Alexander McQueen was no ordinary haute couture designer. With little formal education, the designer born in Lewisham, London, used his dole money to buy fabric and tapped his innermost demons to craft it into iconic creations for all the world to see.

All of which makes for a fascinating documentary. McQueen is the quintessential tortured artist: misunderstood outsider, troubled and gone before his time. But he worked with Givenchy and Gucci, and dressed Bowie, Bjork and Gaga. Much of what graced his catwalk shocked people at the time, and a lot of it will still shock now. McQueen wanted his audiences to feel repulsion or exhilaration, and this documentary shows us how he achieved it.

McQueen is playing at MIFF August 9 and 11. More info and tickets.

Yellow is Forbidden - sold out
You may have seen Guo Pei’s work before, on Rihanna at the Met Gala, or on display at the NGV’s Triennial last year. Her work is exacting and ornate, her craftsmanship superb. In this documentary, New Zealand filmmaker Pietra Brettkelly follows Pei as she prepares her debut Paris collection.

Having grown up during the Cultural Revolution, when women didn’t wear make-up let alone couture, traditional embroidery and personal history inform Pei’s work. She’s a remote, whimsical presence, giggly and bright, and she collects teddy bears and kaleidoscopes. But this film also demonstrates how, as a Chinese woman in the male, Euro-dominated world of haute couture, she holds her own at every turn.

Yellow is Forbidden is playing at MIFF August 3 and 18. More info and tickets.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant
This ’70s gem from Rainer Werner Fassbinder, one of Germany’s greatest directors, is a tale of obsession, co-dependency and manipulation. And fashion. Domineering, arrogant fashion designer Petra von Kant has fallen hopelessly in love with aspiring model Karin, who milks the relationship for all its worth. The film is set almost entirely in one room as the torrid love affair disintegrates into malice, and Petra takes everything out on her long-suffering assistant. More than a touch of sadomasochism here.

There are no men in this film, just women in extravagant gowns and wigs in one decadent apartment. A film that makes for a slow and sumptuous visual feast.

The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant is playing at MIFF August 9. More info and tickets.

Paris Is Burning
Shot in the late eighties (the vogue-ing here predating Madonna’s Vogue), this is an essential documentation of the New York gay ball scene, and the vibrant community of gay, African-American and Latino people who were its base.

The ball scene was the basis of RuPaul’s Drag Race and its ilk, and its slang has long since been appropriated into pop culture (if you’ve ever thrown shade, or vogued, here’s where that came from). “It’s like going into the looking glass,” says one interviewee. “In there I feel 100 per cent right about being gay. That’s not what it’s like out in the world.”

The documentary has proven controversial over the years, with many of the participants being unhappy with their depictions. Is this a faux-anthropological exploitation of an underground culture for the pleasure of a white audience? Or an empowering, revealing look at queer subculture and fashion history?

Paris is Burning is playing at MIFF August 9. More info and tickets.

Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?
This biting satire of the fashion world from 1966 is surreal, hilarious and more than a little bitter. Polly Maggoo is a Parisian model, sought after by designers, pursued by gross men in the street, and eventually followed by a TV crew making a documentary about her. Polly is the target of everyone’s desire and fantasy, and constructs her public presence accordingly in a world obsessed with absurd spectacle.

Director William Klein was a photographer at Vogue in the sixties, which provided him plenty of fodder. But the black and white cinematography, coupled with the addition of grotesque animation and collage, makes this film pop off the screen and signal it as far more than just a quirky fashion comedy.

Screenings of Who Are You, Polly Maggoo? have ended. More info.

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