A weird thing happened to me at the London premiere of Andrew Morgan’s documentary The True Cost, last week. As co-executive producer with campaigner Livia Firth, I introduced the film to a very starry audience (including Tom Ford wearing aviators) and nestled into my seat.
But when my big face loomed into shot on the giant screen, I got the shock of my life. Despite having watched the film many, many times, I had somehow forgotten that I was actually in it.
Was I overawed by the occasion? Perhaps. But, more than that, I think I was suddenly aware that this was a film about fashion, and that didn’t compute. Ordinarily, I would never expect to be in a fashion film unless I’d accidentally strolled into the back of a shot.
You see, fashion films are not my natural arena. I might fleetingly enjoy watching one for a hit of fantasy, but I am very aware that – although they are almost always billed as documentaries – they do not ordinarily go there, as far as the reality of the industry is concerned.
Instead, from Dior and I to Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, they major in wide-eyed escapism, typically exploring the obsessional aesthete, and full of tropes such as voyeuristic, indecently long shots. This is the lens through which we’ve become accustomed to following tales of haute couture and general fabulousness.
The True Cost, on the other hand, is a fashion documentary that goes there and then some – it unravels the grim, gritty, global supply chain of fast fashion: a system that has injected the type of speed, disposability and price deflation that has directly led to the worst casualties in the industrial age. On our watch.
To be fair, the bulk of the reviews were extraordinarily appreciative of Morgan’s brilliant film. Harvey Weinstein announced at the first LA screening: “This movie’s going to shock the fashion world” – and it will. Reviewing The True cost, the New York Times said: “Under the gentle, humane investigations of its director, what emerges most strongly is a portrait of exploitation that ought to make us more nauseated than elated over those jeans.”
But some of the reactions have suggested to me that – although it’s often proclaimed that fashion and film are trapped in a love affair (another trope) – unless the films are hagiographical, the two industries do not seem such easy bedfellows.
Some I have spoken to in the fashion industry found the impact of watching The True Cost overwhelming, and they reported experiencing a type of moral whiplash. Then there was that defensive whaddaya-want-me-to-do-about-it? reaction, coming from the fact that solving the problem has no straightforward answers, and Morgan purposefully does not present any. “I’m probably most proud that we avoided easy answers and instead chose to trust people to both feel and think deeply about the issues raised,” he says.
Morgan is actually much more charitable than me about the genre he’s ended up involved with. “I’m actually fascinated by those [fashion] films that follow one person,” he tells me from his home in LA. “The best that have been made recently tap into that fascination and give us a glimpse behind the curtain.”
But the director is also a fashion outsider. A father of four, Morgan was moved to investigate fashion’s dark heart when he glimpsed a newspaper photograph of two young boys – the same age as his sons – searching futilely for their mother after the Rana Plaza catastrophe, in April 2013. He was astonished to find out that his non-remarkable clothes could be a product of this fashion system.
Morgan says making The True Cost has changed his life – not least because of the terrifying moments when he and his producer, Michael Ross, were held at gun point and cornered by riot police in some of the 13 countries they travelled through to get the story. It has also made a difference to the pair because they have joined the dots between fashion, consumerism, capitalism and structural poverty and oppression, and will never shop in the same way again.
So, how should you handle a film such as The True Cost? Here, I actually think traditional fashion films have taught us something. We should watch as we’d watch those same reverent biographies: let the story absorb you, transport you and take you under. Engaging with the ugly side of fashion will lead to changing it.
The True Cost is available globally online, via truecostmovie.com, iTunes and Amazon, and in select theatres (at the Bloomsbury Curzon until 5 June).
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