“Fashion, I’ll have nothing of it,” announces Wim Wenders in the opening to his 1990 fashion documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes. It was the year after the Berlin Wall fell, and there is a sense in his introduction, of the German film-maker defending a subject his critics might view as superficial. In a voiceover, Wenders explains that he had been invited to make a short film about the fashion industry by the Centre Pompidou. And while initially dismissive, he found that the idea grew on him – “After all, why not examine fashion… Maybe fashion and cinema had something in common.”
The German film-maker has a specific subject in mind – the Japanese fashion designer Yohji Yamamoto. He recalls buying a jacket that bore Yamamoto’s label, which the moment he put it on, “reminded me of my childhood and my father as if the essence of this memory were tailored into it… What did Yamamoto know about me – about everybody?” When they meet for a series of interviews in Paris and Tokyo, it’s clear the two share an affinity. Yamamoto, like Wenders, has a philosophical turn of mind. He is comfortable extemporising on the importance of cut, cloth, shape and movement. In one scene, the designer speaks at length to the camera about the colour black: “Black is modest and arrogant at the same time. Black is lazy and easy, but mysterious. But above all black says this: I don’t bother you, don’t bother me.” We all know someone who wears nothing but black, as Yamamoto does throughout the film.
Wenders captures Yamamoto’s sense of the beautiful, and his beauty. Yet, there is also a narcissistic quality to the film. Many scenes are diffracted and deferred, as Wenders uses cameras to film more cameras and screens, showing small grainy shots of Yamamoto working in his studio, smoking in the lead up to a catwalk show, or fitting a model. In voiceovers, Wenders debates which camera to use for different scenes, weighing up their respective strengths and weaknesses. The more traditional camera, which he associates with authenticity, is large and distracting, and can only shoot for 60 seconds at a time. Whereas his discreet, electronic camera can be used continuously. It is this sense of being trapped between old and new that comes to inform the film as a whole. Just as Yamamoto’s time is split between Tokyo and Paris, his work is split between traditions of Japanese and Western dress culture. Whether this will prove to be a fertile tension remains unclear – at one point, Yamamoto calmly tells the camera that he feels he has already sung his song.
This ruminative video-essay could more helpfully have been titled Notebook on Fashion and Film – keen as it is to find common ground between the two art forms. And while it remains a gorgeous, brief glimpse of Yamamoto’s process, the film too readily spirals off into questions about Wenders’s own obsession, the world of cinema and his own capitulation to a new era, in which “the very notion of the original is obsolete, everything is copy, all distinctions have become arbitrary, no wonder the idea of identity finds itself in such a feeble state.” Nevertheless, for its ambition and intensity, it deserves its place in the fashion film canon.
+Commentary by director Wim Wenders
1.86GB | 1h 21m | 831×480 | mkv