Gianluca Matarrese’s Fashion Babylon is a documentary more interested in the lives on fashion’s fringes than the glamour on the runway. Following a trio of notable fashion obsessives, Matarrese’s cold lens highlights how wafer thin glamour is, and how hollow art can be… but just maybe, for a few, it is still redeemable.
Musician/artist Casey Spooner, Rupaul’s Drag Race Season 7 winner Violet Chachki (Jason Dardo) and model/stylist/couture-fan Michelle Elie form the three uneven legs of this off-kilter film. As the three travel from fashion shows in Paris and Milan (pre-Covid), the air of desperation is palpable, but for each the desperation comes from a unique source.
Michelle Elie combines hustle with her personal love of the clothes; buying her own couture pieces to wear at fashion week. She has few invites, but exerts a magnetism that opens doors. Her passion for the avant-garde drives her, especially the work of Rei Kawakubo, the creator of Comme des Garçons. Elie’s outfits are wearable works of art and she is happy to lean into the ridiculousness of the visuals.
Meanwhile, Spooner and Chachki (now that’s a cop show I’d watch), bring the hustle from a different angle; fashion and glitz on the outside hides the grift underneath. Doing quick changes in the back of the car and booking cheap hotels to keep themselves afloat. Spooner may have a closet full of designer swag, but he can’t pay his rent back in NYC. For them, the fashion spotlight is all about self-promotion, helping them climb to the next potential pot of gold. Their interactions with the fashion elite are tinged with need and a desire for validation.
Fashion Babylon feels like two different documentaries mixed together and the result never quite takes its full shape. These duelling stories are both interesting, but the connective tissue refuses to connect them, apart from a brief interaction backstage at a show. The chipped coffee mugs of Spooner’s world, and the monied circles of Elie’s are juxtaposed, but Matarrese avoids imposing a subjective pesrscpetive that might have weaved these strands together. The filmmaker’s nonjudgmental lens allows his subjects to both revel in praise and be seen surrounded by scathing glances. As a purely observational documentary the interpretation is all left to the viewer to decode, an aspect that makes the film intriguing at times, but often ends up feeling directionless.
We follow Chachki, who goes from watching Gaultier’s show one season, to being invited to walk in one the next. As Gaultier’s last show before his retirement, the honour is not lost on Chachki. But the experience only highlights the chasm between fashion’s dream and reality. There’s only so much good a call to Dita Von Teese can do to calm a drag queens mood!
Fashion Babylon earns its title by exposing both how people use fashion and how fashion uses people. At once a source of sublime joy, and crushing heartbreak. While light on garment-porn and “celebrity” (yes HRH Anna Wintour appears fleetingly, as she must in all fashion films), there’s a refreshingly grotesque look at the world of excess and manufactured desire to be found.
By Chad Armstrong
Fashion Babylon received its Australian Premiere at the Sydney Film Festival 2022.