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Famed clothier Bergdorf's gets reel

Posted 9:55am on Sunday, May. 05, 2013

Is Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s a film or an ad?

Can it be both?

The movie, which charts the rise of Bergdorf Goodman from modest tailor shop to New York institution, arrived in limited release nationwide Friday and opens in North Texas on May 17. It follows a string of fashion documentaries in recent years: Valentino: The Last Emperor; The September Issue; L’Amour Fou; Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel; The Tents; and Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston, to name just a few.

There is a lot to document about fashion, filmmakers say, especially as it grows in cultural importance and spawns reality television shows, blockbuster museum exhibitions and frenzied media coverage. The fashion world is also full of camera-ready characters — the fussy designer, the tantrum-throwing stylist, the celebrity clients in the front row.

But there is also a deeply cynical side to this cinematic mass merchandise: Fashion may be the world’s savviest industry when it comes to spotting branding opportunities.

Many of these films function, directly or indirectly, as marketing tools. Designers and luxury brands have come to see that a documentary film, no longer a Hollywood backwater, thanks to video on demand and Netflix, could be worth their time.

Bergdorf’s may well win ecstatic reviews, as many of these films have. (The critics have not weighed in yet.) But like many other fashion documentaries, it also skates close to the infomercial line. Using a reverential tone and gushy interviews by fashion insiders, the film positions the store as a microcosm of the American dream and a force that can make or break designers, in the manner of Anna Wintour.

Moreover, although the store did not pay for the film, one of its landlords did. The Goodman family long ago sold the business and the store’s name to the Neiman Marcus Group, but it retained ownership of the physical premises; financing for the documentary was provided by Andrew Malloy — a descendant of Edwin Goodman, one of the two original owners — and a group of friends.

“Umbilically connected” is how Malloy described, in a telephone interview, his family’s relationship with Bergdorf Goodman.

“I thought it would be a nice legacy piece for my kids,” Malloy, the managing director of a Denver investment firm, said of the film, noting that it “became so much more than that in the end.”

Marketing tie-in

Although skittish at first, Bergdorf Goodman ultimately granted the film’s director, Matthew Miele, unfettered access as part of a public relations push surrounding the store’s 111th anniversary, which it celebrated in October. (Miele had originally wanted to do a fictional film centered on the store.)

“Making the documentary was an opportunity to pause, and look reflectively both forward and backwards at ourselves, and all the special people and at the underlying ethos which makes us tick,” Linda Fargo, the store’s fashion director, said in an email.

Miele, a literary agent turned documentarian (Symphony for a Suicide), acknowledged in an interview that his film could come across to some viewers as overly promotional. But by his estimation, the line was not crossed because he retained full control over its contents.

“Without that, you risk people thinking this is an elaborate commercial,” he said.

Still, Miele was flexible. After showing a rough cut of the film to Bergdorf Goodman managers, he agreed to cut a scene depicting Occupy Wall Street protesters marching up Fifth Avenue past the store. “It made it look like they were protesting the store, which they felt was unfair, and I agreed,” he said.

“I held firm on a number of other things that made them a little embarrassed,” Miele added. He said examples included information about the large amounts of money that some staff members make, and commentary from Joan Rivers, a loyal customer but not exactly the face some executives wanted to put forward.

Fashion film boom

As documentaries have risen in popularity, the genre has loosened its collar, making room — sometimes controversially — for showmanship (Michael Moore) and self-consciously boundary-blurring films like Exit Through the Gift Shop, about the British street artist Banksy. But the assembly line of fashion documentaries makes some traditionalists uneasy.

“I worry that audiences aren’t paying enough attention to where they are coming from and who is making them,” said Mark Jonathan Harris, a professor at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts and a two-time Oscar-winning documentarian. Harris noted that Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel was directed by a family member, Lisa Immordino Vreeland, who is married to Diana Vreeland’s grandson.

He added a caveat, however: “Documentaries generally have a very strong point of view, and so I suppose it’s the right of these films to be reverential or hagiographic.”

Even Matt Tyrnauer, director of Valentino: The Last Emperor, seemed to cringe at the boomlet for reverential fashion documentaries that his film helped create.

“I had no interest in making Valentino: The Celebrities Who Love Him,” Tyrnauer said.

His film, which took in $2.2 million at the box office in 2009, was successful partly because it was unflinching. (Tyrnauer said of his subject’s reaction: “He freaked out about every scene in the film.”)

Film historians consider Unzipped the first major fashion documentary. Released in 1995, it painted a frenzied portrait of the U.S. designer Isaac Mizrahi.

With The Last Emperor and The September Issue, a peek inside Vogue that took in $6.4 million in 2009, a sizable audience was established, at least by the standards of nonfiction film. The stampede began.

“If you feed the fashion crowd they are going to come out in droves, or at least I hope,” Miele said.

Nothing turns up fashionista noses faster than a glut, but an exception seems to have been made for these documentaries, at least for now. Amy Fine Collins, a special correspondent for Vanity Fair who provided on-camera commentary for Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” said fashion insiders continue to embrace these films as “exciting” windows into the field.

“For a lot of these brands, a documentary is now the next stop after the oversized coffee-table book,” she said. “There is, of course, a range of quality. But generally speaking I think these films are welcomed and enjoyed.”

And they just keep coming: The Director: An Evolution in Three Acts, produced by James Franco, focuses on Frida Giannini, creative director of Gucci, and had its premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival recentlylast week; films centered on Stanley Marcus of Neiman Marcus fame and the one-of-a-kind New York fashion nonagenarian Iris Apfel are on the way; Vreeland is working on a film about a “name” designer whom she has declined to name.

Miele and Malloy also have a new film in the works. This one looks at Tiffany & Co., which last year celebrated its 175th anniversary.

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