Friday, 16 September 2016

Absolutely Fashion: My Verdict

"Sometimes I wonder if a woman would have been a better choice to make this series." So begins the second episode of Richard Macer's Absolutely Fashion: Inside British Vogue, and thus the patronising tone is set.

Macer assumes that a woman - any woman at all - would shy away from confronting Anna Wintour about the sales competition between American and British Vogues. Whether he assumes that all women are too reverential of fashion to ask any important questions, or whether he just sees himself as the pinnacle of journalistic rigour is difficult to say. What is clear from watching this two-part documentary series on BBC 2 is that this comment is part of a pattern in which Macer's narrative viewpoint depicts women, especially those working in fashion, as confusing, aloof, near-mythical creatures. In the first episode, he describes the Vogue offices as a "guarded world" in which "men are the underlings". The rest of his commentary is similarly oversimplified or misleading for the purpose of a weak dramatic arc.

After all the fuss over interviewing Wintour at the end of the first episode, I was at least looking forward to hearing what she had to say in this second installment. Yet when the much-anticipated moment arrives, the questions are under-researched, the interview brief, and the coverstar rivalry not even mentioned. It is such a wasted opportunity, and underscores for me why this documentary should have been made by somebody else: not necessarily a woman, but someone who knows the basics of the fashion industry and is willing to research it rather than just trail around behind editors with a camera and sulk behind them when someone requests not to be filmed.

The actual content of the series is interesting, both for those who would never dream of missing a Vogue issue and those who have never bought it in their life. Judging by the Twitter reaction, Fashion Director Lucinda Chambers was a particular favourite, and some of the best parts of the documentary are when Macer steps back and allows the staff of Vogue to explain for themselves how their process works. Alexandra Shulman is at the centre of the programme, and in fairness to Macer he does capture some interesting insights into the life of the Editor-in-Chief; hurrying across some grass to a runway show is a rare moment when Macer properly gets behind the perceived image of Vogue and shows his viewer the less glamorous and sometimes haphazard world of fashion.

This could have been such a good documentary. I haven't yet mentioned the elephant in the room: The September Issue. The difference between this documentary and The September Issue all lies in the presence of the filmmaker. Whereas RJ Cutler's classic is absent of narration, and the filmmakers never interfere with the process they are recording, Macer takes the opposite approach. In the first episode, he even intervenes in a meeting in an attempt to resolve a dispute over the cover. I realise that this is probably a deliberate departure from Cutler, but the presence of the filmmaker, both in voiceover and in participation in the action, is distracting.

Ultimately, Macer centralises himself and his own experience rather than that of his subjects. This is why he is so upset when he realises Shulman has been keeping the fact that the Duchess of Cambridge will appear on the magazine's centenary edition cover from him - even though this was a secret kept from a huge number of other people, many of them with more of a right to know than a documentary-maker. This is then unfairly trailed in the BBC's episode description as the discovery of "a world of deception".

For those who want an insight into the process behind Vogue's centenary year, it is still worth watching, but there are far better fashion documentaries to be watched. Other than The September Issue, there's a favourite series of mine Le Jour D'Avant, following fashion designers the day before one of their shows. There's also British Vogue's own video going inside their offices, hosted by Alexa Chung, which gives rather a different, less annoying view on everything we see in Absolutely Fashion. If you haven't already, I really recommend watching it.