In response to the incredible difficulties faced by young fashion designers who want to go into the business and the high mortality rate of their ventures, Vogue magazine established a competition which would award a sizeable cash prize, as well as a major mentorship opportunity, to a deserving wannabe New York couturier.
Douglas Keeve, whose film Unzipped, about designer Isaac Mizrahi, remains one of the best films about fashion ever made, repeats his success with a thoughtfully shot, intelligent look at this competition's progress, focusing on three of the ten finalists. Korean Doo Ri Chung struggles alone in her parents' New Jersey dry-cleaning establishment, having no staff, save her boyfriend, to rely on. Russian Alexandre Plokhov tries to maintain a long-distance relationship with his wife in London while dealing with the production and delivery problems of his magnificently tailored men's line. Achingly young Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough (both 26) had the luck to have their senior school collection bought by Barney's department store, but find that their line, Proenza Schouler, is still far from profitable.
Keeve's camera cannily probes these designers' daily moments of creative satisfaction and, far more often, frustration, in a way that lends both deep understanding and an exciting urgency. Like the TV show "Project Runway," the film can be compelling even to those who profess to care not a whit about fashion, if only for its honesty in depicting the creative process trapped in a commercial world. Commentary by established fashion successes like Tom Ford, style icon Sarah Jessica Parker (shopping for a Plokhov tuxedo in one of the film's lighter moments) and Vogue's redoubtably chic Anna Wintour provide further authenticity. For the interested, Keeve performs a real service here by getting us inside this most rarefied world without our having to actually deal with the often-attendant poisonous attitude.
The stakes are high for them all, the tension mounts nigh-unbearably, and by the end, when, sadly, just one winner is chosen, only the most stone-hearted and clothes-hating of souls will remain unmoved by the bereft disappointment that figures on the faces of the losers, even as they "celebrate" at an oh-so-chic event. The bitter, often heartbreakingly cruel reality which lies beneath the ultra-attractive surface of this business reveals itself in the most devastating of ways.