Sydney Film Festival 2018: Fashion Documentaries

May 31, 2018
Vivienne Westwood: fashion contra climate change

This year the Sydney Film Festival turns 65 but has no thoughts of retirement. On the contrary, with more than 250 films being screened over a mere 12 days, the SFF is operating at the peak of its powers. Arriving at a time of year when good new releases are scarce it offers something for every class of viewer.

The SFF is a showcase for new Australian features and shorts, a first look the hits from the Cannes Fillm Festival, and a chance to see movies from countries outside the mainstream, such as an excellent Paraguayan film, The Heiresses. There are horror movies, animations, family films and an outstanding set of new documentaries. David Stratton has put together a retrospective of cult Finnish filmmaker, Aki Kaurismaki. A dozen new movies are in competition for the Sydney Film Prize of $60,000.

There are too many features to preview in any depth so I’m going to look at one small but potent strand from this year’s festival: the fashion industry.

The rise of fashion as an mass cultural phenomenon is a feature of our cashed-up, celebrity-conscious age. Leading couturiers have enjoyed major museum exhibitions, while filmmakers have found a ready market for documentaries on the people behind the labels.

This year’s SFF features documentaries on three seminal figures: Vivienne Westwood, Alexander McQueen, and Chinese designer, Guo Pei, whose extravagant creations were shown this year in Melbourne, as part of the National Gallery of Victoria’s inaugural Triennial of international contemporary art.

To traditionalists it seems like an abomination to put fashion in the same category as art. Fashion’s detractors see it is as a debased form of craft that borrows indiscriminately from the fine arts and popular culture for the puposes of commericial gain. But in a world in which the nakedly commercial products of artists such as Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons are marketed like luxury brands to naïve, status-conscious collectors, it is sheer hypocrisy to imagine that contemporary art enjoys a moral superiority over haute couture.

Guo Pei proved a massive drawcard at the NGV, while the Vivienne Westwood exhibition, held at the National Gallery of Australia in 2004 was one of the shows of that year. In 2010 the Alexander McQueen retrospective, Savage Beauty, broke attendance records at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lorna Tucker’s Westwood: Punk, Icon, Activist, and Pietra Brettkelly’s documentary on Guo Pei, Yellow is Forbidden, both have a ‘reality TV’ aspect, as they follow their famous subjects around, filming them in private and public settings. Ian Bonhote and Peter Ettedui’s McQueen, the longest and slickest of the three films, did not have that option. There is, however, such a wealth of existing footage of McQueen, and so many close acquaintances willing to talk about him, that this portrait comes across as both intimate and comprehensive.

Which of the three desgners would make the best dinner companion? For me it would have to be Westwood, who emerges from Tucker’s documentary as a woman with incredible strength of character. She has often been penniless, has endured all kinds of mockery and mistreatment, and come through as a raging success – largely to her own surprise. Westwood almost single-handedly created the Punk style, with Sex, the King’s Road shop she ran with sometime partner and full-time louse, Malcolm McLaren.

Now one of the great celebrities of word fashion, Westwood (b.1941) is essentially the same person she was in her younger days. She’s vulgar and unaffected, but with a big heart. Success hasn’t made her greedy, but prompted her to take on big issues such as climate change, leaving a good part of the business in the hands of her husband, Andreas Kronthaler. One of her sons describes them as the drunken auntie and the gay uncle. But such superficial impressions don’t convey a sense of Westwood’s creativity, or her passion for just causes. Kronthaler says she can be outspoken, even stupidly outspoken, but it’s people like her that actually manage to change things.

Rihanna models one of Guo Pei's more modest outfits

Rihanna models one of Guo Pei’s more modest outfits

Guo Pei (b.1967) is a very different proposition. Yellow is Forbidden should be seen in the same light as Red Obsession (2013) – Warwick Ross and David Roach’s documentary about the Chinese taste for high end red wine – as a film full of revealing insights into a country in which years of deprivation have given way to extremes of wealth that allow every desire to be fulfilled.

Elegant, charming, but with a spine of pure steel, Guo Pei is one of a new breed of Chinese business people driven by the need to succeed on the world stage. Her clothes are sold to the wealthiest women in China for huge prices, while her signature creations are pure artistic fantasy: masses of dense, luxurious fabric, gold thread, thousands of jewels. They are almost impossible to imagine outside of the catwalk, and even there they present huge problems for the models, who can barely move in these dazzling sarcophagi.

Where Westwood is more worried about the planet than her own career, Guo Pei is focussed on making her mark in Paris, the home of haute couture. She is determined to prove she can overcome the chauvinism that rules the industry and beat the French at their own game.

Alexander McQueen hosted the only fashion show where a model was spray-painted by robots

Alexander McQueen hosted the only fashion show where a model was spray-painted by robots

Alexander McQueen (1969-2010) is the most problematic of the three designers. Dead by his own hand at the age of 40, he was a super nova of the fashion industry. McQueen was as much of a charismatic, working-class hero as Westwood, and had the same difficulty escaping his roots. Yet even when he dressed in swish suits and earned millions, he remained a bundle of contradictions, balancing a disturbing morbidity with a powerful sense of compassion. McQueen was convulsively creative, able to conjure an entire fashion collection from the cheapest material, including clingfilm and garbage bags. As he became more successful his shows evolved into performance art events.

Along with the reckless John Galliano, McQueen is often cited as one of the tragic victims of a fashion industry that makes icons out of its most promising talents, squeezes them dry and destroys them. It’s a great Hollywood story, but it doesn’t apply to figures such as Westwood or Guo Pei. We can see from Bonhote and Ettedui’s film that it wasn’t the fashion business that killed McQueen so much as his own combustible personality. It was finally too hard to keep returning to the deep, dark places in his own psyche, looking for new monstrosities to drag into the glare of the spotlights.

Sydney Film Festival 2018
6-17 June
sff.org.au

Published in the Australian Financial Review, 2 June, 2018