the goings-on inside a legendary fashion house.
We follow the late designer Karl Lagerfeld through fittings, castings and finally backstage at the show, as he oversees every detail that goes into just one enchanting collection. This season, Karl has dreamed up a vision of transforming the Grand Palais into a French formal garden, inspired by those at the Palace of Versailles. We witness the Chanel team bring Karl’s breath-taking, dream-like creations to life – from the sets to the seamstresses who work meticulously on each garment. Of course, Lagerfeld is his notorious but inarguably genius self throughout, up to the final moments where models step onto the catwalk clad in sequins, crystals and chiffon.
Bill Cunningham New York (2010)
A heart-warming homage to the ever-cheerful and wonderfully eccentric late photographer Bill Cunningham. Long before street style photography became blogger-favourite and fashion week spectacle, Bill was taking photographs of the masses for the New York Times style section. Notoriously humble, un-changed by fame and loved by all who encountered him, this is an inside look into the legacy of a long-standing legend of the industry, who forecasted fashion trends long before they graced the pages of magazines. Made several years before his death, when the then-80-year-old was still riding around New York on his trademark bicycle, taking pictures of anyone that inspired – irrelevant of their position or status. Wearing his iconic blue jacket with camera in tow, Bill can’t help but make you smile throughout. This moving tribute is sure to lift your spirits; full to the brim with anecdotes and interviews with his fashion-industry peers, it’s a touching acknowledgement to an inspiring pioneer who loved what he did ‘til the very end.
Dior and I (2014)
Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival to critical acclaim, Dior and I allows us to accompany designer Raf Simons’ as he makes his debut collection for Christian Dior Haute Couture – with just eight weeks to go until the show, no less.
One of the most realistic fashion documentaries we’ve seen – it isn’t all sparkles and glamour. Dior and I doesn’t shy away from showing the intense stresses and pressure of taking on such a prestigious role in the industry, or the hard work it takes to actually make a couture collection and showcase it to the world. You’ll feel like you’re right alongside Raf on this intense journey, as he nervously awaits the reception of his debut for the legendary fashion house. This moving portrait pays a particularly stunning homage to the seamstresses who help Raf’s collection and artistic vision come to life. A compelling voice-over from Christian Dior’s own memoirs offers an eerie parallel between the anxieties Simons is experiencing and those felt by the house’s founding designer.
We have long been enamoured with the wonderfully outlandish style of New Yorker Iris Apfel – so when documentarian Albert Maysles offered a glimpse into the 93-year-old style maven’s world – we were elated.
Both Iris’ home and wardrobe are an Aladdin’s cave fitting of a true fashion icon. They don’t come more original than the witty, vivacious New Yorker, with her flamboyant dress-sense that has been a fixture on the fashion scene for decades. Iris’ bold, sartorial style is instantly recognisable – think clashing prints, colourful ensembles and those iconic thick-framed round glasses. We get to tag along with the style maverick on her shopping expeditions, as she displays an inspiring energy fitting of someone a quarter of her age. Iris’ joyful spirit is infectious to watch. This documentary serves as a reminder that fashion doesn’t have to be sober and serious – that style really is about self-expression and above all, fun.
The First Monday In May (2016)
If like us you anticipate the Met Gala’s Red Carpet pictures as eagerly as you await Christmas, you’ll love The First Monday In May. Chronicling a year’s worth of preparations for the Met Gala, which in 2015 accompanied the Metropolitan Museum’s fashion exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass. We follow Andrew Bolton, the chief curator at the Costume Institute, and American Vogue Editor-In-Chief Anna Wintour as they prep for the annual soirée. We get a glimpse into Wintour’s daily life prepping for this multimillion-dollar fundraiser, jam-packed with A-listers throughout. Described as, “Fashion’s version of Super Bowl Sunday” watch for the behind-the-scenes secrets, including the negotiations that go into securing Rihanna as a performer. We’re planning to re-watch this doc in our PJs, knowing it’s the closest us normies might ever get to the Met’s red carpet. Sigh.
Signe Chanel (2005)
A true gem from way back in 2005, this series gives a much deeper look into the house of Chanel and its wonderful seamstresses who make the iconic designs come to life. Watching Signe Chanel feels like you’re a real-life fly-on-the-wall in the everyday workings of the design studio. Entirely in French, it’s subtitled to show us the progress of making an haute couture collection – from designer Karl Lagerfeld’s initial sketches all the way through to meeting the customers who buy Chanel’s creations. This doc opens up the previously closed-off world of the couture house, with its age-old techniques and secretive atmosphere. We love the often blisteringly truthful and larger-than-life personalities of the many seamstresses. When reviewing an expensive fabric, one declares, “I could use it to clean the tiles in my house.” Sacré bleu!
Director Reiner Holzemer gives us fashion fans a rare insight into the world of renowned designer Dries Van Noten. We spend time with Dries over the period of an entire year, meaning we get to see the creation of four collections – from the initial sketches to the final garments. We witness the notoriously elusive Dries in both his creative and home life, giving an intimate look into his world. As one of fashion’s most successful independent designers, it’s a joy to be treated to a candid look at his romantic creations. This is a must-watch for any fashion fan.
The September Issue (2009)
We couldn’t mention fashion documentaries without citing The September Issue. Your ticket to the front row of Vogue magazine’s biggest issue of the year, this fan-favourite follows the inner workings and exuberant glamour within the corridors of Conde Nast, in the most revealing look the fashion magazine has previously allowed.
A wonderful exposé of life at the world’s style bible, this documentary is a deep-dive into how a magazine like American Vogue really comes together – page by page, shoot by shoot. Following industry insiders at the height of their careers, we loved the depiction of the relationship between Vogue’s infamous editor-in-chief Anna Wintour and Vogue’s enchanting creative director Grace Coddington. How does life at Vogue compare as the long-assumed inspiration to the movie The Devil Wears Prada? You decide.
The late, great British designer had a well-known reputation for courting controversy, regularly stirring up the fashion industry with drama and extravagance. McQueen’s catwalk shows were just that – shows. You could never accuse this designer of being a bore.
This insightful documentary charts the designer’s life from humble working-class beginnings to critical acclaim, receiving a CBE and countless industry awards. It’s sensitive, truthful and moving – a candid look at McQueen’s life and work. Using his striking collections as cornerstones, we are told McQueen’s story via interviews with his peers, friends, family and even footage of the designer himself. The word genius is often overused in fashion, but Alexander McQueen was just that – a true visionary whose legacy endures.
Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)
Filmed from June 2005 to July 2007 and racking up a staggering 250 hours of footage, this documentary offers unprecedented access to Valentino and his entourage (not to mention his super-cute brood of pugs, too.) Focusing on Valentino’s relationship with Giancarlo Giammetti, who is also his business partner, we see the Italian designer at an intimate time, as he prepares to say goodbye to the industry after four successful decades.
As you can imagine, the world of Valentino is diamond and champagne-filled, with yachts and private-jets a-plenty. Yet we also see the frazzled, pre-runway worries that occupy a major couturier’s life. Fashion fans will enjoy this exclusive look at the man behind the clothes, with insights into dressing A-listers and royalty alike. Not to mention the peek into the team of 70-strong seamstresses who work to make Valentino’s collections almost entirely by hand. Sure, it’s a far cry from our day-to-day, but that’s what makes it so magnificent.
The True Cost (2015)
Whilst it would be easy to omit this stark look at the fashion industries effect on the planet – we felt it was vital viewing to understand the implications fast fashion is having on our world. Whilst The True Cost pulls back the curtain on the impact mass-producing clothes is having on the environment, the film’s director explains, “The film is not a guilt trip” but instead an opportunity for learning and change. While 25 major apparel brands refused the request to address the problems their Third World garment-manufacturing practices generates, ethical fashion advocators including People Tree founder Safia Minney, Stella McCartney and activist Livia Firth offer knowledgeable insights. The True Cost is a must-see for anyone that really wants to understand the fashion industry, its impact globally and most importantly the steps we can take to help.