Welcome once again to New York Fashion Week, that twice-annual festival of craft and commerce, a great boon to the city’s makeup artists, car-service drivers, and velvet-rope rental agencies. It is, of course, a game that you can play along from the comfort of your couch, sitting at home snacking on the catwalk dispatches from infotainment shows, as if Fashion Week were not just a trade show of above-average fabulousness.
How did this come to pass? Notwithstanding the fact that glamour has never been exactly out of style, we must credit and blame the mid-1990s—the age of Julia Roberts in Prêt-à-Porter, Isaac Mizrahi in Unzipped, and supermodels all up in our faces. The rag trade made a pop, a preliminary to going boom in the form of America’s Next Top Model, Project Runway, The Devil Wears Prada, The September Issue, and sundry other tributes to cultivated chic. And now here you and I are, on the couch in our bunny slippers, feeling knowledgeable.
To help us along, the Sundance Channel this week presents The Day Before, a four-part, four-hour documentary directed by Loïc Prigent, who earlier cast a curious eye at the houses of Chanel and Louis Vuitton. Here, he tracks the last-minute preparations for runway shows staged by Sonia Rykiel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Karl Lagerfeld, and Proenza Schouler. Even if you do not know, going in, that Proenza Schouler is not the name of one person but two, neither of whom makes clothing—even if you barely know what a sleeve is—then you can still have some fun here.
Prigent’s own design philosophy involves clean lines and a light touch. He’s not interested in making myths, and he’s not bent on demystifying anything, either. He’s just recording, and if you took away the organza and the entourages, these films could be documentaries about science projects. That said, The Day Before provides evidence that Karl Lagerfeld would sooner give away both kidneys than have his entourage taken away.
In the episode that details this pouty ponytailed German attending to a collection for Fendi, the man refers to the pack of sculptural Eurotrash trailing him through Italy as his “battalions of beauties,” crediting the phrase to Catherine de Medici, presumably a personal hero. He must have studied his regal manner somewhere. Prigent sizes up Lagerfeld’s delightfully grandiose costume and perfectly imperious bearing with a level eye. He has not come here to gape in amazement, nor to snark in derision—though one does wonder about the on-screen title declaring that there’s “no mercy in Karl’s eye” as he decides which pieces to cancel. How can anyone tell what’s in Karl’s eye? Dude never takes off his sunglasses.
The other Day Before subjects are a down-to-earth bunch. Gaultier, seen interpreting Old Hollywood glamour by employing actual film as a textile, is approachable as only a career eccentric can be. Rykiel is a great grande dame with orange hair cut into a frizzy pyramid. Gaze silently as her daughter (and business partner) arranges for 40 of her colleagues to whip up homage-paying frocks for a secret second fashion show following the presentation of the collection; the deception and revelation play out not with the aura of stopwatch self-importance you’ve learned to expect from glamour-industry programming but with the fun suspense of putting on a surprise party for Grandma. And it is left to the charming Proenza Schouler boys—designers Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough—to acknowledge that a recession is on, and luxury is a business, and “today they need to sell bags, bags, and more bags.” Here’s a trend for fall: fashion as something other than fantasy.