During the 2008 film Valentino: The Last Emperor, Karl Lagerfeld approaches Valentino Garavani moments after the closure of his final runway collection before retirement and whispers in his ear: “Compared to us, the rest just make rags.” It’s an exchange that captures more than what is being said, framing two prolific dressmakers as they reflect on a combined century plus of work. It’s also a triumph of access, a rare glimpse at two of fashion’s baddest bitches linking up. “I had about six cameras going that night,” the film’s director Matt Tyrnauer recalls. “The most important camera stayed backstage on Valentino the whole time, so when Karl came back, and they embraced, Valentino in tears, we were able to capture an immortal moment in the history of fashion. These were the last emperors — and they knew it.”
You can study a designer, look at every piece of clothing that ever sent down a runway, watch their interviews, read their books, but there’s nothing quite like seeing them unfiltered in front of a lens they’ve probably forgotten is there. The fashion documentary, like the art form and artists it aims to capture, is broad in range, spanning decades, giving rare behind-the-scenes glimpses, and zeroing in on those audacious enough to have crafted a fashion legacy. If fashion is about training the gaze, the fashion doc is about turning the gaze on its head.