Review: Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s

A hagiographic look at a US designer store is all style, no substance, Pamela Church Gibson argues

December 5, 2013

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s
Directed and written by Matthew Miele
Released on 6 December

To understand why and how this film – a paean to the expensive New York emporium – was made, we need to consider it in context. In this new millennium, there seems to be a growing and insatiable appetite for fashion, in particular luxury labels, coupled with heightened public knowledge of designers and brands. Shopping is no longer a leisurely pastime but an obsession. The shopping malls of the 1980s have been superseded in the BRICS economies and the Gulf states by luxury malls, offering only the most expensive branded goods: Cartier, Hermès, Louis Vuitton – that litany of names now familiar worldwide.

In England, there is the extraordinary phenomenon of Bicester Village, not a village at all but a carefully crafted pastiche of a New England township, where the shops stock not food and harness but luxury goods. More than 30 million people walk its “streets” each year; maps are available for tourists planning trips to the UK and a new station is being built to carry them straight from London, with no need for a tiresome detour involving nearby Oxford.

This new trend of relentless, frenetic shopping, coupled with a widespread encyclopedic knowledge of luxury brands and designer names, is disturbing

For some of us interested in theorising fashion, this new trend of relentless, frenetic shopping, coupled with a widespread encyclopedic knowledge of luxury brands and designer names, is perhaps disturbing. There is a widening gulf between the idea of fashion as self-expression, as agency, as spectacle, which initially interested us, and this compulsion to acquire articles or garments that can be immediately recognised by others through logo, cost and provenance. There is no creativity here to champion. We see those who cannot afford hefty price-tags thronging high streets on both sides of the Atlantic to acquire cheap copies, manufactured, as we all know, under appalling conditions for derisory wages.

Although fashion has historically featured in cinema, new developments in couture, retailing and patterns of consumption have encouraged an upsurge of films over the past decade that have responded to growing public awareness of, and interest in, luxury designer brands. The success of American television programmes offering a parade of designer garments, the display of recognisable accessories and sometimes glimpses of the industry itself led to David Frankel’s feature film The Devil Wears Prada (2006). This was an adaptation of the 2003 novel by Lauren Weinberger, which offered a scarcely disguised account of her experiences as assistant to Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of American Vogue.

A documentary with the same setting swiftly followed, as experienced film-maker R. J. Cutler charted the production of the most important Vogue edition of the year, The September Issue, released in 2009. The sense that there was an appetite to feed and a rich seam to mine had already spawned documentaries in the US and Europe about the life and work of designers (occasionally hagiographic and of variable cinematic quality). This documentary-making has continued; no fewer than three now reflect the life and work of Yves St Laurent, who is also the subject of a French “biopic”, with a second in production.

Arguably these films would or could not have been made in those pre-millennial years, before the new public interest in fashion created both demand and supply. It is interesting to note here how swiftly museums across Europe and the US have also reacted to the new climate, leading to a series of extremely profitable large-scale exhibitions. Savage Beauty at the Met in New York (2011), showing the designs of the late Alexander McQueen, and Hollywood Costumes at the V&A in London (2012) created record attendance figures for both institutions. Yet 20 years ago, Robert Altman’s Prêt-à-Porter, set against the backdrop of Paris Fashion Weekend and made with the active collaboration of leading designers, famously had to be rechristened Ready to Wear before it could open in the US. Highly critical of fashion’s follies, it did badly at the box office, whereas The September Issue, subtly demystifying where Altman went for near-slapstick, fared well in commercial and critical terms. The public mood had changed.

Less successful commercially but winning various prizes at film festivals, a second documentary, Richard Press’ Bill Cunningham New York (2010), chronicled the activities of an idiosyncratic and enormously influential photographer who, like Wintour, is a New York institution. And that trajectory brings us to Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s (perhaps noting en route that a documentary about fashion editor Diana Vreeland appeared recently – directed by her grandson’s wife).

Whereas Press and Cutler are experienced film-makers who appreciate the constituent elements of a good documentary, the director here, Matthew Miele, is a comparative novice. Furthermore, he is funded by Bergdorf scion Andrew Malloy, who appears on camera with around 50 other interviewees. Unsurprisingly, the film falls firmly into the hagiographic camp: there are no glimpses here of intrigue, bad temper or bullying. It is composed almost entirely of talking heads – designers, fashion industry stalwarts and media figures. One executive producer tells us that Bergdorf Goodman is there because it fulfils a “need”, that it gives us something to “aspire to”, some tangible evidence of “the American dream”. There is no irony here, nor later when we hear the story of a seemingly homeless woman buying a sable coat with dollar bills produced from within her myriad carrier bags. This last, apparently, is a reminder that all visitors to the shop should be treated with equal respect. The “bag lady” was obviously looking for the “glamour, beauty, excitement and luxury” that designer Vera Wang sees epitomised in Bergdorf Goodman.

There are few vignettes to watch; mainly, we listen to the breathless accolades, although occasionally the screen is livened up by tracking shots of the store and the odd manic collage to showcase the merchandise. We do, however, watch two young designers present their collection to the chief buyers; we have already been told, several times, that for a designer to be taken up by Bergdorf’s is the truest sign of success. They are listened to most sympathetically by the lead buyer, Linda Fargo, who is quite literally a colourful figure with a penchant for print, whether animal motifs or Warhol-generated flowers. We are told that Fargo is “warm” and she is overtly contrasted with “ice princess” Wintour. Even personal shopper Betty, repeatedly described as “horribly frank”, seems amiable enough when she appears on screen.

By far the most interesting moments are the glimpses we see of the preparations for Bergdorf’s fabled Christmas windows, depicting the Carnival of the Animals. Here we do at last get some sense of talent and craftsmanship, as we watch the meticulous assembly of an extraordinary array of different creatures from a variety of materials – fabric, paper, mosaic and tile. By contrast, their best-selling $6,000 shoes, with a sequinned carapace, look gaudy. The windows are for everybody, but the shoes and the stock, of course, are for the few.

Customer excesses are trotted out for our edification. Liz Taylor commissioned 200 pairs of white mink earmuffs as Christmas presents, but John Lennon and Yoko Ono trumped her when they purchased 70 coats one Christmas Eve, spending more than $2 million (£1.2 million). These excesses are part of the film’s “history” sequences, which include the dressing of first ladies and the creation of Jackie Kennedy’s signature hats.

The film ends with footage from Barbra Streisand’s 1965 CBS special My Name is Barbra, filmed in the store, through which she dances in a variety of outfits, wearing at one point a pair of white mink culottes. As she sings, the endless list of interviewees starts to scroll up the screen, reminding us of how little we have actually learned about this all-American institution.

The director, again backed by Malloy, is planning a film about Tiffany’s. Hopefully this time it might be presented as publicity, rather than disguised as documentary.

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