Ever since Project Runway hit the screen, everyone wants to be a fashion designer. EVERYONE. Small children, grandmothers, the guy that walks your dog – everyone.
But what does it really mean to be a fashion designer? Is it really all that glamorous? Do you really want to be thinking up ideas 15 minutes before your first CFDA show? Do you really want to be dragging all that fabric home, trying to get the sleeves right for the 50th time?
Unzipped and Seamless are two films directed by Douglas Keeve that take you behind the scenes of what designers really go through in the fashion industry.
Unzipped tells the story of how Isaac Mizraahi soldiered on after reviewers were not so kind about one of his collections in 1993. Douglas followed Isaac through the conception for a new line for 1994, all the way through to his triumphant show.
Along the way we meet his mother, who inspired him by gluing fake flowers on her shoes and wearing dresses backwards. He cavorts in the street with then-popular comedienne Sandra Bernhard. We watch Isaac meeting Eartha Kitt, being photographed, and palling around with a very young Naomi Campbell.
Interwoven through this is Isaac’s design process, and how he struggles to be creative and marketable at the same time. We see him running around doing things and meeting people, and then fighting to have his visual presentation for the runway show (a transparent scrim separating the audience from the backstage) become a reality.
Released in 1995, it was probably Isaac running around Paris with John Galliano and Andre Leon Talley that got everyone thinking they could be designers, too. Even though Isaac gets stressed when Gaultier scoops his Nanook of the North idea, and wonders whether he will or won’t get his scrim – the work didn’t look hard, and there was champagne involved. Who wouldn’t want to live like that?
10 years later, Douglas Keeve returned with a relentless film called Seamless. In 2004, Vogue and the CFDA started a fund for young designers so that the next generation could be nurtured and shepherded along the right path. But this film is more about commerce than art.
Right from the beginning, we have people like Tom Ford, Anna Wintour, and Karen Elson laying out the realities behind the shiny veneer of the fashion industry: that it’s really a lot of people working for free, on a shoestring budget, doing whatever they can to make it.
As Anna Wintour puts it, "There is this generation out there that’s struggling to survive."
The emphasis is less on fun, and more on how hard the lives of designers can really be. You could be selling clothing that costs thousands of dollars and eating packs of ramen every night. This isn’t just about being the next designer/celebrity – it’s about running a business and appealing to customers while making enough money to feed yourself and keep things moving. One of the panelists puts it plainly by saying that they don’t want to award someone who will be an artistic success, but not a commercial one.
Douglas had amazing access, and we begin at the meeting where 174 applications are winnowed down to 10 finalists who will be heavily scrutinized, so that they can win $200,000 and a year’s worth of the kind of mentoring that most designers will never have.
The panel talks openly about what makes a designer desirable, from their presentation to their personality. They speak candidly about the struggle between fashion and business, and what are the real aims of the fund? Hearing all of this spoken by the biggest names in the business should give anyone pause before cutting their first muslin.
The film follows a selct group of designers from the finalists (Proenza Schouler, Doo.Ri, and Cloak are the main protagonists) and we see snippets of the others like Behnaz Sarafpour, Libertine, and Peter Som. Studio visits, fashion shows, commuting, wrangling with suppliers- eveything that a desiger realistically goes through is here.
Unlike Unzipped, it’s all about the work, and in some cases the loneliness, that is involved in having a career in fashion. Whether the whole system is (as some think) silly or delusional, the fact is that thousands of people’s livelihoods rest on being THE designer of the season, and having their work featured in magazines and ordered by store buyers. If I taught at F.I.T or Parsons, I would make this required viewing before even filling out the application.
Project Runway is fun, but in the end it’s just the ANTM of designers looking for outsized personalities who (with the exception of Christian Siriano) can’t seem to break out and run real businesses or sustain the careers that they fight each other to achieve.
What we learn from movies like Unzipped and Seamless is that a designer isn’t just a snappy comeback on a reality show – it’s about artistic vision, fashion knowledge, hard work, perseverance, and ability. And being as adorable as Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCullough from Proenza Schouler doesn’t hurt, either.