With unheard-of access to some of fashion's most fabled houses, the documentary filmmaker Loïc Prigent captures the industry's most frenzied and hilarious moments in his latest behind-the-catwalk series, The Day Before. Clare Coulson reports. Fashion is opening up like never before. Over the past couple of years, we have enjoyed fly-on-the-wall documentaries tracking the lives of designers including Karl Lagerfeld and Valentino (in Lagerfeld Confidential and Valentino: The Last Emperor); we've got the inside track at fashion houses with Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton; and we've even seen what life is really like working alongside the industry's most infamous character, Anna Wintour, in The September Issue. It seems that we just cannot get enough of seeing what goes on beyond the international catwalks or the pages of a glossy magazine.
Next up is The Day Before, a series made by the French director Loïc Prigent that premiered this month at New York Fashion Week. It condenses the 36 hours in the run-up before the shows of Proenza Schouler, Karl Lagerfeld at Fendi, Sonia Rykiel and Jean-Paul Gaultier into four documentaries that are just under an hour long. Prigent, who was responsible for Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton as well as Signe Chanel, a series about the house of Chanel, enjoyed unprecedented access to each fashion house, witnessing what he describes in his heavily accented English as the most "draining, nervous hours of the season".
"It was the policy in all the houses: full access. Incredible access, we felt we had the 'black badge'," says Prigent, referring to his access-all-areas status. We get to witness the stresses - Jack and Lazaro of Proenza Schouler frantically finishing off outfits as their audience sits and waits silently for the show to begin, and Rykiel's daughter, Nathalie, screaming at her show producer - as well as sublime comedy, including Fendi's hilarious employees' fashion show, where studio staff dress up as editors and then strut up and down the runway in the new collection with Lagerfeld and his willowy muse, Amanda Harlech, falling about laughing in the front row.
"Frankly, I'm always constantly amused while filming," admits Prigent. "Very often the mixer has to tone down my laughs during mixing. Jean-Paul Gaultier and Karl Lagerfeld did the same thing after a long fitting: they turned to the camera and said, 'finito la commedia'. They know it's a comedy." While the designers themselves were open to, and at ease, with the filming, Prigent experienced a little froideur from the atelier staff, and especially the head of the atelier. "She has so much pressure, she's not media trained and not used to the cameras and sound boom over her head." But Prigent has nothing but respect for the atelier staff who work through the night, often up until the last seconds as the show begins, to finish off the collection.
"Their devotion is more to the actual dress than to the designer. The seamstresses are really about the dress, they call it their baby, their girl; they don't say 'the show' but 'the delivery', it's about giving birth." One hour before the Gaultier show, 23 outfits are still to be finished. "I would die," says Prigent. "Those women are unsung heroes. They do the impossible and when it's over, they have a little champagne, a little rest and they restart."
Despite the high-octane environment, nothing had to be edited from the film, although when Rykiel - who celebrates her 80th birthday next year - fell from her towering heels before the show, there was no question that Prigent would edit the moment from the footage: "I was filming her at that very moment and I realised I really cared about her. I was petrified. She fell so hard." There were no major tantrums either. Instead, the studio staff spent a lot of time having what Prigent describes as "nervous laughing breakdowns".
But beyond the hilarity there is the serious job of making sure that these shows - which in the case of Rykiel's 40th anniversary extravaganza cost around 1 million (Dh5.4 million) - go without a hitch. "You feel if you're in the way of one assistant backstage, even for a nanosecond, she or he could beat you down." As a young man growing up on a farm in Brittany, Prigent devoured books about fashion legends such as Diana Vreeland. He started his career as a reporter at Libération, where he wrote some stories on fashion, and then became a reporter for the cable channel Canal+, where he eventually covered the shows.
He is obviously in awe of the fashion world and its colourful characters. "I love the way the Proenza Schouler boys speak. They invent words. They are snappy all day long. Edouard, the PR at Rykiel who pretends to be some intern called Jean Pierre whenever he doesn't want to talk to you on the phone, is a favourite of mine. He's always funny and cracking jokes, except before the show, when he becomes this very serious and stressed professional."
But Prigent is quick to insist that there is also a laborious, dull process behind fashion filmmaking. "For a documentary, you can spend three months or more on the same 50 minutes. It's a very, very long process. Sometimes I'm in the editing suite and I only give my opinion once every three hours. The rest is just waiting, witnessing technical issues. It's the most boring process ever invented. I would love to see Tom Ford in his editing suite."