New York Fashion Cool-Aid™: Two Fashionable Films

As films and film festivals are enjoying peak season, I found myself attending two fashion films this past week. They were both documentaries and had some similarities and of course, some differences. As the Met Gala theme of China suggests, we are all casting an eye towards Asia. Queue up the first film, “A Journey to Taiwan.” It is directed, written and starring Taiwanese fashion designer Malan Breton and was shown on Thursday evening as the opening film for the New York City International Film Festival (NYCIFF). The second and no doubt more well-known of the two was “Iris,” about Iris Apfel, the self-proclaimed “Geriatric Starlet” and fashion icon, directed by the late Albert Maysles of “Grey Gardens” fame which opened on Wednesday night.

Malan Breton

While the subject matter and protagonists of the two films vary, they both show love for fashion, deep creative passion, moments of inspiration, as well as providing some insight into the two subjects respective psyches and finding out what makes them tick.   The Malan Breton film is the story of Breton’s only visit to his homeland after having lived in New York for 17 years. The film is a really impressive draw for Taiwan tourism making the colors, sights, people, and every detail pop. Even the food looks incredibly enticing and smell-o-vision ready. Breton credits his grandmother who passed away when he was young, for inspiring him with her amazing style, ability to sew and love for couture clothing. He tears up frequently, apologizing repeatedly for becoming “emotional,” when he thinks of her especially upon visiting his old neighborhood.

Omar Sharif Jr.& Sonja Morgan at A Journey To Taiwan screening
Photo: Laurel Marcus

Near the beginning of the film he tours Taipei 101, an iconic building of, you guessed it, 101 stories high designed by C.Y. Lee. As he walks through the high-end designer shopping area he remarks that his grandma would have loved it. Other highlights are the Taiwan Lantern Festival, a fabric shop where he purchased authentic Hakka fabrics for his Spring/Summer 2015 NYFW show, and the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and its beautiful gardens where he would someday like to have a fashion show. He points out architectural details on domed roofs, pavilions, museum pottery all of which inspire a corresponding fashion treatment in his collection. Breton has a musical background and we see a brief clip of him singing. He featured Taiwanese musicians and dancers during his NYFW show.

Malan Breton Spring/Summer 2015 NYFW show

The film was less than an hour long and left you wanting more, which I like. Sonja Morgan of RHONY fame was there and, although she and a small entourage ran out right before the Q & A session started (I later realized they were off to the FIT Future of Fashion Show), she called out Breton for making her cry off all her makeup. LOL “A Journey to Taiwan” was nominated for best short documentary. For more info

When I went to see “Iris” on Friday afternoon, the audience at Lincoln Plaza Cinema was exactly as it was when I saw Ari Seth Cohen’s “Advanced Style” several months ago, which is to say that I was the youngest of the (almost) exclusively female audience. I’m not sure but it’s possible that one of the mature ladies had snuck (more like coerced) her husband to join her.

Read the extensive transcription of our  “Masters of Fashion” Video Interview with Iris Apfel conducted at her home by our editor Marilyn Kirschner in 2006.

Ms. Apfel, who became uber famous with her 2005 Met Museum exhibit “Rara Avis” is still a firecracker at 93-years-young.  During the course of the film upon viewing her sprawling and eclectic collections spilling out of two Manhattan apartments, a condo in Palm Beach plus a storage warehouse in Queens, including clothing, jewelry and accessories, furnishings, gewgaws, stuffed animals, train sets and other toys, sculpture, folk art etc., I was reminded of the words of Comic Steven Wright.  “You can’t have everything.  Where would you put it?”Towards the end of the film she speaks of giving more and more of her possessions away to various museums(the couple is childless by choice so at least no immediate heirs are have to deal with this monstrous chore). Each item is shown being lovingly folded and tissue papered into large white archival boxes by two women (probably museum curators) in purple latex gloves

Iris shopping with Doro Olowu

I like that she is an “equal opportunity” shopper claiming that she can find more happiness in a midtown junk accessories store with a $4 ring than if “my husband took me to Harry Winston.” I especially enjoyed her foray into a Harlem African themed bazaar with designer/friend Duro Olowu where she buys several items all the while bargaining with the shop owner. She explains how haggling is what many merchants want you to do. “If they tell you it’s $50 and you pay them $50, you’ve ruined their day” she explains. “Then they’re mad at themselves and think that if you’re that stupid they should have said it was $200.” One of the most cringe worthy parts of this film is when Iris is introduced to Jenna Lyons of J.Crew who fawns over Apfel in, what seemed to me, a particularly infantilizing and ingratiating manner.

Iris at the premiere
Photo: Kristina Bumphrey/

In another scene, due to my former career in interior design for the hospitality industry, I immediately recognized the Apfel’s company “Old World Weavers” ultra pricey tiger print upholstery fabric made into a trench coat as the camera panned over one of her museum mannequins on display.This struck me funny because I’d actually dreamed of doing the exact same thing when I first encountered that fabric. (Great minds think alike? HA). One of the cutest moments is when she finds a studded hat for her husband on one of their shopping forays. “It’s not too heavy is it?” she asks. He later says he likes the weight of the cap. “It’s keeping my head on straight” he deadpans.

Interestingly, both movies begin with a black screen and a repetitive noise; in Breton’s movie it was the pleasant, melodic sound of chimes or bells that were very relaxing and seemed to emanate from a Buddhist Temple. By contrast, “Iris” begins with the sound of Apfel placing/arranging /layering beaded necklaces over each other producing a constant clinking din. While the former sound is intended to be soothing or as Breton explained, to “take you away from the busy-ness of New York,” the latter is something that could drive you to distraction. Both movies, while feasts for the eyes, tend towards a bit of visual overstimulation or overload particularly “Iris” which, IMHO, went on a bit longer than it needed to. I literally felt like I needed the equivalent of an optical palate cleanser, an eyewash of sorts, after watching 80 minutes of “Iris.” I also had trouble listening to her voice for that long.

Both Apfel and Breton are hard working, focused, while still having some foibles making them entertaining to watch. Both seem grateful for their success and their innate ability to be positive influencers. They each seem like genuinely nice people, with sharply attuned eyes on their individual aesthetics. They have much to enjoy about the lives they are leading on their own terms; providing great “material” for the fashion related documentary genre.

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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