Gone are the days of fashion biopics being merely fever dreams of fabrics thrown about, camera flashes, sun-seeking parties and excesses of cash flow. From the more reverential Coco Avant Chanel (2009) to the darkly superfluous Greed (2019), the lens of fashion biopics over the years has been switched out for something more unflinching and less insipid.
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But why do we care so much? The world of fashion may be one far removed from our own reality and this in itself elevates a sense of intrigue, escapism and attachment. Dennis Bingham, in his 2010 book Whose Lives Are They Anyway? sums it up fairly succinctly: “So as to plumb that mystery of humanness, the inability completely to know another person, and the absolute importance of knowing them and ourselves.”
In a sense, the decade-plus of progress has helped pave the way for filmmaker Ridley Scott’s House Of Gucci which casts our gaze over the establishment of the Italian luxury couture house, but also dives into the murder plot set by Patrizia Reggiani against her husband Maurizio, the label’s founder. Like most biopics, the element of scandal has propelled much of the fan-fuelled excitement for the feature film (not just owing to the casting of Adam Driver and Lady Gaga), proving the demand for biopics is not expiring, but instead, evolving and growing.
If made 10 years ago, House Of Gucci may have had a wholly different texture. Bingham unravels Hollywood’s somewhat patriarchal approach to biopics in the early years, writing, “Madness, hysteria, sexual dependency, the male gaze, and a patriarchal authorship: that is the classical female biopic.” It was either this or an overtly puritanical dimension as seen in Audrey Tatou’s performance in the still-rivetting Coco Avant Chanel .
But more complex portraits have been painted of leading personas – whatever their gender – in recent years. The cases in point are Michael Winterbottom’s satire Greed (2019) loosely based on Topshop giant Philip Green, Daniel Minahan’s Halston (2021) following the rise and fall of the American fashion designer in the 1970s, and Scott’s House Of Gucci. Even Ryan Murphy adopted a more human approach for The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story (2018), while retaining his signature maximalist and high-octane approach.
Creative direction equals liberties equals accountability equals trust, for most biopics. The trust required to make any sort of biopic is hardier than ever; in the 1920s, if a filmmaker wanted to kickstart and sustain their career, a biopic was the way to do that, whereas now, audiences expect that more established filmmakers – such as Scott and Murphy – be entrusted with that privilege, whatever the creative direction may be.
But there are exceptions to creative hyperbole, such as Bertrand Bonello’s Saint Laurent (2014) which offered a more sombre perspective on the titular designer, and Raj Rachakonda’s Mallesham (2019), a loyal tribute to Chintakindi Mallesham who revolutionised India’s weaving industry.
While these audiences revel, to some extent, in authenticity, biopics usher in an expectation of dramatic fiction from the get-go – which is probably why filmmakers who often flirt with controversy are immune to inevitable backlash that comes from releasing any biopic. Fashion biopics taking the extra step into some culturally dangerous territory has proven largely successful as audiences may not always want to be educated, but do want to be thoroughly entertained, ultimately making for a rich seam in cinema.