Fashion films have always been torn between two purposes: maintaining the mystery and luster behind the world they are profiling, and revealing it in every bare detail.
The recent spate of fashion-related films — Lagerfeld Confidential, Valentino: The Last Emperor, and The September Issue — are no exception. Promising to illuminate the elusive, lauded world of haute couture and style, they take us right to the edge without letting us jump off.
Fashion films first became vogue with the advent of supermodel fever of the '90s. The cult of Linda Evangelista and Co. bred a slew of films such as Catwalk and Unzipped that were mostly fairly ephemeral documentaries. The backlash that followed the bubble-burst of the supermodel ruled out models as a serious subject matter for a while and the fashion industry simply became something easy to parody. Zoolander did huge business playing on this backlash and the popular perception that male models have overdeveloped senses of their own beauty and underdeveloped brains.
We've always been fascinated by models. Their vaunted positions as arbiters of culture have proven continually bewitching.
In the late '90s, models were portrayed as wild and out of control in such sensationalist films as Gia (1998), about real-life model Gia Carangi, a drug addict who died of AIDS at 26. Denys Arcand's Stardom (2000) profiled, in a similarly tabloid way, the rise and fall of a supermodel. This big-budget film found its opposite in 2005's Frankie which saw Diane Kruger being admitted into a mental hospital from the strain of the fashion industry.
And of course in the last five years there's been the massive success on the small screen of 'reality' series such as Search For A Supermodel and Next Top Model, which are mostly a chronicle of jarring personalities and ambitions rather than any sort of insight into the life of a model.
The verite feel of Frankie continued in last year's Picture Me, a doco made by Sara Ziff. A no-budget tell-all expose of the way models are treated, the film featured behind the scenes footage stolen with a small digital camera.
Which brings us to now and the just-released fictional film Tiger, which was made by a bunch of models in Tokyo (collectively called Beaufort), the next logical step in the pantheon of fashion films.
Tiger is a film made by models about models.
Tiger doesn't concentrate on the designers, the shoots or even the runway. The focus is simply on the human beings at the core of the middle market of modeling. These are young people from all over the world, aged 13-26, who are scouted online by overseas agents and sent to markets that don't appear as regularly in the press — like Tokyo, Shanghai, and Athens. Plenty of them only earn enough to just get by and they are often living on the poverty line, with agencies regularly taking advantage of naive models and keeping them in debt even if they are working every day.
For young girls and guys without a fully formed sense of self, the job can be incredibly alienating and confusing. Just out of school and dealing with exams, they can suddenly find themselves relying on the condition of their skin or hair for their self-esteem.
Set in the bizarre and real world of modeling in Tokyo, Tiger was shot by a small group called Beaufort, led by former model James McFay, wading in the same creative pool as fashion/film crossover Tom Ford (whose A Single Man was nominated for the Golden Lion at Venice).
James McFay, writer, director, and co-star, had this to say about it:
"Young people, especially young girls, can easily be fooled into thinking they are somehow responsible for the way they look, especially under the specific and focused attention of the modelling industry. Their ego then becomes attached to their appearance which is dangerous because, in essence, there is very little you can do about the way your face and body is formed."
"Tiger is simply about two of these young people on the brink of that world part of the huge system of catalogs and editorials and castings in Tokyo with original and individual senses of self struggling to get out. They recognize that mutual struggle in each other and fall in love but it's a tough world for love…"
Adhering to the rules laid down by Robert Rodriguez's Rebel Without A Crew, the film was shot on luscious Super 16mm, from the cramped model apartments of downtown Omote-sando to the snowy fields of Kurohime on a budget smaller than that of most music videos. The film co-stars top Quebecoise model Rachel Blais (also a co-producer) and features a cast of models found by James in the waiting corridors of other castings in Tokyo.
The film has just been accepted as the first foreigner-directed film ever into the Pia Film Festival, Japan's most prestigious independent film festival that has been running since 1977. The entry was facilitated by Tiger's cinematographer and other co-producer, first-time wunderkind Sean Walker.
To promote the film, Beaufort has created a series of interviews with models talking about love, loneliness and fashion. Hopefully this film sparks a surge in more honest, direct films that deal with the real people behind the glamor, the young human beings that stare out from the ads in our catalogs and magazines.