Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 12, 2010

Picture Me: “a model’s diary”

Filed under: fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 4:45 pm

As a fan of cable TV’s Project Runway and documentaries about Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino, I jumped at the opportunity to see a press screening of Picture Me: “a model’s diary” last Thursday that was scheduled to coincide with Fashion Week in New York. (The movie opens at the Angelika Theater on September 17.)

However, this film was anything but the kind of free PR that the fashion industry might have expected. It was co-directed by Ole Schell, a documentary filmmaker, and Sara Ziff, his girlfriend—a professional model since the age of 14 who kept a video log of her experience in the industry over a five-year period. Weaving together her amateurish shaky footage with his own interviews with industry honchos, the finished product is a complex, ambivalent and altogether fascinating glimpse into the world behind the photos seen in Vogue and Elle magazines and the mammoth billboards on Times Square.

That is what one might have expected given their background. Ole Schell is the son of famous Sinologist Orville Schell whose first movie was Win in China, a documentary on the country’s entrepreneurial tidal wave. By the same token, Sara Ziff is not the stereotypical bubble-headed model (the movie’s main breakthrough is challenging these stereotypes) but the thoughtful and self-aware daughter of an NYU biochemistry professor and his wife, an attorney.

One day a total stranger approached Sara on the street asked her if she was a model. When she answered no, he set up an appointment with her at a top agency and her career began immediately. She knew that this would take her away from the path of college education and a career more in line with her parent’s expectations but the promise of a glamorous world, travel and buckets of cash persuaded her to take a shot at it. Although the film does not mention it (and really does not need to do so), the third “benefit” (buckets of cash) is exactly what draws young women into exotic dancing, porn films and prostitution.

While the world of runway modeling would seem to have little to do with these tawdry professions, we learn that they now recruit from the same labor pool: the impoverished nations of Eastern Europe such as Byelorussia and Romania, two countries whose representatives are seen in the film.

There is also the same kind of meat market mentality that operates in both realms. Sara Ziff says that the objectification is so extreme in the modeling world that an agency bigwig will often grab a model’s thigh or rear end in his or her hand and comment “She’s too fat” without even asking the model’s permission. For them, the model amounts to the same thing as a head of cattle on display at an auction.

We also learn that sexual predation is commonplace in the fashion industry. A top photographer will have his version of the casting couch, often selecting a young model under the age of 15. It is a sign of the desperation of poor women trying to break into the field that charges are not filed on a regular basis as they were in the Polanski case.

Despite the horrors that Sara Ziff put up with, she freely admits that the money kept her going. She was making more money than her dad and able to buy a fancy loft in Soho. But the longer she stayed in the industry, the more alienated she became. It was also getting to the point when she was becoming “too old”, an astounding verdict given that she was only 23. We learn that the industry is a revolving door, always on the lookout for the next big sensation, ideally a 15 year old just beyond the body of an anorexic.

At the end of the film, Ziff has been accepted into Columbia University General Studies and the closing credits inform us that she is majoring in political science and has begun work to launch a fashion model’s trade union. Good for her and good for Ole Schell for making a remarkable movie.

February 12, 2010

Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Filed under: fashion — louisproyect @ 9:31 pm

NY Times February 11, 2010
Alexander McQueen, Designer, Is Dead at 40

Alexander McQueen, the renegade British fashion designer known for producing some of the most provocative collections of the last two decades, was found dead on Thursday morning in his London home, the police there said. He was 40.

At the beginning of his career, Mr. McQueen became a sensation for showing his clothes on ravaged-looking models who appeared to have been physically abused, institutionalized or cosmetically altered, all while peppering his audience with rude comments. “I’m not interested in being liked,” he said. He once mooned the audience of his show.

But he was enormously creative and intelligent, and he seemed to sense that the fashion industry needed to have its buttons pushed. His fall 2009 collection was the talk of Paris when, reacting to the recession, Mr. McQueen showed exaggerated versions of all of his past work on a runway strewn with a garbage heap of props from his former stage sets. He was suggesting that fashion was in ruins.

“The turnover of fashion is just so quick and so throwaway, and I think that is a big part of the problem,” he said. “There is no longevity.”

In his work, Mr. McQueen drew on Orientalism, classicism and English eccentrics, and also his ideas about the future, combining them in ways that were complex and perplexing.

As designers have done for centuries, Mr. McQueen altered the shape of the body using corsetry and anatomically correct breast plates as a recurring motif. More recently, his work took on increasingly futuristic tones, with designs that combined soft draping with molding, or ones in which a dress seemed to morph into a coat. At his last show, in October, the models wore platform shoes that looked like the hulls of ships.

Lee Alexander McQueen was born in London on March 17, 1969. His father was a taxi driver; his mother was a social science teacher. His father wanted him to become an electrician or a plumber, but Lee, as he was always known, knew he wanted to work in fashion. His father, Ron McQueen, survives him, as do five siblings.

Aware of his homosexuality at an early age (he said he knew at age 8), he was taunted by other children, who called him “McQueer.” He left school at 16 and found an apprenticeship on Savile Row working for the tailors Anderson & Sheppard and then Gieves & Hawkes. In a story he repeated on some occasions but at other times denied, he was bored one day and wrote a derogatory slur in the lining of a jacket destined for the Prince of Wales.

As he struck out on his own, Mr. McQueen was immediately recognized for his brashness. The models in his October 1993 collection walked the runway with their middle fingers extended, and their dresses were hand-printed to appear as if they were covered with blood; some of it looked fresh. He also showed trousers cut so low that they were called “bumsters.” Criticized at the time because some did not cover the rear, the trousers were credited with initiating a low-rise trend that eventually caught on with every mainstream jeans maker in the world.

“His was a hard show to take, but at least it offered one solution to the identity crisis of London fashion,” wrote Amy M. Spindler, then the fashion critic of The New York Times.

In March 1995, at his most controversial, Mr. McQueen dedicated his fall collection to “the highland rape,” a pointed statement about the ravaging of Scotland by England. The models appeared to be brutalized, wearing lacy dresses with hems and bodices ripped open, their hair tangled and their eyes blanked out with opaque contact lenses. This had come on the heels of a spring collection that, paradoxically, was full of precisely tailored suits and crisp shirts.

He was called an enfant terrible and the hooligan of English fashion. The monstrous, sometimes sadistic, styling of his collections became a hallmark, as when he showed models wearing horns on their shoulders. A collection in 2000 was shown on models with their heads bandaged, stumbling inside a large glass-walled room with the audience on the outside as if its members were looking into a mental ward. But many of these motifs were actually based on historic scenes, from the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch to the films of Stanley Kubrick. Mr. McQueen once said he had sewn locks of human hair into his jackets as a nod to Jack the Ripper.

“Nicey nicey just doesn’t do it for me,” he said.

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