Whether he’s documenting the final couture show of Jean Paul Gaultier’s career, the closure of his family’s business, or Violet Chachki being compressed into her next Paris Fashion Week look, Gianluca Matarrese beautifully captures the raw passion of his subjects. Featuring some of the most enigmatic figures in fashion, his films give us a glimpse into a world as alluring as it is formidable. In between working on his new documentary, Matarrese speaks to us about his hunt for authentic artists in an industry full of people making empires out of emptiness.
Earlier in your career, you worked on fiction short films and a sitcom in France. What drew you towards working in the world of fashion films?
My story is a little bit complicated because I’ve done many things. I started my career as an actor and was trained in theatre at Jacques Lecoq School, and I studied cinema in Italy to be a screenwriter and director. Theatre is like my first family, and it taught me a lot about being a filmmaker. I started doing theatre and sold a sitcom, and that’s how I started in television. I then started doing a lot of entertainment content as well. I’ve done the worst things: reality shows, dating shows, talent shows… I mean, even the most grotesque ones. But I learned a lot.
So when did fashion come into play?
I’ve always been fascinated by the borderline between reality and fiction, and that’s exactly what reality TV is about. Fashion came into my world because I was living where a lot of Paris Fashion Week events and shows take place, and I had the idea of making a documentary about the inhabitants of this world, which was how I met Casey Spooner, Violet Chachki, Michelle Elie, and many others.
Tell us more about how these people introduced you to the industry. How was it like?
At the beginning, I started following Casey Spooner. I wanted to make a documentary about the fashion world, its society, and the characters trying to follow the rules of this very hard game. They’re artists, not superstars or influencers. It’s about people who’ve decided to evolve in this world in order to affirm their art, and they have to play along the hard rules that come with it. They have to create their personas on social media and feed this persona constantly. I was finding the humanity behind these characters, something where you can identify with them. I was projecting myself into them. I myself am a creator and also decided to enter a very hard industry. You always fight for recognition, it’s a condition as an artist.
Fashion is a very complex and contradictory world. You have a lot of emptiness, superficiality, vacuity, and people making empires with this emptiness. But at the same time, you have very inspiring characters, which are the ones I like to follow.
Could you give us some insight into some of them?
Michele [Elie] is a more motherly figure to me. She quit her dream of being a model in New York City and followed her husband to Germany. For a young, Black woman who wanted to be a model, she managed to enter the fashion world through the back door, and she made her own rules. This, for me, is a very brave and successful woman.
Casey [Spooner] is more of an artist with no land, he’s an artist and a singer, but it’s hard to survive in this world of influencers. Then, we have Violet [Chachki], the queen of performing arts. She’s young, newly famous, and she is very ambitious as an artist. She’s evolving well in the fashion world, but that can be tiring. They can use you and toss you like a doll when you’re done. You can relate to them because you get to see the real people behind these personas trying to establish a career and find recognition.
Let’s deepen into that. You collaborate with such a broad array of people in your documentaries: everyone from Violet Chachki to Dita von Teese, to Jean Paul Gaultier or Michelle Elie. How do these collaborations come about? How do you know when you’ve found someone you want to collaborate with?
To me, they are all real talents. I’m never interested in following the influencer or even the celebrity. They are all very good at what they do. Michelle always tells me she’s not an artist, but she is. She tells stories through fashion. I like those who are storytellers, like also Casey Spooner, Dita von Teese or Jean Paul Gaultier. I admire them for what they create, I like when they are transversal artists. They don’t get stuck in their labels, they have a fluidity: fashion, performance, music. This is very modern, and in a sense, it’s a portrait of our times.
The subjects of your documentaries are very open with you. I’m thinking for example about Michelle Elie crying about the death of her mother, and Allie X opening up about her body image issues in her adolescence. How do you cultivate an environment where the people you work with feel comfortable opening up to you so quickly?
It’s a matter of technique as a documentarian, but at the same time, it’s me. I was trained as an actor and I use this training: listening, action-reaction. When you’re behind the camera, you need to open up yourself. It’s not manipulation like in reality TV. I do the same when I film my family. You need to establish a trusting relationship.
Filming with my family is a unique privilege. They need to know my intentions, and I’m always transparent. Maybe some people will watch these films and not get your intentions. Maybe you look at these people and think, go and get a real job. People will always interpret your work in different ways, but I know, and the people I work with know. We are doing something artistically and socially relevant.
It’s an interesting contrast because the settings of your documentaries are often couture fashion shows or ateliers – locations that can seem impersonal or daunting. Is this an intentional juxtaposition?
It’s all about the private and the public. Some of these characters make their lives a show, so this is just part of their day-to-day: the events, being in the public eye… It’s all part of who they are. Existing on stage for Dita or Violet and the process of creating a collection for Jean-Paul Gaultier is part of who they are. My documentaries often look like fiction, and my fiction has the taste of real life. Maybe you’re filming something in a context opposite to the setting, but that says something.
You’ve said previously that your documentaries don’t seek to criticise the creative industry. But after working so closely with artists who work in fashion and documenting their moments of fragility, do you personally have a positive relationship with the fashion industry, or do you view it in a more cynical way?
When I film, I’m not there to judge the people or the world I’m working in nor celebrate it. I’m there to tell a universal story, but of course, I have a personal opinion that might differ from the film’s message. The process of filming can be therapeutic, but the film itself can’t be so. If you can tell what I think when I film my family or the fashion world, it’s a failure for me as a director. First of all, who cares what I think about my family or fashion? That’s not something everyone will listen to. The purpose of a film is to be universal, and then the viewer can judge.
When I’m filming the fashion world, I love it and I hate it at the same time. Because who doesn’t like to be the centre of attention as an artist? I’m fascinated by it: being loved, getting recognition… But at the same time, why are you loved? That’s what makes me critical.
Could you expand more on this idea?
Some people in fashion are building careers on nothing, which is frustrating for those who are fighting for their vision and creative process. I’m critical about what’s happening now in the fashion world. Up until Covid-19, fashion was moving fast. If put on a balance, business weighted more than creativity. That’s why I get excited when I come across creatives lost in this world.
When I’m filming the creators of collections, it’s inspiring because we’re talking about the vision and the message. But on the catwalk, very often, we celebrate neither. Those fifteen minutes are just theatre, and it’s amazing, but sometimes the message gets lost amid the business part. But that’s the world we live in, and the beauty of it, in a sense. I like the conflict, otherwise there would be no story. I’m attracted to this carnival of superficiality, glamour, and vacuity. It’s all like in the United States – politics. What’s happening in the States is the same as this.
That’s interesting what you say about fashion moving too fast. The people in your documentaries work so hard, but there’s always a risk that maybe you won’t be invited to the next fashion week. Do you think the people you document get a thrill out of this danger or is it a source of fear?
It’s a choice to play that game; you can choose not to. If you choose to play, you have to accept the consequences, and that’s the responsibility of an artist. It can be painful. Sometimes you want to drop it or get away. I’ve seen them suffer a lot. There are moments when you have to face the industry as an artist. It’s ridiculous and they know that, but you have to be on the front line.
Once you make this choice, for example, you need to take the pictures for social media and run around. But playing the game isn’t stupid – it’s work. Nobody likes everything about their job – you and I don’t like everything about our jobs –, and these people are the same. That’s why I make these projects, to show that this isn’t just people having fun. Of course it is fun, they love their jobs, but it’s very hard sometimes. The functioning of this system can be disorienting because it is absurd, but isn’t this the world we live in? Isn’t this reality? So this is maybe just what it is to be an adult, to grow as an artist. I’m growing with them too as a human being. Life and work get intertwined, but that’s what being an artist is, I guess.
You’ve worked very closely with a lot of big names within the fashion industry. Who is your dream documentary subject?
Asia Argento. I love her because she embodies modern times. She’s from another generation and she’s had such an unlucky destiny. She’s very pop, she’s punk, she DJs, she makes art, she’s the daughter of Dario Argento, which is in itself amazing. She’s so transparent, she’s so… everything. I would love to make something with her. She started the MeToo movement. She’s fucking amazing.
I like to go behind the scenes of powerful people. Sometimes people think controlling their image is powerful, but intelligent people understand that showing your fragility makes you stronger. It’s that simple. Tell me why Kim Kardashian has become who she is and Paris Hilton hasn’t? Paris started everything with her reality shows, but the problem is that she never showed who she is in real life, she controls everything, even the private life. Kim Kardashian made her own life the content, and that’s how she won. Paris was supposed to be the queen, she started it all, but that’s the difference: when you’re willing to show the human side, even your contradictions and mistakes.
When you approach someone about a project, do you come to them with a fully realised idea, or is it more of a collaboration?
It’s mostly all about the proposal I make. The best things I have written in television have been when they give me rules. I like to have those rules. I make a proposal and I write, and it’s always important to start filming [early]. Sometimes you can find the budget, but nowadays it’s hard to find funding.
Your short film Cantautoma Rebirth recently won Best Home Movie at ASV0FF 12. To me, the short seemed to both mourn and celebrate the arts amidst the pandemic. Do you worry about the future of cinema or do you think it’ll come back stronger
The real problem lies on theatres – that’s my biggest fear. I think theatre distribution will exist through events or huge studio system films like Marvel or maybe through film festivals. I hope they will come back because they’re so important for the business. It lets people experience film like theatre. Distribution may become more like a tour or a concert. You will have a film screened [only] in certain places and you will have the director there too. To me, cinema will exist only in this way, and the rest will be digital. Younger generations don’t even have a TV, and they screen films in the house. That’s the way of consuming.
As you can see now, big directors are doing things on these platforms. I think this will be the future. I don’t like people complaining about the future all the time though. This is what happened with the coming of sound in 1926, and they said it would destroy cinema, but it was a revolution. I’m not saying this will be good or bad, but it will be another revolution. There will always be complaints and consequences, of course. We need to adjust and try to create with this new way of production.
The real problem will be for distributors. The business of selling will change, you’ll earn less money with sales. For example, Netflix say they have big money. Think of the people from Friends and all the money they made from selling worldwide. Now you sign one contract and that’s it.