Like in my recent-years’ attempts to dip my toe into the insular worlds of fringe-art communities like drag, pro wrestling, and alternative comics, I feel totally out of my league when discussing fashion, despite my interest in it as an artform. It took decades of maturity & shedding of teenage snobbery for me to personally recognize fashion as the vital, vibrant artform that it is, something essential to so many things that were already important to me: drag, wrestling, punk, cinema. As such, my vocabulary & mental catalog of the giants of the industry are embarrassingly thin, something I could stand to correct with some crash course documentary-binging on the subject. With recent pics like The Times of Bill, The Gospel According to Andre, and McQueen falling just outside my distribution reach, but weighing on me heavily as works I should seek out, I find myself looking to past docs to fill in the gaps in the meantime, which is how I found Catwalk. Produced in the supermodel-dominated 1990s when dozens of catwalking fashionistas were big enough stars to be household names even for someone as uninterested in their artform as I was at the time, Catwalk seemed like an easy enough entry point into the world of high fashion as any. That was naive of me; the film is more a head-first dive into the deep end than anything.
Following an overworked Christy Turlington as she walks 1992 Fashion Week runways in Paris, Milan, and NYC, Catwalk is posed as a day-in-the-life, behind-the-scenes portrait of a fashion model in the year’s busiest season, but actually functions as a “Supermodels! They’re just like us!” act of brand management. The lifestyle porn of watching Turlington try on the world’s most beautiful clothes in rooms full of the world’s most beautiful people in the world’s most romantic cities is a potent fantasy. Outside a few shady quips, everyone profiled is on their very best behavior; even their version of clubbing is extremely mannered & image-controlled. That’s not too much of a problem, however, when you consider the quality of elbows Turlington is rubbing behind the scenes at these shows: models like Naomi Campbell, Kate Moss, and Carla Bruni; designers like John Galliano, Jean-Paul Gaulitier, and Isaac Mizrahi. Even the film’s tonally fluctuating music affords it an air of legitimacy, as it was provided by punk fashion pioneer Malcom McLaren. The only problem is that if you’re a fashion-scene dummy like myself you have no idea who these people are (at least by sight; their names might ring a bell) and the movie has zero interest in cluing you in, providing no captioned names until the end credits. This is a behind-the-scenes glimpse for people already in the know, one where announcing context would be blatant & gauche.
I have a feeling that if I return to this film after I’m more familiar with the fashion world superstars it casually profiles, I’ll get a lot more out of it. Even now, my ears most perked up in moments where people I was already familiar with happened into the frame because of the setting (Campbell, Cindy Crawford, RuPaul, Sandra Bernhard, Sharon Stone). As impenetrable as the film may have been to me as a fashion-industry crash-course, however, it did partially clue me into the general social atmosphere of a scene I’ve only before witnessed in parodies like Zoolander & (less cruelly) Prêt-à-Porter. Although this is a hangout documentary clearly intended for people already in the know, that casual familiarity with the scene does have a way of acclimating outsiders in a lowkey, context-light demeanor. I have a feeling I’ll appreciate this laissez faire fashion scene introduction more the further I get away from it. At the very least, it didn’t at all scare me away from pursuing the subject further.