Essay / Mădălina Cozmeanu

A Fashion Film Lexicon

Read time / 10 min

With the consumption of video skyrocketing in the last decade, fashion films have started to gain popularity turning into a phenomenon to the point where dedicated festivals (like ours) have sprung up around the globe. But what is fashion film? How do different publics commentators, practitioners and critics understand the term? And what are its defining characteristics? Who creates it and for what purposes? How has the moving image changed the way the spectator experiences fashion?

In an era of e-commerce, fast fashion, and gigantic luxury conglomerates and with the advance of online video content, established fashion houses struggle to rethink their strategies to make their brands fit for the future. This remodeling includes a change in the way fashion is mediated, with short fashion films distributed through new digital channels, brand websites, and online fashion magazines. These new formats, backed up by the advance of video platforms have made moving fashion extremely popular and accessible to a global audience, generating a new fashion-literate public. The aesthetic possibilities of this new media phenomenon has led many designers and filmmakers to collaborate and experiment with a great variety of content, setting the fashion film at the junction of short art film, video-art and advertising.

From the birth of cinema, fashion and film have been closely intertwined, with costumes playing important roles in silent films, if we think of Louie Fuller’s Serpentine Dance or the lavish vamp attire of Theda Bara in Salome. Closer to the end of the century, experiments with moving image by Dadaist turned fashion photographer Erwin Blumenfeld and short films by Guy Bourdin that are now filed by critics under the fashion film label, point towards the intimate relationship of fashion film and photography. But what exactly can we confine between the blurry frontiers of fashion film now and how do different publics understand the term? Inside the fashion industry, fashion film is understood as a product set at the convergence of cultural, economical, technological media and exists as “a hybrid genre, a mixed form of online filmmaking, mostly produced in short-form to display fashion in motion” , as it is stated in Nick Rees Roberts’  Fashion Film: Art and Advertising in The Digital Age, the first monographic approach of the subject. This is also how we, at Bucharest Fashion Film Festival, approach the term in selecting the films for the official competition. Outside the limits of the fashion system, publications have designated as “fashion films” fictional or non-fictional features, from classics such as Funny Face, Blow-Up or Clueless to contemporary examples like The September Issue to documentaries portraying various designers like Notebook on Cities and Clothes or Celebration. Fashion films are the product of the tension between the artistic and the commercial and their characteristics are oftenly a result of how they oscillate on this axis. Since it’s precisely that tension that creates a whole spectrum of creative possibilities, we feel that fixed categorization would be counterproductive and should be avoided. 

However, critics and professionals have identified a few directions that have been explored until now and have termed as fashion films the following type of content: designer branded  content- short films usually commissioned by fashion houses with an integrated audiovisual strategy such as Kenzo, Prada, Gucci, online editorial entertainment and short documentaries commissioned and distributed by platforms such as Nowness, Vogue, I-D Vice or video-art projects such as those curated on SHOW STUDIO by Nick Knight and his team. Nick Rees Roberts points out how in the last years fashion houses have been gradually morphing into production studios that produce both material objects and digital content. And although he made this point in his book published in 2018, it’s never been more accurate as in pandemic times, when fashion houses have created elaborate digital material that blurs the boundaries of fashion film even more. A good example is the collaboration between Maison Margiela and Nick Knight for the house’s latest collection, a not-so-short 50-minute experimental documentary which takes the public inside the rarely seen atelier of John Galliano. The film was created by Knight using methods suitable for Covid-19 times– Zoom footage, GoPro body cams and even a drone.

Maison Margiela Co-Ed Collection Spring-Summer 2021 | S.W.A.L.K. II

Some critics link it to celebrity culture, as is the case with films commissioned from high profile directors such as David Lynch for Dior, Wes Anderson for H&M or Spike Jonze for Kenzo.  For these films, directors usually make use of self-reflexive references and cinematic conventions in order to create an instant connection with a visually literate public.  Others see it as a film which transcends product placement to narrative within an elaborate consumer environment, which is staged to promote fashion. The latter not only employs a more complex narrative, but also avoids classic advertising methods such as ending the film with a close-up of the promoted product. Marketa Uhlirova, founder of London’s Fashion in Film Festival, indicates the need to differentiate between: films where fashion is the main subject for different reasons -commercial, creative and aesthetic—from those in which fashion is just a branch in a broader thematic framework—a question of balance between the fashion focus and the aesthetic directorial sensibility of the image maker.

Three Women by Marie Schuller

A different approach is proposed by Nick Knight, a pioneer in the development of the technique of live broadcasting and image-making. To define “the dynamic fashion image”, a term he prefers to fashion film, he points out its diffuse narrative and its close-knitted relationship to photography and music video. He also highlights its purpose to display fashion in movement: “the narrative is imbued in the pieces of clothing. When designers create clothes, they have already put the narrative inside them, so the purpose of fashion film is to bring out these stories”.

Ceremonial Formality by Frederyk Heyman

There has been some debate among the fashion industry about whether it’s enough for fashion film to just show clothes in motion. It is sometimes argued that fashion film has not yet reached its peak point and sometimes that that it has already exhausted itself, together with suggestions that storytelling may be a way forward. But narrative fashion films are already a strong direction in the development of fashion film, as I have already argued above.

Whether it is a medium, a genre or a mode of filmmaking, the future of fashion film and its importance in branding and the spectacle of contemporary fashion is still to be decided: is it a caprice of digital marketing or will it become the principal means of communicating fashion and replace fashion photography?

***This article is an updated version of the curatorial text of A Fashion Film  Lexicon, the exhibition that opened BFFF19 - which aimed at identifying the defining characteristics of fashion film and its multitude of forms, as it’s the term defined within the fashion industry. 

Exhibition Design: Retro Future 

Curators: Ioana Diaconu & Mădălina Cozmeanu

If you’d like to gain a more nuanced perspective  on fashion film, here are our recommendations:

Fashion Film & Transmedia: An Anthology of Knowledge and Practice. VIA film & Transmedia & Development Centre.

Nick Knight: Thoughts on Fashion Film (video format)