kenzo and 'tangerine' director sean baker premiere a magical fashion film in la

At the Los Angeles screening of his first-ever fashion film, Sean Baker talked to i-D about shooting exclusively on iPhone and working with Kenzo's Humberto Leon and Carol Lim.

by Jane Helpern
03 February 2016, 9:50pm

Last night, the Waze app gave up on life and every Uber in Los Angeles was gridlocked on Hollywood Boulevard. Traffic in LA may not be newsworthy in itself, but its cause last night was. It was the cool kid-studded premiere of Snowbird, Kenzo's much-buzzed-about fashion film — shot by acclaimed Tangerine director Sean Baker, and starring the otherworldly Australian model and actress Abbey Lee Kershaw (most recently of Mad Max fame). Set in the lawless California desert squatter community of Slab City, the film also features some of the site's real-life campers, wearing Kenzo's spring/summer 16 collection.

On arrival, attendees packed into the historical Hollywood American Legion Post 43, a military-themed Art Deco building plastered with Kenzo snapshots and Insta-ready wall graffiti. BFFs Miranda July, Natasha Lyonne, and Carrie Brownstein looked chic and rolled deep. Singer Caroline Vreeland whirled passed the flashes of eager cameramen. We did our best not to spill our champagne. We snacked on spoonfuls of mashed potato topped with fried chicken, and bite-sized crispy rice with short rib. And then, at 8:15, we clustered in the main hall for the main event: a screening of Baker's debut fashion film. Like well-dressed teens at a slumber party, we gathered around the screen for a wild, witty, and mystical spectacle.

"The iPhone is the closest thing you can get to a hidden camera," Baker told me, as we chatted for a few minutes away from the crowd. After shooting Tangerine — an audacious tale of two transgender sexworkers in LA — on iPhone entirely in one day, he returned to the covert medium for Snowbird.

This latest cinematic experiment is an 11-minute fashion film in collaboration with Kenzo's creative directors, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, shot and street-cast entirely in the dreamy, desolate desert landscape of Slab City. "People don't associate the iPhone with a camera, so it lowers inhibitions, loosens people up, and takes away intimidation, which is so important when you're working with mostly non-professionals as we were for this film," Baker explains. "I'd tell them, 'okay, let's go," and they'd say, 'wait, where are all the cameras?'"

The film stars Abbey Lee as the hauntingly beautiful heroine Theo. Almost ghostlike, she floats from trailer to trailer serving up home-baked fluffy white birthday cake to the forgotten town's offbeat residents — outliers and eccentrics who've made their homes and found family in this abandoned military training base. "Sometimes it's good to have cake for no reason at all," says one omniscient, dread-locked inhabitant when offered a slice. The sweet, sprinkle-topped treat is a resonant symbol of warmth and domesticity in the otherwise bleak and unforgiving terrain. "Everyone wants to be acknowledged on their birthday," explains Baker, of dessert's paramount role in the story. "Even though we're shooting in such an exotic location, I wanted a universal theme we can all identify and connect with.

Snowbird stands out in the world of fashion films. Aside from Theo's kaleidoscopic, billowy outfits that pop against the sandy beige backdrop, Kenzo's spring/summer 16 collection camouflages with the stark environment and never distracts from or interrupts the narrative. "When this project first came to me I was worried about making something that would come across as a commercial or feel like one long ad," says Baker, who worked closely with the wardrobe stylist to integrate the fashion in a way that felt organic. "The outfits match their personas so closely that you hardly notice they're all wearing Kenzo, which I think is so cool," he adds. In one scene, a mother clutches a gurgling baby, her Kenzo blouse stained with spit-up. It's an example of the rawness and authenticity Sean was and is so hellbent on maintaining. "I would converse with the residents to a point where they understood I wasn't there to exploit or make anybody look bad. I wanted to accurately represent them," he explains. There's definitely cake, but no sugar-coating.

Juxtaposing the glitz of the fashion world with the grit of Slab City, Baker taps into that subconscious yearning to break rules and live outside of society. "The fact that people are living off the grid is something that I think we all have somewhere. That deep inside, we want to just live totally independently," says Sean. "I had no idea that Humberto and Carol would agree. They were totally down for exploring this with me."


Text Jane Helpern
Still from Snowbird courtesy Kenzo

Los Angeles
Humberto Leon
Carol Lim
Sean Baker
Abbey Lee Kershaw
spring/summer 16