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A Conversation With Loïc Prigent, Fashion Geek


There’s fiction—Ugly Betty, The Devil Wears Prada. There’s “reality”—Project Runway, America’s Next Top Model, The Rachel Zoe Show, and so on, ad nauseum. Now comes reality. Tomorrow night, the Sundance Channel debuts The Day Before, a documentary series portraying the final hours before the Sonia Rykiel, Proenza Schouler, Fendi, and Gaultier Haute Couture fashion shows. Commanding access that should make the hair of any fashion aspirant stand on end, director Loïc Prigent takes pains to show the real life of fashion, as sublime, as surreal, as high-stakes and as prosaic as it is, day-to-day. Dresses unsewn mere minutes before the lights go up on the catwalk. Missing models. Technical mishaps. Whacked-out seamstresses staging a 1 a.m. runway show. Alongside The September Issue, the series effectively counterpunches the prevailing public image of fashion people as a community of shopaholic psychotics, replacing it with something richer, stranger, and—yes—realer. Prigent himself is no stranger to the scene behind the scenes: Together with Agnès Boulard, Prigent produces a popular fashion-themed show for French television, and he directed the the miniseries Signé Chanel and the documentary Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton, both of which previously aired on the Sundance Channel. This evening, the network fêtes The Day Before, and the multi-platform Full Frontal Fashion initiative it tentpoles, with a party hosted by Nathalie Rykiel and Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler. Here, the director talks to about fashion geekdom, fur machismo, and filming for a nation of drama queens.

OK, I have to start by asking—how on earth did you convince these designers to let you and your camera crews in on their last-minute show preparations? That’s a high-pressure situation as is. And for that matter, how on earth did you convince Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs to let you follow them around—camera in tow—for months on end?

You know, I think the decisive moment, when I began really to have access to this world, was at the first show of Tom Ford for Yves Saint Laurent. Everyone else was filming the celebrities, but I had always one eye for Yves Saint Laurent, because he was there in the front row, and I was like, totally starstruck. And so I never panned to the movie stars, I just kept my camera rolling on Monsieur Saint Laurent. The mic was on, and I got Monsieur Saint Laurent saying to Bernard Arnault, “Monsieur Arnault, please get us out of this scam.” But in French, he used a very bad word—not a word you would expect out of Yves Saint Laurent. Of course, he was referring to Tom Ford coming to Yves Saint Laurent, and the Gucci Group buying the label, and he was upset about all this. A very revealing conversation. And everyone was like, “Oh my God, you can’t use that!” But to me, I mean, Monsieur Saint Laurent had never spoke about any of this in public, and it was such a great story, I had to use it. So, since then, it seems like people give me more access.

Well, presumably because they’re afraid of you.

Maybe there is a little bit of scared-ness, yes, but also the people I ask to film, they know I love their work and they know I love fashion and that I’m looking for a truthful way to report about it.

How did you get interested in fashion in the first place?

I’m just a total fashion geek. I have been since I was young. I don’t get into wearing labels, but I love the politics and the process. It’s a fanzine mentality, you know? One of those 20-year-olds with a blog, that could be me. Except I’m not 20, and I don’t have a blog. But it’s really the same idea. I’m always trying to answer this mystery of fashion: How do you do it? How do you make these things appear? With Signé Chanel, I was hoping that if I spent more time inside the atelier, I would find the answer. And then, after watching the hands at Chanel, I went with Marc Jacobs, so I could follow the eye. The way Marc sees, the way he scans everything to make fashion happen. This time, for The Day Before,, it’s more about this energy before the show. It’s an interesting time to film, because there is so much to finish, so many tricks to invent, that it’s impossible to wear a mask.

I’ve been backstage before shows, and I was still completely taken aback by how much gets done at the very last minute. I mean, it’s always a mad scramble, but…

Oh, I mean—at Gaultier, an hour before the show they have 23 outfits that aren’t ready!? It’s crazy. But they keep their calm, they’re all super-calm. And then, bang, the dresses are there. For me, still, the only explanation is that someone in heaven snapped a finger and made a collection appear. Really, it makes you believe in magic.

How did you choose the designers featured in the series?

Sonia Rykiel was a given to me—I love her whole universe, and I knew Nathalie Rykiel would open the doors, and I knew also that there was this big event coming up, the 40th anniversary, and that this would be a strong story. You know, Sonia Rykiel, she’s so Paris; similarly, it’s evident to me that Proenza Schouler is all about America, and I wanted to explore this American kind of creativity. And I was also curious, with Jack and Lazaro, how they work together; how four eyes become one look. Fendi, that was an easy choice, because at Fendi there is Karl, and it’s always good to have Karl involved when you’re pitching a documentary about fashion. Plus, I was curious about the fur atelier at Fendi.

Yeah? Why? Did you find out anything that surprised you?

I found out that Italian men are very macho.

That was a surprise?

No, it’s really interesting—all the men are cutting the furs, but not one holds a pin. They won’t sew. And when I asked about it, they all said—hey, it’s been this way since medieval times. That was so crazy to me. I mean, I guess I’m always surprised when men are macho; I can’t believe they get away with it.

Sorry, I interrupted you before you told me why you decided to shoot Jean Paul Gaultier.

Well, for a couple reasons. Like I was saying—Sonia is Paris, one idea of Paris, and Proenza is America, and Karl to me is postwar European, and Jean Paul, he’s a child of the ’70s and ’80s in Paris. They all have a very different sensibility. And with Jean Paul, I was also interested in him because he is relatively new to the haute couture, and after filming Chanel, which is like the Rolls-Royce, I thought it would be interesting to see this new couture car in action.

I’m actually quite interested in what you chose not to show. We never see stylists, for example. And you don’t focus at all on the look of the collections—the silhouette, the style. Which is, of course, the whole point.

I wanted to show the stylists. I know how important they are—I ve seen how much direction Katie Grand gives at Vuitton, for example. But the person the designer is talking to the most before the show, that’s the head of atelier. Anna at Fendi, Andrea at Proenza; these are amazing women, they make everything happen, you know? They didn’t want to be filmed, but it was essential to film them. And what they do, you can show—it’s not easy to show, but at least it’s physical. They’re working on the clothes. The stylist, what she does, or he does, is so immaterial. And so often, they communicate in this way that’s above words. It’s a look, a stomp of the foot. Very difficult to get on film. In terms of the collections themselves, the look of them, part of the decision to stay away from talking about that is that I wanted to focus on the process. This wasn’t a project about inspiration. And anyway, you know, I watched a lot of fashion television when I was growing up, and the thing I hated—really hated—was the way they would cut from this hair and makeup footage, which is for some reason the most boring footage in the world, to an interview with some designer saying, oh, “I wanted modern, I wanted feminine.” They always would say the same thing. Of course they want modern and feminine! It’s obvious. I never wanted to ask a question that would get me this media-trained bullshit.

This series definitely feels vérité. In fact, I have to admit—I watched one of the episodes with a friend of mine who works in the industry in Los Angeles, and he’s a smart guy, but he kept asking, “What’s going on here? Is this a competition?” And I kept having to say, “No, you dink, this is fashion.” And that made me wonder—did you get any pressure to conform this series to that American reality-show idea of how fashion works, and who works in it?

Pressure? No. You do have this thing here that we don’t have in France—”notes.” The people at Sundance are brilliant, they gave me hundreds of notes, incredibly precise, that helped give me a sense of this American kind of narrative. There’s an interest in stakes and drama that we don’t care about in France. You’re a country of drama queens, I guess. And kings.

That’s certainly the impression you’d get watching Bravo. Do you watch any of that stuff?

Eh, I’ve seen a little bit of these reality shows, and whatever they’re about, they’re not about fashion. Competition, making fun of people, but not fashion. It’s very hard to convince people to do a real fashion show—there’s a prejudice against fashion people in TV, even in France. I blame William Klein. After Qui Est-Vous, Polly Magoo?, he made fashion people ridiculous forever. It is quite a funny business, but I see the humor from the fashion-geek perspective. I mean, right now, I’m so excited for the Paris shows—I am desperate to interview Hannah MacGibbon, who never talks to anyone, and I can’t wait to see what Phoebe Philo will do at Celine, and Peter Copping at Nina Ricci. That’s a dramatic series, to me. I want to see how the story goes.

Photo: Courtesy of Sundance