Three Must-Watch Documentaries About Style Icons Who Defined Our World

BY E. Nina Rothe / Oct 29 2019 / 17:43 PM

A glimpse of how Yves Saint Laurent, Laura Biagiotti and Ralph Lauren used to make "magic behind the curtain"

Three Must-Watch Documentaries About Style Icons Who Defined Our World
Instagram/Lavinia_Biagiotti; Omeyrou & Courtesy

Oscar winning costume designer Edith Head once famously said “you can have anything you want in life if you dress for it.” In three upcoming fashion documentaries, legendary style icons Yves Saint Laurent, Laura Biagiotti and Ralph Lauren make it perfectly clear that if we learn how to inhabit their stylish worlds, we could turn out to be OK after all.

But before you go thinking that we’re encouraging you to invest in a spend-all-your-savings wardrobe made up of their fabulous fashions, stop! Breathe, zip up your wallets and fasten your handbags because what you are bound to take away from these films titled Celebration, Very Ralph and Illuminate: Laura Biagiotti will be instead a sense of self to carry you through the seasons. Not a whole new wardrobe, rather the kind of suit famed NYC photographer Bill Cunningham talked about when he said “fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life.” Think along the lines of style, class, self assuredness and a wonderful joie de vivre which make up the true elegance of any human being.

In the last ten years, fashion documentaries have been released about the House of Dior, bad boy Alexander McQueen, Valentino, Vivienne Westwood, shoe king Manolo Blahnik and much much more. This lasting trend kicked off in 1995 with Unzipped, a film about American designer Isaac Mizrahi.

So why are audiences drawn to the lives of fashion designers told on the big screen, now more than ever? We asked Ian Stimler, co-founder of distribution label KimStim, which has been distributing Celebration in the US. He told Harper’s BAZAAR Arabia, “I guess it has to do with the fact that fashion has such an important and powerful hold on people's lives and imaginations — besides the glamor often depicted.” He also continued that, “these films allow audiences to get a peek at how the magic is made from behind the curtain, especially with Celebration — the film is not so flattering but it does show YSL the human being, the icon at the end of his career and life.” And since we’re on the subject, let’s talk about that title first.

Celebration by Olivier Meyrou

French documentarian Oliver Meyrou’s film about Yves Saint Laurent will be the last released on the fashion icon. And yet, it was the first of three films, which include another documentary and one fiction drama, to be produced about Saint Laurent.

At the invitation of the designer’s longtime partner Pierre Bergé, Meyrou spent two and a half years following them around, while Saint Laurent designed and presented what would turn out to be his last collection for the maison he founded in 1961. But then, after Celebration had been presented in a first version at the Berlinale film festival in 2007, Bergé sued the filmmaker and stopped the film’s release. One can only imagine the reasons for the ban, lifted only after Bergé’s recent death. There is a frailty to the Algerian-born Saint Laurent’s actions which are later, in 2008 and never talked about of course in the film, explained by his demise from a brain tumor. And Bergé is very much seen as the behind the scenes parent counterpart to Saint Laurent’s creative child.

Yet Celebration succeeds as a fashion documentary first but also as an ode to the epic life of a maestro of his profession. It further shines the spotlight on his collaborators, among them the late Loulou de la Falaise who was his muse and friend and through Meyrou’s film will now become the inspiration for many young women to come with her impeccable simplicity. In fact, above all else, Celebration is a film that highlights the true meaning of elegance and how important it is for each of us to to find that idea within ourselves.

Illuminate: Laura Biagiotti by Maria Tilli

It is difficult enough to be a woman in any professional world, but to be a woman designer in the fashion world, with her own name on the label, it is nearly impossible. Few women have tried it and even fewer have succeeded, literally to be counted on the fingers of one hand. They typically can be recognized by their first names alone: Donna, Stella, Vivienne, and Laura. Yes, there are more but some have inherited the family business while others yet still design for other labels. Laura Biagiotti instead created an empire — the Laura Biagiotti empire, which brought cashmere to the Gulf and even “invented” a color, the stylish “Biagiotti white”.

In her film, made for Italian television station RAI, Maria Tilli tells her audience not only about the incredible feat achieved by Laura Biagiotti to create and maintain control of her iconically feminine fashion brand, but she also delves into the love affairs behind the brand. More than simply a fashion film, Illuminate: Laura Biagiotti is a love poem to the late Laura, to her daughter Lavinia who continues her legacy and work and Laura’s late husband and partner Gianni Cigna. Not to mention of course, the passion and affinity the three of them felt and feel to the great city of Rome.

Laura's daughter, Lavinia, with Serena Rossi, who leads Biagiotti's story through the documentary

The film world-premiered ideally at this year’s Rome Film Festival where we caught up with Tilli. “It’s always very emotional to see the entire audience be touched by a person whose story I’m telling,” Tilli admitted, herself in tears after the screening. And, looking around, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house on that magical night! She continued, “I like to tell stories of people I love, I need to become passionate about my subjects — I could never do a film on someone I don’t like.” What does she wish audiences to take away from her moving film? “What I’ve kept with me after all is said and done is that behind Laura Biagiotti’s smile, I could see a great capacity for acceptance of pain.” She then added, “I would like a spectator to leave the theater and think, ‘wow, this is what it means to be truly strong, not just being aggressive but finding one’s own stillness in the chaos of the world’.”

Laura Biagiotti with her daughter, Lavinia Biagiotti

Very Lauren by Susan Lacy

Also screened at the Rome Film Festival, Susan Lacy’s film on American designer Ralph Lauren is another kind of wonderful. It features first person interviews with Lauren himself, his numerous extended family, as well as fashion icons like the late Karl Lagerfeld, Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, photographer Bruce Weber and many, many more. 

Ralph and the boys, August 1972

The Bronx-born Ralph Lifshitz was one of four children of Russian immigrants. His brother urged them all to collectively change their last name while they were still in school and thus the iconic Ralph Lauren signature came to be. His greatest talent as a designer has been Lauren’s ability to transform the world of upper class America, with their luxurious homes, blond good looks and Polo ponies, into an attainable dream — achievable by purchasing into his varied inventory, from home wares to clothing. In fact, the title of the film refers to the fact that the designer’s vision has turned him into an adjective, used in the sense that something iconically American cool and luxurious is described as “very Ralph Lauren.”

Lacy disclosed that Lauren grew up “going to the movies on Saturdays, he came from a Russian immigrant family and in the movies he saw a different world.” She continued for us by saying that this was “a world also created by immigrants who came from Europe and invented Hollywood, an idealized version of America.” Lauren’s genius was in recreating that life for people from around the world, and from all walks of life. Lacy explained “he saw a different life and he wanted it, he wanted all of those lives; he wanted to be a cowboy, he wanted to be Cary Grant and Fred Astairs the wanted to be John Wayne and turn it into his reality of life — he achieved that by being an acute observer of style.”

A still from Very Ralph

When asked if Lauren himself could have made a good film director, with his broad, unchanging vision of style, Lacy conceded that “his version of being a director he was really successful at; [Lauren] always says that in all of his work he’s always thinking he’s making a movie and designing for a woman he is giving a story to, in his mind.”

A still from Very Ralph

Very Ralph is an HBO film and will screen in the Gulf region on OSN platforms.