London Fashion Week launched a new initiative this year, Fash/On Film, to celebrate the relationship between film and fashion. Last week a series of 'fashion films' were screened in London's Canon Cinema, interspersed with director's Q and A sessions and live catwalks. Although this venture is new, cinema's infatuation with fashion has been long-running and, until recently, unrequited. In the past two decades, films about fashion - The Devil Wears Prada, Coco Before Chanel, A Notebook on Cities and Clothes, to name but a few - have made box office hits, as well as successful documentaries. On the flip side, fashion designers are trying their hand at film or directly using it as a source of inspiration. In 2009 Tom Ford declared himself a film director with the visually stunning, albeit appallingly scripted, film A Single Man. Another new project this year, Green Cut, - a collaboration between the British Film Institute and the British Fashion Council - challenged eight famous designers, to each create a bespoke piece that offers a contemporary take on a classic film. Participants included Tom Ford, Stella McCartney and Jonathon Saunders.
In his documentary, A Notebook on Cities and Clothes, exploring the work of the designer Yohji Yamamoto, Wim Wenders starts out with the following proposition: "maybe fashion and cinema have something in common?". The film ends with the idea that the fashion designer preparing a catwalk is not so different to the film director working on his or her final edit. Both, in Wenders' words, are establishing a 'montage', a sequence of images. Montage is, arguably, at the heart of both cinema and the fashion show. A friend who recently went to a fashion show for the first time remarked that she felt like she was watching a short film.
The film world has recognised people's fascination not just with clothes per se, but with the fashion industry as a whole - with the air of glamour that surrounds it and the powerful people that run it. Now, The Devil Wears Prada and Coco Before Chanel, fun as they may be, are by no means works of art and use fashion as a storytelling device as much as a central theme. But mainstream cinema's interest in fashion is part of a broader ontological affinity between the two artistic mediums and their worlds - a correlation recognized by the earliest filmmakers. It is no coincidence that film and fashion as we know it today were born almost at the same historical moment and from the same impulse: the emerging self-conscious 'modernity' of the early 20th century, which sought new modes of expression using new technologies.
So, what exactly is this affinity? Firstly, at an ontological level both film and fashion deal with movement and the ephemeral. Fashion deals with what is 'in' - this is constantly changing and part of the attraction. The fleetingness of what is in vogue makes fashion, as Wim Wenders discovers, "by definition, always in." Clothes are also, largely, about physical movement: how they sit and move on the human frame, not on the hanger or the terrifying faceless mannequin. Hence why catwalks are the showcase method of choice and why online shopping sites provide videos of models walking in the clothes as well as photos of the clothes themselves. Early cinema was distinguished from the other six arts by its unique ability to 'realistically' capture movement: this technological facility initially became cinema's raison d'être. Shorts from the late 1990s simply show a train arriving at a station or the frenetic movement of city crowds. Bauhaus and Dada films from the early 20th century - or what we would now stigmatise as 'video art' - are interested mainly in capturing the movement of shapes, silhouettes and shadows, rather than in a strong narrative. Abbie Stephens' film for Emilio de la Morena, Traces, showcased at London Fashion Week 2012, focuses mainly on dramatic lighting and shades of black and white, drawing inspiration from these early films. Traces feels more like an early silent film or a contemporary music video than a contemporary short film. Fashion film is taking cinema back to its roots.
In recent years the fashion industry seems to have recognised the similarity between the catwalk and film; or rather, substituted the latter for the former. At Paris Fashion Week 2008, to great critical acclaim, YSL ditched the catwalk in favour of film to showcase its autumn/winter menswear collection. Presenting clothes through film has the advantage of not only allowing viewers to see the clothes close-up and from different angles simultaneously, but also of presenting the clothes - and the lifestyle and persona seemingly inherent to them - in a more stylized and therefore effective manner; for what is fashion if not self-stylization?
Increasingly more 'fashion films' are being commissioned by various designers. Is this merely another indication that the fashion world is branching out further into the area traditionally considered 'art'? Or is there something special about the relationship between the fickle worlds of film and fashion that will make it a happily-forever-after? Could fashion film ultimately replace the catwalk?