In the short time it has been with us, the ‘fashion film’ has given rise to a particularly vivid set of clichés. The ethereal girl staring wistfully out of a window in Paris is a hallmark image, as is the moody but perfect couple caught snogging on a New York rooftop, shot in gritty black-and-white. Beautiful women striding powerfully in evening dresses also play their part. In an industry that prides itself on innovation, its forays into filmmaking over the last decade have leant more towards pretension than surprise. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will examine here, but there are also small signs of change appearing too: the last few years have seen the rise of films that exhibit a range of emotions beyond beauty or sex, with even humour making an appearance. The fashion film seems to be slowly getting a personality, at last.
It’s easy to be critical of the fashion film stereotypes, but they are largely born out of the individual quirks of the industry. Whereas a typical commercial is aimed at a fairly wide demographic, a fashion film is usually targeted at a very specific audience, or those that aspire to be in that group.
At the luxury end of the market, perhaps the most risk averse in terms of the image it projects, the fashion film is often used to introduce a brand to a new market. Therefore the need to play it safe is paramount. “I think these films have been used very much to seduce new targets and new markets that didn’t necessarily know a lot about the brands,” explains Claus Lindorff, founder and managing director of BETC Luxe, which works with brands including Louis Vuitton, Jil Sander, and Issey Miyake. “They are more destined for maybe China, Brazil, countries like that [rather] than Europe. It is really to impose the brands through these amazing productions to new markets.”
BETC is the agency behind a recent film for Louis Vuitton starring David Bowie. Set in Venice, the film is a lavish affair featuring a masked ball. It is glamorous, opulent yet creatively unadventurous. But, according to Lindorff, the purpose of epic productions such as this is not to say anything new, but instead to perpetuate an established brand story, as well as introduce it to the new markets. “These films are also there to say ‘here’s something about what this brand stands for’, you can’t do that in a one-page print ad,” he continues.
“In the new markets, you have to tell them what the brand stands for – it’s easy for us to say that Louis Vuitton is all about bags, and travel and aristocracy in the 19th century, but in the new markets they had no clue where Louis Vuitton came from, it could have been a brand that was five years old or 150 years old.”
Brands with heritage
It is for this reason that we have seen a number of films from fashion houses that focus on heritage and the historical story behind the brands. This is usually a carefully edited history, of course. Dior will focus on its story of creating the ‘new look’, for example, rather than inconvenient episodes from the personal history of Christian Dior, who, according to his Design Museum biography, designed dresses for the wives of Nazi officers during WWII. For Chanel, by contrast, the brand story is all about Coco Chanel’s life. “It all depends on what you can leverage within the brand,” says Lindorff.
A heritage story doesn’t need to be a dry tale either. In a recent film to promote Lena Dunham’s appearance on the cover of Vogue, directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman captured Dunham and Vogue international editor-at-large Hamish Bowles performing a series of classic poses from Vogue covers past.
The film was witty and entertaining. “I think the clever thing about that is it played on their heritage,” says Richard Storer, founder of creative communications consultancy Eleventen, and former global head of PR at Top Shop. “They took all their famous models and cover poses and he was teaching her what they were, so it wasn’t just a random video with her in it, it was playing on their heritage at Vogue and how great all their cover stars have been. I think that as a heritage piece it was quite interesting from them.”
Such playfulness is arguably easier for smaller fashion houses to get away with than it is for the big brands. LA-based clothing brand Wren scored a viral hit earlier this year with its First Kiss film, which saw a number of couples who had never met engage in some lip action for the camera. Seen more as an art film than an ad by many of those who shared it, the film has clocked up over 90 million views on YouTube, making it the most successful fashion film ever.
“Younger designers are totally going for these kinds of things where there can be a twist to it, and you go ‘that’s clever, that’s cool’,” says Lindorff. “That’s totally something you’ll see more of but as usual the ones who dare are the smaller brands, because it’s not the end of the world if they fail. When you go to the big brands, there’s so much at stake, so if you do one step wrong it can have a massive impact.”
An exclusive world
Along with a certain cautiousness from the luxury brands, the insular nature of the fashion industry has played a part in the slow creative development of its films. Fashion brands have shied away from working with the main advertising agencies in their marketing, in part because they tend to spend their money on photographers and models – or on increasingly elaborate catwalk shows – but also because it is an industry already filled with creative people. “The people we work with we’ve generally known as friends for years and years,” says Storer. “You can pick up the phone to them – you don’t need an ad agency to do that…. It’s not like we’re McVitie’s biscuits who don’t really know what we want to say or do. There’s no need for you to have an agency to work with, you take it straight to a smaller size agency, a Nowness or a Nick Knight. Usually those people have a circle of people they work with, and usually that circle of people are stylists and photographers and creatives who have already worked with the brand. You become a little communal village.”
It was this personal relationship between brands, photographers and stylists that led to the early fashion films usually being shot by the same team that was shooting the stills work for brands. At this stage, the films were seen as an add-on, something to stick online, perhaps, rather than a serious requirement. It led to a glut of films that were high in elegance but low in narrative structure or entertainment.
The expectation in the early days was that this would quickly change, with film directors taking the place of photographers in the making of the films. Yet, while the level of filmmaking is now significantly more professional, it is still often the photographers behind the camera. Again, this is led by practical demands. “There is a roster when you put things together for a campaign,” says Storer. “You do a list: we need stills, we need behind-the-scenes stills, and then we need video, we need behind-the-scenes video, and then we need social. Those are now standard things, back 12 years ago when I first started or even six or seven years ago, none of those things were really there. You had stills for the campaign and you might have done a bit of behind-the-scenes. That was it. Now it becomes such a big package that actually the photographer is really important, they’re producing all your assets.”
And if a brand isn’t using a big name photographer to shoot its film for them, they will often turn to a big name movie director, rather than an advertising director. Lindorff sees this changing, however. “We’ve seen a lot of top directors from Hollywood who’ve made films, and apart from their name, the film has not wowed,” he says. “Because it’s one thing to do a feature film of two-and-a-half hours than to tell a story in two-and-a-half minutes, it’s very tricky.”
Actively working on this change are production companies like White Lodge, an arm of Blink Productions focused on fashion, which works with directors including Alex Turvey and Ryan Hopkinson. Creative and strategic director Stephen Whelan likens the opportunities offered by fashion films for directors as similar to those once offered by music videos. “Music video used to be the training camp for emerging directors,” he says, “and I think fashion is now taking over, or at least co-existing alongside that. In terms of money, there’s definitely more money for young directors in fashion film than there is in music video. The process, from a creative point of view, is similar, in terms of collaboration directly with artists or designers. It’s definitely a viable area for emerging directors to work within.”
Whelan is strict about his directors avoiding fashion film clichés. “One of the conversations we have with directors is that there are certain non-negotiable no-nos, things that we think are cardinal sins of fashion film. Anything involving any kind of kaleidoscope effect, girls wafting through cornfields…. There tends to be quite a lot of stroking of wolves – I don’t know why people like to stroke wolves in fashion films. [It’s] almost a parody now, you couldn’t get away with doing it in the way you could three or four years ago.”
With the rise of ecommerce, fashion brands – both on the high street and at the more luxury end of the market – are slowly becoming more experimental in their use of film. This can be seen in ‘shoppable video’ products such as a recent film featured on Nowness by directors Tell No One which was both entertaining to watch (dancers from the Sadler’s Wells Theatre instantly swapped clothes when they touched) and allowed viewers to purchase the featured garments instantly online. Clothing from a range of fashion houses from Louis Vuitton to La Perla were included, making it about shopping rather than a singular brand message.
The fact that so many of these films are designed to be shared on social media too, has meant that smiles are slowly infiltrating the traditional fashion pout too. “Bizarrely, humour is one of the things that we’re actually being asked for more from fashion clients,” says Whelan. “The trend for that to a degree was started by Lanvin, when they released their film with all the models dancing – that was colossally successful and they’ve kept humour as an element of what they do. Kenzo, as well, are a brand that do quite a lot of humour. The Guccis and the Louis Vuittons don’t tend to do humour so much, but the brands that are targeting the late 20s consumers are realising now that it can’t all be serious – they like humour.”