This weekend, I attended the Netherlands-based art, culture and fashion film festival FASHIONCLASH, an event priding itself on bringing people together through fashion film. While waiting for the second fashion film screening of the day, a journalist turned to me and asked, 'what is a fashion film?' You may think this a relatively futile question - especially considering the event we had both been invited to attend - but believe me when I say answering this is no mean feat.
Why? Because compiling a list of possible answers would prove to be as extensive as individual film genres, creating a confused medley where fashion film is undoubtedly the most muddled of the lot. The medium's roots are no older than some 25 years, and it was only after SHOWstudio's founding in 2000 that there was a platform to host short films of such a nature. The forgotten truth of fashion film is that this cinematic language is still in its infancy, meaning the possibilities of experimentation are infinite.
If you've followed SHOWstudio for some time, you may be aware that we are currently developing a fashion film manifesto outlining the principles of what makes up this elusive medium. If I can be sure of anything, many of the FASHIONCLASH films we watched (that I had previously been tasked with marking, grading and writing feedback due to my position on the festival's jury panel) did not follow these principles, instead presenting a kaleidoscope of filmic languages.
Despite the quandary, one film spoke louder than the rest: HUM हम (We/Us). Conceptualised, styled and written by Mumbai-based Shilpa Chavan, aka littleshilpa and director Ashim Ahluwalia is a film fusing seemingly dissonant worlds and ideologies to expose and challenge societal norms. Although the film does not fit SHOWstudio's manifesto statement for statement, it does present a cohesive vision through fashion.
Defining creativity is an undeniably arbitrary act, and yet it is also paramount to progression, particularly when you're trying to untangle what made a genre feel so confused in the first place. In short, know the rules before you break them (the latter of which we encourage). Only once this is achieved will fashion films stop being littered with an endless stream of low-budget comedic adverts armed with a joke that never lands.
One thing fashion film is not is a narrative work of fiction. If the garments worn exist to serve a story other than their own, this is fashion in film. If they serve only themselves, this is fashion film. Fashion is the narrative - it does not fit the narrative, a concept illustrated by HUM हम (We/Us).
The opening scenes in HUM हम (We/Us) were illustrated with such ease that they gave the film an assertive aura of belonging on a cinema screen, a notion helped by the tight angles that dominated the frame, all submerging the viewer into Chavan's world as a result. Initially, one could glean a narrative reading of HUM हम (We/Us), armed with a format akin to a well-funded independent film. Organic film textures flickered across the frame as foley-led sound design magnified the subtleties depicted.
Featuring Chavan's owned millinery and accessory designs by her brand, littleshilpa, the film uses fashion to 'nurture the aching soul with its transformative power'. Mirroring previous works by Chavan, the protagonist wears a DIY outfit, which in this case was designed to symbolise the re-imagination of everything that was cast aside. Although her designs spotlighted in the film are works of art and beauty, they're also embedded with less desirable everyday items.
Discarded bangles, scrubbers, dusters, brooms, tassels, sofa throws and bin bags are re-purposed into an altar of strength as rubbish usually tossed away is re-assembled in ingenious ways, hinting motifs central to the film: mockery and humiliation. Fashion's transformative power is also seen through a diverse ensemble of models featuring drag kings (Melancholia and Inqalaab Singh), an acid attack survivor (Daulat), a plus-sized model/artist (Payal) and a drag queen (Glorious Luna). All characters contribute towards the film's complex stylisation, which follows Chavan's own beliefs: 'when what one does and what one ought to be are one–we are free'.
Yes, there is a narrative. However, it's subtle enough to leave plenty of space for the fashion to shine. There is no dialogue to distract, meaning each sequence is as intoxicating as the last, propelling the film forward. As the viewer, you're taken on a journey through dark places, then joyous places fused with the conflict of embracing modernity and heritage. HUM हम (We/Us) allows us to feel things, even if they are not those intended by the filmmaker. By very definition, this is brave, bold and powerful filmmaking and what fashion film should achieve.
For me, HUM हम (We/Us) represents a positive step forward for fashion film. Not only is it a voice that is significantly underrepresented - sadly, in Europe, we do not see many fashion films from India - but it is also a showcase of the transformative power of fashion. Yes, the film is somewhat of an unobtainable utopia, with many people globally not afforded the opportunity of self-expression. But maybe, fashion film is an outlet for us to exercise our fantasies, live out our utopias and suspend ourselves from life's difficulties for just a moment. If fashion can't be idealism, then what else can?