20 fashion films that made 2020 a little more chic

From Charlotte Knowles to Prada, Maximilian to Mugler, here are some of this year’s most stylish shorts to binge instead of 'Love Actually'.

by Mahoro Seward
24 December 2020, 9:00am

As the year-which-shall-not-be-named draws to a close, reflecting on all that’s come to pass during it is par for the course. In the fashion industry, it’s been as chaotic a year as it has been anywhere else, but as we sit back and allow ourselves a moment of quiet contemplation, it soon becomes clear just how much has been achieved. 

Indeed, as the familiar ways of doing things have either been barred to us or exposed as redundant, fashion workers across the world have had to demonstrate resilience and creativity in ways like never before. Designers who once relied on the ready-made template of the runway, for example, have had to recalibrate and reconsider how to bring their work to their audiences with the same, or, even greater, impact. 

Accordingly, fashion film has emerged from its relative niche into the mainstream, with everyone from the creative directors of venerated couture houses to the brightest young independent designers teaming up with directors and DOPs to continue brightening our lives with their visions. That said, amid a seemingly unending flurry of screenings, keeping up has proved something of a challenge… even for us. Well, there’s no time like the present to catch-up, is there? Rather than stare blankly at Love Actually for the umpteenth time, here are 20 of this year’s most flamboyant, most fantastical, downright fab fashion films. 

Petals, Charlotte Knowles SS21

“It's elating, uplifting,” Charlotte Knowles said back in September, speaking of the Harley Weir-directed film the brand premiered in lieu of its typical LFW show. With its crystal body art and stop-motion blooming buds, both those things it certainly is. That doesn’t, however, mean there’s any compromise on the fierce, ultra-femme sexiness that the young London label has built its reputation on. 

No Strings Attached, Moschino SS21

In a year where we’ve all felt pangs of nostalgia for times that now feel long since consigned to the past, Jeremy Scott latched onto those feelings to transport us back to a pivotal moment in pre-Covid fashion presentation history. It was a touching ode to the Théàtre de la Mode, “the 1945 public exhibition orchestrated to showcase the work of 60 of Paris’ best couturiers after the devastation of WWII,” i-D fashion features editor Osman Ahmed wrote in his review of the show. Jeremy staged a fully-fledged puppet fashion show for Moschino SS21, with scaled-down gowns and replicas of Anna Wintour, Hamish Bowles, Edward Enninful and Vanessa Friedman on the frow to boot.

Sunglasses At Night, Balenciaga Pre-Summer 2021 

Trust Balenciaga to come through with a proposal in equal measure broody, kitsch and, above all, chic. In a music video for Demna’s husband and regular collaborator BFRND’s cover of Corey Hart’s “Sunglasses at Night”, directed by Walter Stern, a slouchily-clad gang of house-regulars and newcomers strut through a dusky, deserted Paris to the New Wave classic, wearing — you guessed it — their sunglasses at night. If catwalks aren’t coming back any time soon, the pavements will have to do in the meantime! 

First Light, Alexander McQueen SS21

If there’s anything that sums up the mood of 2020 better than the model in a tiered tulle prom-gown, flat on her back in the Thames’ gelatinous silt in Jonathan Glazer’s gloomy short for Alexander McQueen — please, tell us. Add a gang of roving leather-clad rockers, a tea party among elegantly dour pals in impeccable tailoring, and a nimble-fingered lady picking the pocket of her insistent paramour, and it all makes for a fashion film irresistible in its poetic bleakness. How fitting! 

Joy, Ahluwalia Pre-Fall 2021

Cutting through the grisaille is Ahluwalia, whose Pre-Fall 2021 film, Joy, offered just that. Directed by Samona Olanipekun and premiered as part of GucciFest, it's the first moving image project that the label’s eponymous founder Priya Ahluwalia has worked on — a surprise, given the wealth of research and rich, textured narratives that set her work apart from the crowd. As much a documentary as it is a fashion film, it’s a meditation on “the Black experience, focusing on strength, vulnerability, family and love,” Priya told us. “It’s full of wonderful characters that each have a very different story, […] it shows that Afro-Caribbean culture is diverse and multifaceted,” and it’s a must-watch.

The Ideal Man, Bianca Saunders SS21

Another bright London talent to make their film debut this season was Bianca Saunders. The Ideal Man, the brand’s SS21 film directed by Daniel Sannwald, she nods to Hans Eikelboom’s like-titled 1978 series, in which the photographer asked a group of women to describe their ‘type’ and then dress up accordingly, and the ‘realness’ categories of voguing balls. Incidentally, before the arrival of the pandemic, Bianca was all lined up to make her first appearance on the LFW catwalk for SS21. Undeterred by circumstance, The Ideal Man sees Bianca bring it to the runway on her own terms.

Teenage Dreams, Raf Simons SS21

Given Raf’s well-attested love for cinema (read all about it here), this was always bound to be a special one — not to mention the fact that this also marked the debut of the label’s first official womenswear offering. Set in a room that resembled the set of a Gaspar Noé fever dream, this 18-minute slow-burner unfolds with a sense of sinister foreboding that’s impossible to turn your gaze away from. You may have come for the fashion — ripe with references to the 80s classics of Raf’s adolescence — but the brooding cinematography gives you just as much reason to stay

Ouverture of Something that Never Ended, Gucci

Moving us on from the murky to the subtly surreal is the centrepiece of Guccifest: Ouverture of Something that Never Ended. This seven-part series, co-directed by Alessandro Michele and Gus Van Sant, follows the adventures of Silvia Calderoni through Rome; but this isn’t the Rome you and I know, with its Vespas, impatient tourists and innovative pickpockets. No, this Eternal City is the heart of a parallel Gucci-verse, whose residents include Billie Eilish, Jeremy O. Harris and Harry Styles. With each of the ensemble cast’s members effortlessly woven into the whimsical plot, it is, as i-D’s Douglas Greenwood wrote in his review of Ouverture of…, surefire proof of the fact that Alessandro Michele “has always been a designer with the soul of someone who lives and breathes the fantasy of cinema”. 

Emerald, RUi

Another of the films to premiere during Gucci’s seven-day virtual festival was Emerald, a short by Shanghai-based designer Rui. A poetic tale of the envy-fueled relationship between a gem-eyed rabbit, a sparrow, a carp and a pangolin on the surface, the solemn seriousness you’d typically expect of a fable — or of a fashion film, for that matter — is cleverly undercut by a refreshing, quirky wit. 

Silent Madness, Mowalola

Premiered here on i-D when coronavirus was all but a nervous whisper at fashion week parties, this Yves Tumor-starring, Jordan Hemingway-directed short has withstood the subsequent tide of pandemic-precipitated fashion films to remain one of this year’s most memorable. Not to mention eerily prescient: “What will you be at the end of the world?” was Mowalola’s rhetorical retort when probed to offer insight into the meaning at its heart. Ten months on, with Armageddon the closest to our doorsteps it’s been yet, and we’re still trying to racking our brains for the answer.

Amor Fati, Marine Serre SS21

Another of this year’s designer-cum-oracles was Marine Serre. It all harks back to the designer’s SS20 show, Marée Noire (French for “oil spill”), where models walked a decommissioned train track in Paris wearing what? FACE MASKS! Fast forward to the spring/summer of 2020, and what are we all desperately clamouring after? You guessed it, CHIC FACE MASKS! While coronavirus probably isn’t a plot hedged by the French designer to flog chic facial apparel, we were all nonetheless on tenterhooks to see what bleak future Marine had seen in her crescent-printed crystal ball. Anyone trying to manifest a cheerier 2021 can stop now; the world glimpsed in Amor Fati, which borrows its name from the Latin for “love of one’s fate” — which, things given as they are, we don’t — is techy, noir and bleak. Not to give too much away, but it involves needles in eyes. Can’t wait xo 

Counter Intelligence, Thebe Magugu SS21

Since bursting onto the global stage with his 2019 LVMH Prize victory, Thebe Magugu has made a name for work that boasts unparalleled socio-historical depth. His most recent collection for SS21 was, of course, no exception. Teaming up with i-D’s Ib Kamara and photographer and director Kristen Lee Moolman, they translated Thebe’s fascination with the women intelligence agents of South Africa’s apartheid government, creating a lo-fi spy-thriller of their own. 

I wish you were here, Saint Laurent SS21

While most of those listed here broke away from the old ways of doing things (read: didn’t stage a runway show), Saint Laurent went bigger and better. In a breathtaking cinematic endeavour by Nathalie Canguilhem, Anthony Vaccarello offered us a reverse image of this year’s spirit of barren isolation — transplanting an entire troupe of models into the goddamn desert. You may at first ask yourself how 60+ models managed to get to the open desert during a global pandemic, and then walk across a scorching dune in slinky black clothes and six inch stilettos, but these questions are, frankly, irrelevant in the face of how fab the end result is. By god do we wish we were there.

J’ouvert, Maximilian SS21

All of the films produced by this year’s Fashion East recipients — Maximilian, Goom Heo, Nensi Dojaka and Saul Nash — deserve a shout out here, but if there’s one that warrants a special mention, it’s Maximilian’s. Directed by Akinola Davis, the short — which also marked the designer’s Fashion East debut — is a red-blooded-yet-impeccably-refined snapshot of Trinidadian carnival culture. A manifesto for the transformative potential of Black elegance, it made for one of the most powerful debuts this season. “Film is something that I want to continue, I don't want this to be the end of that,” Maximilian told us just after the most recent London Fashion Week. We’re holding you to your word!  

The Performance: of Grace and Light, a dialogue between Pierpaolo Piccioli and Nick Knight, Valentino Haute Couture AW20

Pierpaolo Piccioli’s Valentino shows have always been a highlight of the Haute Couture schedule, each a spectacle of the most flamboyant fantasies made reality. Despite the restrictions placed on the house’s ateliers, AW20 somehow managed to be one of its most emotional presentations yet. Shot by Nick Knight at Rome’s legendary Cinecittà Studios, this is a daydream of fashion at its most pure and dramatic. Think 20-foot bridal-white gowns made up of meringue clumps of tulle; celestial cascades of silver beads from models balanced on high trapezes as FKA Twigs’ “mary magdalene” plays. Thought Dua Lipa looked fab on SNL? Wait till you see the look here. 

Part 01, Mugler SS21

Another one for the fantasy freaks out there: Mugler! Directed by Florian Joahn, the film sees iconic Mugler muses past and present — from Debra Shaw to Ariish Wol and Kai-Isaiah Jamal and a 3D-rendered Bella Hadid-as-Pegasus — all clad in pieces that exemplify Casey Cadwallader’s sexy, sinuous vision for the house. Featuring the debut of a new Shygirl track, too, this is one of the more pulse-quickening clips this year had to offer.

Season of Migration To The North, GmbH SS21

In a year where brands have grappled, often clumsily, with what meaningful representation looks like, it’s a little disheartening that Berlin-based GmbH, a brown-owned label, were one of the only ones to really get it right. After independently premiering A Guest on Earth, an SS21 film that cast Honey Dijon and M.J. Harper alongside the city’s residents, Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik chose to cede their spot on the official Paris schedule. Instead, they screened Lars Laumann’s Season Of Migration To The North, a film narrated by Sudanese activist and architect Eddie Esmail. Over grainy footage of a clandestine runway show in Khartoum, Eddie recounts the story of its raid by homophobic police, his flight to Norway and the Islamophobia he’s subject to on arrival. “It embodies how fashion can be a political act, a transgressive act,” Benjamin said at the time of its release. “We have this platform on the official schedule of Paris and we’re not doing a show, so why not show that as our fashion show? It felt so powerful to take that and bring it to the centre stage of the fashion world. We wanted to amplify that message of the power of a fashion show.” 

The Show That Never Happened, Prada Men’s SS21 

There are few fashion houses out there with closer ties to the contemporary art world than Prada — the Rem Koolhaas-designed Fondazione Prada in Milan is a testament to that. What better way to celebrate those relationships, then, than to invite five seminal visual artists to interpret its SS21 menswear collection? For Miuccia’s final run alone at helm of the house she built, that’s just what she did, placing the presentation in the capable hands of Willy Vanderperre, Juergen Teller, Joanna Piotrowska, Martine Syms and Terence Nance. Without doubt some of the more high-brow fashion-watching of the year.

Spellbound, SAMUEL GUÌ YANG AW20

Proving that neither blockbuster length or budget is needed to make a memorable fashion film was SAMUEL GUÌ YANG, whose series of five pithy, pared-back video portraits remain a stand out of this year’s crop. Directed by Xavier Mas, each of the brand's AW20 vignettes simply sees a model against soothing pastel backdrops chanting English translations of famous Chinese proverbs, their corresponding simplified characters flashing up on-screen as they go. Clean, simple and short, each resonates long after you’ve finished watching. 

Thinkin Home, Wales Bonner SS21

Grace Wales Bonner is no stranger to film — her early collaborations with Harley Weir are a case in point. For SS21, Grace worked with Jeano Edwards on Thinkin Home, tracing the journeys of eight young men through the lush land and soundscapes of Jamaica. It’s a sterling example of her ability to use clothing to elicit cultural memories, contexts and histories that are typically overlooked in mainstream fashion spaces, and bathe them in a refined, celebratory light.

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