By Katerina Pantelides
When asked, former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld says that she collaborated with the director Fabien Constant on the documentary Mademoiselle C for two reasons: to record the development of CR, a magazine devoted to her visionary sartorial fantasies, and to show, unlike some other infamous documentaries, that ‘fashion can actually be quite a nice world’.1 In the Q&A session that followed the film screening at the Institut Français in South Kensington on September 16th, Roitfeld and Constant effused that they hoped the film had left everyone with a smile on their face, and presumably a spring in their step, a dream in their heart…
Certainly, it is difficult to not warm to the honeyed atmosphere that Roitfeld projects on screen, both in her enthusiasm for her current projects, and her adolescently sophisticated appearance. Roitfeld with her middle-parted chestnut hair, wide, sparkling eyes, shirts unbuttoned to the waist, quick, fluid movements and astonishing composure before barricades of paparazzi is often more compelling than the bird-of-paradise models she works with. It is no coincidence that the documentary is named Mademoiselle C, for Roitfeld cites one Mademoiselle Chanel, an icon of irreverence and reinvention, as her inspiration. Importantly, Chanel staged a spectacular comeback with her streamlined tweed suit and 2.55 bag in 1955, when only ten years earlier the designer had been forced into exile in disgrace after a wartime tryst with a Nazi officer. Comparably, Roitfeld wanted to re-invent herself after her highly public resignation from French Vogue in Autumn 2011. Though her status was not as muddied as Chanel’s, her often erotically charged style, dubbed ‘porno-chic’ and escapist approach to fashion was deemed out of keeping with the realities of the recession. While the exact details of Roitfeld’s departure have not been brought to light, it was messy enough to mean that she and her successor Emmanuelle Alt were no longer on speaking terms and that Condé Nast (owner of Vogue), perhaps intimidated by Roitfeld’s cachet, barred her access to eminent stylists and photographers.
Such scruples barely make inroads into the documentary, appearing only in fleeting clouds of white text on a black screen, while Roitfeld’s technicolor comeback, in the guise of various fashion shoots, assumes centre stage. From the start, Roitfeld makes it clear that fashion is about dreamsthat women can access imaginatively rather than literally. Roitfeld says that she lives out her fantasies through the imagery she creates with close collaborators, most notably her fellow Virgo perfectionist Tom Ford, with whom she conceived the glossily erotic style that became her infamous signature. Watching Ford and Roitfeld work together on a shoot that features a Sleeping Beauty type and her vampiric Prince for CR, one notes that they seem more motivated by minute details than provocation. Yet the most arresting shoot in the whole documentary is not this, but one by Sebastien Faena where a tall, pale Juliet Ingleby carouses blithely through a cemetery naked but for her translucent mousseline veil. It would have been interesting to learn why Roitfeld wanted to so titillate the dead, but this reach of her fantasy is left to our imagination.
A vital part of her comeback is the capacity to surprise, and this she does with an issue of CR dedicated to a current obsession, birth, in anticipation of her granddaughter Romy’s arrival. It is also a chance for the re-birth of Roitfeld’s reputation: as she gleefully surmises, who would believe that she, the Queen of porno-chic would fill a fashion spread with the fairly girl-next-door-like model Kate Upton, babies and other new-born creatures? There is a wonderful moment when the photographer Bruce Weber shoots an angelic child model whose dimples multiply as the naked baby she cradles wees all over her arms. That photograph makes the edit, and it’s refreshing to see Roitfeld’s vision embracing the warmer, even abject side of new life, perhaps indicating that fashion and reality can be continuous, symbiotic.
However, on the other hand, Roitfeld emphasises that fashion, though it involves a lot of hard work, should appear a gracious, joyful emanation. This mirrors her other obsession, dance, to which another issue of CR is dedicated. An interesting point in the documentary is a clip of Roitfeld conducting her daily ballet lesson, ponytailed in charcoal jersey. As she executes her scissor-splits smiling, she comments that ballet is painful, but appears effortless – a maxim that is paralleled with Roitfeld’s fashion career throughout the film.
And yet sometimes, you can’t help but wish for a bit more of the grit that underpins Roitfeld’s swan façade. While her composure in the face of frustration impresses, the absence of conflict or character development is unsuited to the diachronic documentary form. It’s tense realism – evinced in the spats and silences between Anna Wintour and Grace Coddington- that made R.J Cutler’s 2009 documentary The September Issue so intriguing and not just for those interested in the creation of impressive fashion imagery.2Comparably, Richard Press’s 2010 film Bill Cunningham: New York, intimately portrayed the daily challenges its aging subject confronted as a contemporary practitioner with traditional values.3 By glossing over the difficulties that Roitfeld surely faced in her departure from Vogue and in the creation of a definitive new image in an industry already saturated with sartorial figments, the documentary imbues a censored, superficial quality. Subsequently, while Constant’s film does much to dispel the myth that high fashion is a Machiavellian domain, it reinforces another damaging stereotype: that the industry is airy, carnavalesque and immune to the interpersonal friction present in other areas of life.
Mademoiselle C has been on general release in the UK from 20th September 2013.
1. Mademoiselle C, 2013. Film. Directed by Fabien Constant. USA: Cohen Media Group.
2. The September Issue, 2009. Directed by R.J. Cutler. USA: A&E Indie Films; Actual Reality Pictures.
3. Bill Cunningham: New York, 2010. Directed by Richard Press. USA: First Thought Films.
Katerina Pantelides is a PhD Candidate (Dress History) at the Courtauld Institute of Art and co-founder of the Fashion Research Network. Her doctoral research ‘Russian emigre ballet and the body: Paris and New York c.1920-50′ considers how the Russian ballet practitioners who emigrated from Russia after the 1917 Revolution influenced attitudes to female body image in Paris and New York.
Mademoiselle C: A Portrait of Carine Roitfeld
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