BoF sits down with Loïc Prigent, fashion’s preeminent documentarian, to talk about his professional trajectory and how he approaches his métier. The Creative Class is supported by CLIO Image, an awards show honouring creative excellence in fashion, beauty and retail.
PARIS, France — Loïc Prigent talks to everyone. For his latest documentary, La Ligne Balmain — a television documentary that aired during Paris Fashion Week on the Franco-German network Arte — the director follows pattern-makers, assistants, models, even interns colouring in a dress by hand because the garment is too fragile to dye. He chats with seamstresses in the atelier, one of whom tells him: “At the end of each collection, we tell ourselves we’re going to switch careers. But we start again.” Another remarks: “when you see how beautiful it is, you forget all the trouble required to make it.”
Prigent’s film shows both the meticulous, relentless work of creating complex textiles and the funny, sometimes madcap moments of refining them. “Non, non, non: it’s too much like a Playmobil,” Balmain’s Olivier Rousteing says of one overly stiff look. Prigent finds humour outside the creative process; the film’s final edit includes cheeky side comments (“She can turn any gay hetero,” Rousteig says of model Rosie Huntington-Whitely), unexpected behaviour (dipping into a reserve of alcohol-spiked pineapple punch after a long day, procured from under someone’s desk) and silly parallels (Prigent juxtaposes Rousteig, half-naked in his loose tank tops, with black-and-white archival footage of Pierre Balmain, shirtless, overseeing a fitting). This last move is a particular Prigent signature: he is fond of tracing “how the past moulds the present… stuff you do now was done 60 years before you and you don’t even have any idea about it.”
Over the course of his career, Prigent has made several fashion documentaries — including Signé Chanel (2005) about the brand under Karl Lagerfeld and Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton (2007) — making him one of the industry’s foremost chroniclers. In 2009, he did a documentary mini-series called The Day Before, following the design teams behind Proenza Schouler, Sonia Rykiel, Jean-Paul Gautier and Fendi during the run up to their seasonal runway shows. “I learned so much about dramaturgy,” Prigent says of his television work. “It was my university.”
While linear career paths are the norm in France, Brittany-born Prigent came up through the ranks in a miraculously un-French way. While still a teenager, he first gained attention for the ‘zines he made about house music, which he printed and Xeroxed himself. “I sent five or ten to Rough Trade. The guy at the counter loved it so much he started to print it out himself too. Cool people in Paris noticed it.” He was 19 at the time.
He started to write at daily French newspaper Libération as a freelancer, after an editor he encountered appreciated how vocal, uninhibited and candid he was (“no filter,” Prigent marvels of his younger self). Libération was the first to offer Prigent access to a wider audience — and the fashion world. “When you write for a newspaper, you have very good access,” he notes.
Prigent later transitioned into television. Networks reached out to him, wanting his accessible, funny voice for their coverage of the collections. To begin with, he did short clips on Paris Fashion Week: five-minute segments that aired daily on CanalPlus, featuring the likes of Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz and Michael Kors. These later grew into the longer-form documentary series Habillé(e)s Pour… [Dressed for…], which aimed to “show viewers the jungle that is Fashion Week.”
As the Internet grew, reshaping how people engaged with media, Prigent’s work evolved. “Before the bloggers, we were much more didactic. Then after the bloggers arrived, with this immediate analysis of everything, we changed the rhythm of Habillé(e)s in a way to compete with the velocity of the medium. Habillé(e)s was becoming an on-the-ground analysis of what was happening in fashion circles and, for the last few seasons, we were more into making a Polaroid. Having no perspective. Saying stuff that was popping into our minds. We wanted to un-Cathy Horynise our remarks. It’s a new word I just invented. We were very much under her spell. This analysis, this depth…”
Though he champions an instinctive approach to fashion, he also loves discovering the catalogue of references brought to light by the métier. Pre-Google, Prigent would often go to the Louvre and other museums to page through books in their shops. “I like this empirical culture you can have with fashion. Some [designer] quotes a painter; suddenly you discover this painter. Maybe you discover an entire art movement. All the guys in fashion schools know Mondrian because of Saint Laurent, not the other way around. I like this paradox. To me, it’s not even a paradox.”
For Prigent, the process of documenting fashion on film is a mix of research and gut-feeling. He has a self-proclaimed “freestyle” approach: he likes that he can’t anticipate all the details of his films and television series ahead of time. He pursues subjects whom he’s been following for a long time and by whose universe he is captivated. His only indispensible prep work is an initial meeting with the designer he will profile. “I film him or her and ask questions until we’ve exhausted everything — until there’s nothing left to say. That way I can film the action afterwards — I’m up to speed and I don’t bother the designer as much.” Once that’s completed, however, what he captures with his camera is circumstantial. He likens his filming process to that of a seamstress’s in the atelier, working piecemeal at forming the collection — “sometimes they’re just making a sleeve and they don’t know how the whole garment is going to look and come together until later.” Ultimately, Prigent cobbles together his work while editing. “The story is very much made in the editing room. Even if I have intentions, of course. I will say to the sound guy and the cameraman, ‘I want to see that and that’ — but what is good is what you haven’t expected. What is good is what you will learn on the spot. I don’t want it to be too written and predictable.”
He notes that French television is ultimately more accepting of a free-flowing approach. “We don’t build the piece the way they do in the US — it’s free artistically, there’s no tweaking what you write, there’s no fact-checking, there’s no policing. Nobody will tell you the rhythm is bad. Very often, [the network] will consider you a director, which means ‘an artist’ in their mind. If you’ve done it this way, it must be the right way, because you are this ‘artist’ — which I don’t believe is always necessary. I’m doubtful of this method. I like the American way of fact-checking and having a good rhythm to your documentary or to your segment. Mais, voilà. It’s good that you have this in France.”
He references a light show that opened a Saint Laurent défilé, which he left as a nearly two-minute sequence — long in television terms — in his final cut. In the sequence, Anna Wintour, Pierre Bergé and Francois Pinault all look thrown: “They’re worried, they’re amazed — they surrender, in a way… then the show begins. To me, it was very important to see how you would enthral these people and prepare them for something great. It was just editing… just deciding to show this material as something relevant.” This is Prigent’s forte — noticing significant moments outside of the moments one would typically classify as important. By underlining these unexpected moments, he, in fact, manages to reveal more about the fashion world than through more obvious images or soundbites.
“Fashion is so strange, so you can show it,” Prigent says. “I love the strangeness of fashion and how you can translate it in documentaries. Prigent also captures the fashion world via social media. His acerbic Twitter handle is bursting with gems that range from bitchy to tone-deaf and back again, but all in the spirit of good humour.
He would love to do a film about Prada or about Bernard Arnault (“seeing how he works — that must be quite something”). Prigent counters, however, that “some people can’t be filmed without breaking the dreamy idea you have of their creation… because people are really mean to assistants, or the designer doesn’t do anything anymore but show up for the show. Some people are best kept secret.”
Prigent harnesses the fun of the fashion circus: at once mingling bon mots and foot-in-mouth, while capturing both the frenzy and fun of design from behind-the-scenes. He has a definite affection for the milieu, but also enough perspective to cleverly draw out the industry’s absurdist elements. “My goal is to have fun, always. The other goal is to learn stuff and to see stuff I haven’t seen. I never had a proper arts schooling. So I guess I’m doing it on the job, you know?”
“Don’t just focus on fashion. Take in other things, be interested in other things,” he advises future cineastes, before adding: “I think I got advice [when I was younger], but I didn’t listen to it. Do the opposite — do things your own way.”
The Creative Class is supported by CLIO Image, an extension of the CLIO Awards. CLIO Image recognises the most creative work in fashion, beauty and retail advertising. The deadline for submissions for the next CLIO Image is January 30th 2015.