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The Reelist: Runway Ready

Walk, walk, fashion, baby! In honor of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston's opening this week at the IFC Center, here are six great fashion documentaries to get you through the winter.

While fashionistas have to wait until spring for the next NY Fashion Week, The Reelist offers some great documentary suggestions that nicely compliment Tribeca Film’s release of Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston.


Halston in Black and White


With winter fast approaching, what better way to brighten up your dreary day than with a fashion documentary that offers a refreshingly quirky look at the rise and fall of Halston, the tour de force designer? With Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, filmmaker Whitney Sudler-Smith takes the audience on a ride (seriously, in his vintage Trans Am) back in time to NYC in the 1970s, recreating through film clips and interviews the world of style Halston inhabited. As the undisputed king of NYC nightlife and all that was hip, Halston counted celebrities like Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Anjelica Huston, and Billy Joel among his friends and confidantes, and led a splashy public life increasingly marked by excess of all varieties. Through this somewhat unorthodox approach, Sudler-Smith effectively conveys the exhilarating highs and devastating lows of this controversial icon of the fashion industry.  


Tribeca Film’s  Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston is available on VOD nationwide and opens this Friday (January 20) at the IFC Center in New York. Here are the The Reelist’s picks for a diverse array of runaway-ready fashion documentaries that will surely shake those winter blues away.




Bill Cunningham New York (2010)

dir. Richard Press


By now, everyone has heard of Bill Cunningham New York, a documentary that is on the short list for the 2011 Oscars. Bill Cunningham has been photographing the fashion elite both in the U.S and abroad for nearly half a century. Trendsetters and socialites live and die by Cunningham’s approval, which is given by a few mere clicks of his camera. A regular fixture at runways and lavish social events, Cunningham is most comfortable peddling his bicycle around the City, taking pictures of everyday New Yorkers to capture the latest and hottest fashion trends for his weekend New York Times column “On the Street.”


This fascinating and surprisingly personal documentary portrays a charming loner who has devoted himself wholeheartedly to the passion that consumes his time and energies—haute couture in all its infinite variety. Featuring interviews with Cunningham himself, Vogue’s Anna Wintour, top designers and influential figures from the fashion industry,  Bill Cunningham New York effectively creates a complete portrait of Cunningham, who is both a hard-to-resist curmudgeon, widely considered the most important and influential chronicler of fashion in our time, and one of the most humble men on the planet. Trust me, I’m not exaggerating.


The September Issue (2009)

dir. R.J. Cutler


Anna Wintour is a name that inspires many feelings: respect, fear, awe. And the world-famous September issue of Vogue, which she edits, is widely considered by fashion lovers to be the Bible for the upcoming fall season. The September Issue follows Wintour and her dedicated staff as they work tirelessly to complete the 2007 September Issue for publication.  Wintour behaves mostly as you would expect—demanding, dedicated, icy, and impossibly brilliant in quick succession. This documentary does manage, however, to catch her humor and a surprisingly reserved side of her personality that is absolutely intriguing.


If Wintour, with her unyielding drive for perfection all costs, is the brains of Vogue, its creative director, Grace Coddington, is its heart. Coddington is the only one at Vogue who is willing to challenge Wintour and fight for her convictions, making it especially awful when her contributions are drastically cut from the issue. Still, it is  Wintour who is one of the most sought-after voices in fashion, and the documentary captures her offering council to designers like John Galliano, Oscar de la Renta, Vera Wang, Karl Lagerfeld, and Stefano Pilati of YSL, all of whom hang on her every word. By the end of The September Issue, audiences will understand and share their reverence. 




Seamless (2005)

dir. Douglas Keeve


In the vein of a less harried Project Runway, Seamless is unique to this list because this documentary showcases the rising talents of the fashion industry—in this case, at the time of the 2004 creation of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. Out of the 10 finalists for the award, filmmaker Douglas Keeve (of Unzipped) focuses on three: Doo-Ri Chung of Doo.Ri; Alexandre Plokhov of Cloak; and the delightful pair of Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler. The coveted prize is $200,000 dollars and a yearlong mentorship by a high-profile designer.


Of course, all the finalists are intensely determined to win, and the audience is treated to their frustrations and triumphs as the selection process progresses from runway shows to photo shoots to the final interviews. Seamless takes much of the glamour from the fashion industry, showing first-hand how long these young designers will have to work before they can make any sort of profit, which is shocking. With appearances by fashion legends like Wintour, Wang, and Marc Jacobs, Seamless shows exactly what it is to work from the ground up in the fashion industry.


Unzipped (1995)

dir. Douglas Keeve


What happens when your latest collection bombs? Isaac Mizrahi struggles with that very question when his spring 1994 collection fails to impress critics. Mizrahi is a Tasmanian devil of fashion, surrounded by whirling fabric, working at a feverish pace, and spouting pop culture references. He is hilarious, intelligent and mesmerizing as he explains his influences and inspirations, from Mary Tyler Moore to Nanook of the North, in a refreshingly open manner that can’t help but appeal to audiences.


The real pleasure of Unzipped is its look back to the somewhat forgotten era of the Supermodel. The greats like Cindy Crawford, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Linda Evangelista all make appearances in Mizrahi’s fall 1994 show, his chance at redemption after the debacle of the previous spring. While they initially balk at baring their navels and changing behind a transparent scrim on stage, all the ladies reluctantly agree, trusting Mizrahi’s vision. They are right to do so, because Mizrahi’s collection is a hit, providing a satisfying and fitting end to Unzipped, one of the first and most influential fashion documentaries.


Picture Me (2009)

dir. Ole Schell, Sara Ziff


Isn’t being beautiful tough? Yes, actually. Picture Me is a documentary by model Sarah Ziff and boyfriend Ole Schell that reveals the demeaning qualities of the outwardly exhilarating high-fashion modeling industry. Ziff is an interesting subject, the daughter of a neurobiology professor and a lawyer, who, at the end of the film, decides to trade in the catwalk for the classroom and attend Columbia University. The amount of money she is paid for various campaigns and runways is staggering, but she ultimately decides that this kind of fame and the lifestyle choices it demands are not for her. 


At times, Picture Me is amateurish and sloppily structured, but Ziff’s likability and the candid testimonies of her fellow models keep the audience engrossed. These beauties tell familiar tales of woe, describing the pressure to stay thin, the ease with which one can fall into drug addiction, and the demanding hours. As this film demonstrates, fashion is an industry that celebrates beauty and creativity, but there is an undeniable dark side that lurks beneath the glamour and excitement.


Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008)

dir. Matt Tyrnauer


Valentino is such a successful and prominent designer that he is known only by his first name. Valentino: The Last Emperor follows the iconic atelier and his partner, Giancarlo Giametti, over a turbulent two-year period, during which Valentino’s beloved fashion house is sold to a new owner and the vision of his brand is no longer his to control. Valentino leaves his former business but continues to work at a high level. The documentary focuses on the debut of his final couture collection in Paris and on the lavish three-day celebration in Rome of Valentino’s 45th anniversary as one of the most renowned couturiers in the world. 


Valentino becomes increasingly interesting as the documentary progresses. The temperamental commander of an army of women trained in the art of haute couture, he is as difficult as he is brilliant, and he oversees every hand-sewn stitch on his garments. The decadence of Valentino’s way of life is astounding. His lavish mansion, his extravagant parties and his high profile friends/clients serve as reminders of an opulent era now long gone. Valentino: The Last Emperor ends with an aerial acrobatic ballet tribute to Valentino before the Temple of Venus in Rome, featuring lithe ballerinas dressed in the signature Valentino Red. It is a stunning finale to the career of a man who dedicated his life to making women and this world more beautiful.



Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston is available nationwide on VOD via Tribeca Film. The film opens in NYC on January 20 at the IFC Center.


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