News & Views

When Will Fashion Film Flourish?

by Katrina Dodd

'Now here's a thing,' tweeted Penny Martin last week. 'A fashion film I watched more than once.' 

Why the incredulity? As editor in chief of The Gentlewoman, and formerly ofSHOWstudio [The Home of Fashion Film] her familiarity with the genre is a given, even though her guaranteed enthusiasm is not. The rise of video has been a glaring feature of the last few years online, and should be a gift to the aesthetics-attuned upper echelons of the rag trade. However, fashion film seems to flounder, not flourish and in the wake of another season of shows, I found myself wondering aloud why so many brands seem to sideline this huge commercial opportunity.

Part of the problem could be down to basic definition. What is fashion film? Not a TV commercial in the traditional sense, interrupting viewers with an exhortation to buy. And not a feature film with ninety-minutes to win over an audience that is not only willing to suspend its disbelief, but also to pay for the privilege.

But fashion film does seem to be a broad church. And perhaps this identity crisis is the key to why so many seem to fall so short: nobody seems to know quite what they're for, or quite how to make them. There are no parameters. Cue confusion.

There's a tendency to compare this situation with the genesis of music video in the early 80s. What really triggered that revolution was the arrival of an appropriate platform in MTV, and the realisation that promos sold music. Once the penny had dropped, funds were allocated, departments were formed and videos became part of the music industry machine. Songs were finite, so were budgets, and promos were made to measure, painting the artist as sexy or interesting or experimental, but most of all to raise awareness and sales.

The lack of a platform is clearly not a problem for fashion film in 2013. Rather, the issue seems to be an overabundance of apparently free media space to fill, and a persistent uncertainly over quite how to fill it. When you're not forced into adopting someone else's media schedule, to pay for magazine pages or airtime, when you have total freedom to call the shots, how do you know what's appropriate? Or, more importantly, what's effective?

The logical answer is to experiment until you figure it out, and some brands have been quick to test and get to grips with some of the basic advantages that video has to offer: ASOS has taken a pragmatic approach, building a repertoire of video content that ranges from basic clips that show the customer each garment in motion, on a model, to video shoppable video collaborations with musicians like Ellie Goulding and Azealia Banks.

But luxury brands seem flummoxed. In an industry organised around photography, where still images are part of the language and currency, experimentation in the category looks eerily like doing almost the same thing, with the same people, with video added in as a bonus or nice-to-have extra.

Christian Dior's Secret Garden is one example. It boasts superstar photographers (Inez and Vinoodh, whose stills work is deservedly acclaimed), amazing clothes, killer location, awesome soundtrack, yet still somehow manages to be less than the sum of its parts. The reason, I think, is this. Image-making is not the same as storytelling, and moving image throws that distinction into sharp relief. [Full disclosure: the video earned millions of hits, but I'm almost certain at least half of those are from people who watched again, wondering what they missed the first time... It's all surface, and no substance.]

Models are not always actresses. A series of good pictures is not the same as a compelling narrative. Most of all, people bring different expectations to different media and whether you choose to confound or play up to them, the the one thing you definitely cannot do is underestimate them.

I'm not sure the internet is the place for luxury brands to dazzle customers with cinematic, show-offy tours-de-superficial-force. It feels overblown and irrelevant in a medium that prizes interestingness over perfection, that loves a shortcut and sleight-of-hand, and that appreciates a different sort of visual literacy to that developed for fashion magazines.

It's not an easy thing to recalibrate an existing system to a new media dynamic. Some brands are stepping up and establishing their own video playbook, creating a much-needed consistency against templates they've developed over time. For Burberry that means releasing a trailer (a cross between the title sequence for Downton Abbey and the original Hovis commercial) for each season's show, chummy, regular appearances from Christopher Bailey to break exciting Burberry news, and a rolling series of curated and styled music-videotorials served up by Burberry Acoustic every so often to keep things ticking over.

But really, if fashion films are to become something we all want to watch more than once, it's time to start taking it seriously. Developing a framework that sets the basic parameters for how your brand uses video seems like a fundamental first step. Establishing clear goals for each piece of video is another. A tone of voice that works well in the context of the internet and shorter, smarter content is my own personal cri de coeur... Working with new talent seems too obvious, but there's something dispiriting about seeing the usual parade of photographers and their agents hoovering up an even greater proportion of the available budgets and opportunities. And finally, check out the video that prompted a second look: it's part two of a weekly series called Rotation, a collaboration between Fantastic Man magazine and Dior Homme. The title? All of us will learn.

Katrina Dodd is senior consultant at Contagious Insider