Essay by Penny Martin Shelly Fox 14 and I Feel

Penny Martin

At first Shelley Fox 14 (2002) and I Feel (2005) might appear to be companion pieces. Their commissioning briefs were identical. Both are short films produced in collaboration with the London-based fashion and art broadcasting company SHOWstudio to showcase a single designer’s collection; one womenswear (British designer Shelley Fox’s Spring/Summer ’03 presentation) and one menswear (Belgian designer Raf Simons’ Spring/Summer ’05). Formally, they are also very similar. If you were to freeze-frame stills of the key visual moments of each short, both sets of images would reveal the use of the same compositional devices drawn from classic studio photography. In each case, the models are posed as if standing or sitting for a commercial portrait.

It is the differing circumstances of the films’ production that divide the two, giving each its individual cinematic character and communicating something different about the process of making contemporary fashion imagery. Shelley Fox 14 was approached much in the way a standard fashion shoot might evolve. First a team was formed. Acting as director, designer Fox enlisted sound artist Scanner and SHOWstudio to work with her on a motion/audio interpretation of her collection. Next, a visual concept was fixed. Just as photographers and stylists use “tearsheets” as guides on set or location, family photographs from the participants in Shelley Fox 14 were used as an inspirational “story board” from which to develop the central concept of “found” family photography that had inspired Fox’s fourteenth collection.

Where the piece deviates most from conventional film is that it was not captured as moving footage by a DP. More like a “moving magazine story”, it was collated from still images by SHOWstudio’s graphic designers, Paul Hetherington and Paul Bruty, and then animated in Flash on a Mac. As the trajectory from source image, through design process, to the final garment came to be the defining conceptual element of the collaboration, so the designers were able to reflect this in the structure and content of the film. Art photographer Gareth McConnell was commissioned to document Fox’s studio process and for the final shoot, Hiroshi Kutomi was given a strict brief to present the models according to the codes of the pre-war studio portraits contributed by the team. The resultant film reveals more about the tastes, intentions and working methods of its authors than the characters of its model protagonists. As such, Shelley Fox 14 shows how most contemporary fashion portraits are achieved through projection onto the models’ bodies more than by directing them to express something personal about them.

Shifting from projection onto performance, photographer Jean-Francois Carly’s film I Feel, focuses on another staple industry event: the fashion show. Though catwalk presentations are as much a declaration of intent by the designer as a studio shoot is by a photographer (both use the model as a sort of palimpsest to assert their own world view), Carly used the more neutral space of backstage to construct a “before and after” mechanism with which to explore the act of posing. Again, the graphic construction of the film discloses its production, here using a split-screen layout. On the left, each of the models enter the picture plane wearing their own clothes and are asked to stand before the video camera for a few seconds before leaving. Carly’s mechanism has the same model enter on the right a few seconds later, this time after they have been groomed and dressed in their designated Raf Simons “look”. Both versions overlap for long enough for the viewer to make a comparison and register the extent to which the clothing, hair and make-up has affected their behaviour; to document the crucial procedure of becoming that takes place directly before the model takes to the runway.

As in Shelley Fox 14, a strict system of graphic presentation enables Carly to control the appearance of I Feel, though the content of his film is made to seem undirected and intimate. The answers to a simple question posed once dressed- “how do you feel?”- not only adds a thoughtful audio dimension, they also provide a rare insight into the minds and emotions of the models, who are most often required to subsume their own personalities and reflect those of others.

© Penny Martin 2006

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