The usual superlatives apply to the models in the fashion documentary, Top Models - Made in Paris. They’re all leggy, young, beautiful and skinny. What sets the women apart is that they are of multiracial descent. The film focuses on how this distinction often limits the opportunities they are afforded in the Parisian fashion industry. We follow the models from catwalk to photo shoot to casting call, as they are confronted by strange projections from insiders in the fashion industry about who they are supposed to be because of their ethnicity.
Photographer Jacques Bosser describes Model/Muse Marie Ndao from Senegal as a “black panther”. He says a part-Brazilian model Maeva reminds him of Gauguin, as he serves up an image of her with one breast exposed and displayed like ripe fruit ready for the picking. Of Xin, who’s part-Chinese, "I play up her Asian side.”
There are many cringe-worthy moments like these throughout the film, which make us feel somehow implicated merely for watching. Of course, France has a reputation for being a chauvinistic country, so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the tastemakers of fashion who are interviewed about their views on mixed-race models seem to have such little self-awareness of how they’re coming across on camera. Still, their attitudes come from another century, when Orientalism was all the rage and the beauty of non-western cultures was seen as strange and exotic and “other” than “standard” European beauty.
Swimsuit Designer Bruno Banani makes a feeble attempt to explain why mulitracial models are more desirable for swimsuit and lingerie modeling than haute couture, “They (multiracial models) have a matte skin which accentuates our products...We have very light products...if we had very white skin (on the models), the products wouldn’t be accentuated so well...of course, when you take a model with...foreign origins, you get much more strength in the eyes and in the body language than with someone who has paler skin.”
His explanation is accompanied by b-roll of a “matte skinned” model strolling down the runway in one of his designs. She’s in a thong with a fake horsetail attached to it (it would be hard to make this stuff up).
The models themselves are brutally candid about the industry’s preference for European-looking models in Paris and the stereotypes that they confront because of their ethnicity. Model Amanda Delepine says rather nonchalantly, “In France, it’s quite difficult to have dark skin and African features...I’m lucky to have light skin and fair features...My green eyes and light skin save me.” On the other hand, Ndao calls out the fashion industry in France for being too cautious and afraid to take risks with non-standard images of beauty. She seems hell-bent on succeeding as a model anyway, and her marvelous sense of self is a bright spot in an otherwise disturbing documentary. Even the designers who sound more politically correct about identity and modeling say things like the choice to use mixed race models represents “globalization.”
The question is why do models need to represent anything at all other than a beautiful face and an ability to show off a designer’s clothes in a pleasing way? Top Models - Made in Paris misses an opportunity to delve deeper and find an answer to this question. The film makes detours into the world of acting, hobnobbing with celebrities, Naomi Campbell, Halle Barry and Cannes, all of which only serve to dilute the narrative impact of its premise. Still, by presenting the stereotypes these young Parisian models face so frankly, it’s likely that we’ll never look at a catwalk the same again.
Available on Amazon Top Models - Made in Paris
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