Fashion filmmakers on the rise
Meet the directors who are showing us new ways to see fashion, with films that are immersive and experimental
A simple video made a lasting impression at the first digital Lakmé Fashion Week (LFW) show last October. Produced by New Delhi label 11.11/eleven eleven, it showed an artisan’s busy hands up close — spinning raw fibre into yarn, dying it indigo, knitting a sweater. The ASMR experience drew attention not only to the sustainable label’s ethos, but also to how a video can make for innovative storytelling. It highlighted the labour involved for one garment, the expertise, even the tactility of the piece (unexpected in a digital medium). And an NFC (Near Field Communication) button affixed on the sweater merged tech and design — ensuring wearers could virtually see what went into its making.
One of the few positives of 2020 was how the pandemic helped boost the digital space. In the world of fashion, one of the biggest industries globally, this meant the growth of the fashion film. What was once looked upon as a BTS (behind the scenes) exercise, especially in India, was evolving for virtual fashion weeks and for social media.
The making of Gus Van Sant’s Gucci film
The films showcase collections, but are also answering questions: what life do garments have when they get off the runway, what can clothes denote outside of couture? Internationally, filmmakers such as Nick Knight and Gus Van Sant made an impact with their productions for Maison Margiela (an experimental documentary) and Gucci (slice of life films) respectively. Closer home, Indra Joshi’s film for Ekaya, the Banaras handloom brand, explored colour and movement through psychedelic frames, while Pretika Menon addressed migration and assimilation through her film for Gundi Studios. Challenges — such as replicating IRL tactility — are offset by more layered narratives, with sound, imagery and messages.
A still from Indra Joshi’s film for Ekaya
But are fashion films being taken seriously? Shreya Dev Dube, cinematographer for Raw Mango’s LFW film Moomal, told The Voice of Fashion recently that she believes fashion and “serious” filmmaking are worlds apart. “I come from a world of social documentation rooted in realistic cinema; fashion is beautiful but it is still frivolous,” she said. Not everyone agrees. “This space is constantly evolving; there is no one direction,” says Neha Suri of Artfoto Studios. “Fashion films can range from relatable to out-of-the-box formats; it is constantly being defined by the creatives and the viewers collectively.” That said, sometimes it can be a crowded set with the fashion designer, the creative director, the art director and stylist, each offering inputs. Then there is the habit of referencing something from abroad. Gina Narang of the popular modelling and photography agency, A Little Fly (ALF), insists fashion filmmakers can be creative and original. “But you need to give them the time and space to convey their vision,’’ she adds.
We speak with five filmmakers on how they are pushing the boundaries.
Inputs from Surya Praphulla Kumar, Nidhi Adlakha and Aparna Narrain
Indra Joshi, 26
Joshi’s videos have an electric vibe that comes from creative cinematography and edgy editing. “When I was shooting Gaurav Gupta’s Name is Love Couture 2021 film [at a mill in New Delhi], I was inspired by lights,” he says, recalling that he had just finished reading a piece on Dutch cinematographer Robby Müller’s use of lights. “So I explored how it falls, where it touches, the shadows it creates.” The young filmmaker doesn’t storyboard much; he trusts the mood of the project instead because “so much changes on set”. For his recent film for Bodice (for the grand finale of FDCI x LFW), the brief was to have fun in chaos. So Joshi says he “moved like a monkey on set” and focussed on projection mapping. “Similar to video mapping and spatial augmented reality, I work with overlays that create a kind of melting effect,” he explains. Having created films for brands such as Yavi, Ekaya, Cord and Koovs, he believes the future of fashion is on screen. “We are running slightly late, but I believe it will grow in India.”
Inspirations: I love music director Dexter Navy’s analogue-style editing. I learned how to capture hands from French director Robert Bresson. I like how Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky romanticises the sense of longing one feels in incomplete things. I also love the works of Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai and Takashi Ito, the experimental filmmaker from Japan.
Fashion films in India: They still mostly centre around visually appealing scenes rather than storytelling. Nowadays, there is a leaning towards a music video style. But clients are open to experimentation. I’ve never had anyone push me to adopt a certain formulaic tone [perhaps my agency, feat.artists, sorts that out for me].
Tech: I use a mirrorless Fuji camera. It shoots 4k and 6k. For lights, I use a lot of LEDs, RE lights, shimeras. My editing softwares are Premiere Pro, After Effects and Blender.
Projects: I will be doing a documentary in Hyderabad — a collab between a fashion brand and an NGO. There’s also a VFX project in the pipeline.
Neha Suri, 39
Artfoto Studios, New Delhi
This wedding studio has made a fashion switch and it’s winning praise. Especially for Amit Aggarwal’s 2020 showcase at ICW, where Suri and her team went underwater. The challenges were aplenty, from “models in the water, to the clothes creating the right form, to ensuring the perfect lighting to make the metallic polymer details shine”, says Suri, adding that their best swimmers shot the film in half a day. Later, at LFW, they explored the weightlessness of Aggarwal’s collection through models suspended in ‘space’. “With the help of the right technology we managed to create that ethereal feeling of being in outer space,” she says. Such storytelling is key to her work. “Whether it is couture or everyday fashion, we are constantly working with brands to connect with audiences through a stronger storyline,” says Suri, who has just wrapped up a campaign for ethnic fashion brand Libas’ SS 21 collection. Titled It Begins with You, it celebrates the ‘undying, unwavering spirit of women’.
Capturing tactility: Videos, more than photos, help showcase the tactility, flow and details of clothing. We use different lensing, lighting and frame rates to accentuate this.
Too many voices: There are many people involved in the process. We ensure the mood board is discussed in detail beforehand and that we do test shoots, so there is no interference on the day of the shoot.
Tech: We shoot on a combination of Canon Cinema Cameras (such as the c200 and c300) paired with Zeiss Cine-Prime optics. We also use a Phantom-4k super slow motion camera workflow when the brief calls for visuals that require high detail in slow motion. For post production, we use a Premiere Pro workflow and editing suite.
Nitish Kanjilal, 28
Paraffin Films, New Delhi
“Live shows are going to come back soon, but I feel the fashion film [will stay] because the possibilities now are endless,” says Kanjilal, an engineer-turned-documentary director-turned-fashion filmmaker. “You just have to think of a concept… and play with your creativity.” He and his team of four have made films for JJ Valaya (2020), Bloni Atelier, Nitin Bal Chauhan, Anamika Khanna (2021) and more. Underlining the importance of discussions and research (of a designer’s previous work, to “get the vibe”), he explains: “Akshat Bansal’s Bloni is super abstract, while Valaya is one of the biggest couturiers in India. So the music, the pace, the colours must all be addressed. For Bloni, I did colour grading because he wanted a science lab look, while for Valaya, because it is couture, the pace was slow, to allow viewer the time to see each garment carefully.”
How does he address tactility digitally? “You tend to take a lot of macro shots. We take long shots, mid shots and have four cameras dedicated to taking shots of the micro details. The only challenge comes when we edit because there’s so much potential footage.”
Tech: We use Sony Mirrorless cameras. For Anamika Khanna’s film, we used an LED screen. We wanted to show rain and the models ‘disintegrate’, so we used a lot of VFX. But there was also an element of jugaad — where you see colours flowing from the garments, we were actually pouring watercolours!
Inspired by: English designer Gareth Pugh. His films are a bit dark [such as a surreal Francis Bacon-inspired film], but you get a message after viewing.
Pretika Menon, 32
Turning cinematographer and filmmaker was a challenge for the photographer. But it also gave her scope to expand on her work, which is based on social commentary and gender. Her 2020 fashion film for Kanika Goyal was an ode to water. “We wanted to provoke thoughts about clean water depletion in the world, so we created a set with a projector to show videos of water levels. Meanwhile, the model created small movements in Kanika’s clothes,” recalls Menon, who is inspired by surrealism and the avant garde. “What we got was a really cool film with multiple dimensions. In the edit, I created glitches and cuts that showcased the clothes but most importantly the mood.”
Another film, Code Switching, which she shot last year, for label Gundi Studios (which fights sexism through clothes), was a social commentary on something not often addressed — how youngsters leave India and adopt accents to assimilate into the different worlds they are confronted with. “We shot Natasha [founder of Gundi] having phone conversations in different accents. Then in post production, we brought in bits of voice recordings and videos from news clippings in Britain of early brown immigrants.” Did someone say fashion films are superficial?
Inspiration: I use a lot of my own personal experience and emotions as inspiration for stories. We live in a world that’s dominated by the male gaze, so it’s important to watch films made by women. I’ve been following American photographer Charlotte Wales, who shoots amazing stills and videos in fashion.
Tech: I’ve shot films on the Canon EOS 5D Mark IV and the Sony A series, as well as an old Panasonic VHS camcorder! I’m yet to shoot on anything bigger.
Neel Soni, 19
Last year, when designer Ashish N Soni asked his son Neel to direct his Lotus Makeup India Fashion Week film, Beyond Colour — a nod to both Ashish’s years in Zambia and his desire to make a safe space for Black creatives in the Indian fashion industry — the teenager was confused about the direction he wanted to take. “Then I decided to look at systemic oppression that has taken place in different cities over the last few decades,” says the student of filmmaking at NYC’s Pratt Institute. He started out with LA and the killings of the 1960s, before moving to Atlanta, New York, London, Paris and finally New Delhi. “We used different colour grades to show an event corresponding to a city — so an orange wash for LA, to denote fire and protesting, while New York is black and white with jazzy vibes.” Sound added another layer to the eight-minute film. Neel worked with his friend Saurik Singh, a Berklee graduate, to create a soundtrack that samples recordings of accounts of racism — from clips of activist Malcolm X’s, Who Taught You To Hate Yourself? speech to American singer Archie Williams’ speech on being wrongfully incarcerated. “For London, we played with the ‘Mind the gap’ line that the Tube uses,” he adds. Neel also turned cinematographer for Satya Paul’s Valley of Flowers film.
Inspirations: I was inspired by cinematographer Marcell Rév and the Safdie brothers for this film, especially their use of colour and lights. In India, I think Feat.artists is doing great work with fashion films. In terms of fashion documentation, I am really inspired by Bharat Sikka. And last year, Dior’s haute couture film, Le Mythe Dior, directed by Italian filmmaker Matteo Garrone impressed me.
Acceptance: I find that people of my age — both in creative and non-creative industries — are more open to appreciating art for art’s sake. To them a fashion film is an expression of ideas rather than just a showcase of clothes on video.
Tech: I use Sony Alpha 7R IIIs, and for the Satya Paul shoot, a Canon 5D Mark 4. Since we had access to a curved LED screen, we created visuals to change perspectives, such as giving a rooftop vibe in New York. I made some on Photoshop and procured others from stock footage websites like iStock Photo. We used Logic Effects to create the track, and Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro to edit.
Devki Bhatt, 35
A beautiful bungalow in Bandra, friends discussing if they are finally ready to go out during the pandemic, and elaborate ethnic clothes. Bhatt’s storyboarding for Payal Singhal is breezy, occasionally a little Wes Anderson-ish, and fun. “Payal and I connected over the idea of changing the brand’s pre-existing dialogue. Fashion is no longer just an escape from reality, it is also a means to expand our realities,” says the fashion stylist. The inspiration came from brands like Gucci and Marc Jacobs, which have mastered the art of relatable yet unique (and at times) visceral storytelling. “The rawness of their visual campaigns have a way of blending fashion with real life,” she says. Bhatt worked with Indra Joshi, who edited the film, and a cinematographer. “Combining a western aesthetic with a quintessentially Indian collection was a challenge.”
How does she take on criticism that fashion films are ‘frivolous’? By pointing out its strengths. “These aren’t videos without scripts. These are collaborative approaches that have a concept, storyline, graphics, audio, and elevated cinematography.”
Inspirations: Gus Van Sant’s seven-part film with Gucci is sheer brilliance and has changed the way we see fashion films. Other people I’ve been recently watching are photographer-filmmaker duo Vivienne Balla and Tamas Sabo, and, of course, Polish-French director Roman Polanski and American photographer-filmmaker Autumn de Wilde (with Prada).
Collabs: Through The Yellow Dot, I’ve had the opportunity to give fashion various dimensions. I collaborated with singers, poets, illustrators and actors to create videos that show a unique point of view. In 2021, I hope to be able to grow this face of fashion that is percolating into other arts.
Upcoming: Films that tell a story and bring fashion into the realm of social commentary.