Personality Drives Fashion

A character we can relate to brings fashion to life on film

Fashion documentaries, like fashion itself, are aspirational. They’re about getting special access to the people and processes behind a world we often experience only through very intentionally constructed visuals (editorials, clothing displays, staged blogger street style). A good documentary shows us how our fantasy fashion worlds are constructed, and forces us to think about them differently. But as our appetite for more access, more insight, more fashion grows, the quality of the offerings can suffer.

In Matthew Miele’s newest documentary, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, what we are promised is an insider’s look at one of the most famous high-end department stores to grace New York’s Fifth Avenue. What we get instead is over 100 interviews with designers, celebrities and employees espousing the store’s luxury and exclusivity for the better part of an hour and a half. Christian Louboutin calls it the epitome of luxury in a department store. Oscar de la Renta tells us there is no place better than Bergdorf’s to help a woman express her femininity. The idea that women can’t wait to become lawyers so that they can afford to buy a pair of shoes at Bergdorf’s is bandied about. Despite over a hundred years worth of history and personalities to choose from, Scatter My Ashes doesn’t do what is essential in storytelling: it doesn’t find a focus.

Interesting personalities are passed over for big names. In the fashion world, Linda Fargo, Bergdorf’s artistic director and head buyer, is as powerful as Anna Wintour. Fargo’s purchasing decisions can make a designer’s career and also decide for the public, via the trickle down effect of fashion, what the next big trend will be. With Fargo on board, Miele had the opportunity to show us how retail buying at such a high level shapes all tiers of the industry. Instead, we briefly see Fargo turn down an unimaginative line from Ally Hilfiger and are none the wiser as to what drives her decisions or how the whole process works.

Then there’s Betty Halbreich, one of the store’s top personal shoppers. A woman well past middle age, Halbreich tells it like it is, not hesitating to let million-dollar clients know when things look terrible. Bergdorf’s best personal shoppers, like Betty, draw in around $500,000 (USD) in commissions per year but we only get minutes to hear from her.

Finally, there’s David Hoey, Bergdorf’s senior director of visual presentation. Hoey spends the better part of the year choosing a theme, commissioning special designer dresses, and corralling a team of artists to create mosaic sea-life and jewel-encrusted polar bears, all to suit his vision for Bergdorf’s annual holiday windows. He is the interesting personality who can drive the story and guide the viewer behind the scenes of elite visual merchandising. Unfortunately Miele does not commit to making him the centre of the plotline, splicing his story in amongst designer cameos and depriving us of a character we can relate to.

In the movie, Hoey describes the task of window dressing for the masses: “you have to be very highbrow and silly at the same time,” he says, “so everyone will enjoy it.” Miele tries to apply the same formula to editing Scatter My Ashes, but with fashion documentaries, we don’t want the shallow overview we already have. We want flaws and toil and reality. We want someone whose shoes we could imagine filling.

Here are six fashion documentaries whose subjects let us dare to dream, in a way Scatter My Ashes never quite manages:

Boss Women: Anna Wintour – Magazine Editor
Anna Wintour is notoriously calculated and reserved. She has done more for the VOGUE brand than any editor-in-chief before her, but has shared very little about herself in the process. In this 50-minute long BBC documentary, we hear much more from Anna about her process, and even her family, than we ever see in The September Issue, reminding us that underneath the armour, a living, breathing human (albeit a very shrewd one) does exist.

Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel
It’s hard to tell how many stories are true and how many are made up in this 2011 documentary, but as fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar, editor at VOGUE, and special consultant at the Metropolitain Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, Vreeland was an expert at turning fantasy into reality. Through interview clips and narrated excerpts from her biography, The Eye Has to Travel demonstrates how Vreeland personified fashion’s artistry and storytelling down to the very last fibre of her being.

Visionaires: Tom Ford
Tom Ford bluffed his way into a design position with Gucci on a Parson’s degree in architecture and worked his way up to the top job there, at Yves Saint Laurent, and eventually at his own namesake label. In an intimate piece for the OWN Network, Ford reveals his creative process (it includes taking three or four baths a day), talks about his childhood (“I remember telling my mother ‘your hair’s wrong, this is wrong, I hate those shoes, you shouldn’t wear that, that sofa’s ugly’”), and insists that he just has a knack for knowing what the next big trend will be. He is self-confident to the point that it is hard to like him, but he has such clarity of vision and is so accomplished that you can’t help but admire him.

Bill Cunningham’s New York
In Bill Cunningham’s New York, we see how Cunningham’s weekly On the Street column is put together, going behind the scenes at The New York Times and with New York elite to dispel the fabricated fairytale world depicted in the final product. The former milliner’s child-like enthusiasm is infectious, and his unique photographic vision and unusual personality push the story forward and keep us engaged.

The September Issue
The September Issue is a look at the process behind putting together VOGUE’s famed September issue, the largest magazine of the year. Viewers get to see the incredible amount of detail it takes to put together a VOGUE editorial spread and what role a creative director like Grace Coddington plays. She doesn’t put on airs or shy from conflict, but remains perfectly likeable, and that makes her a star.

Valentino: The Last Emperor
We can’t help but be drawn into Valentino: The Last Emperor with its extravagance (palaces and yachts and thousands of hand-sewn sequins) and simplicity (a sketch of a gown drawn with a mere flick of the wrist). “This was the best thing for me to make dresses, I am a disaster in everything else,” he tells us. It seems unlikely. Watching him deftly maneuver his last collection is both fascinating and bittersweet and even though we may never imagine ourselves living his life, this film serves as a good reminder to value and nurture our talents, however limited we may believe them to be.

Change Room

A tale of great customer service—or a SPIRITUAL AWAKENING?

As a plus-sized woman, clothes shopping is the bane of my existence. I can spend over an hour eyeing the racks at the stores looking for Whitney-friendly wear (loose-fitting or oversized tops, stretchy sweaters, princess-cut dresses, and nothing that can be described as “form-fitting”), only to meet my match in the fitting room. The worst is when the mirrors are outside the change room, forcing me to walk the plank and parade around in front of everyone in the store. This almost always comes with prying eyes from the skinny salesgirls and customers, whose main concerns are if a colour looks good on them and not that they’d look like a stuffed sausage. It’s the same story, repeated again and again—I’ll leave the store with only a broken spirit.

Until one fateful evening in Montreal, that is. After hours of trying on baggy tunics in a bunch of outlet stores, I noticed a brightly lit Betsey Johnson store, appearing as a beacon in an otherwise gloom-filled day. Frilly frou-frou dresses, bedazzled cardigans and sky-high heels hung from racks, sat on shelves and burst from display cases. Wall to wall were rock-chic tutus, gloves, arm warmers, and berets shimmering with decals; purses in leopard prints, shiny metallic silvers, blues, reds, and purples; and bold, sparkling belts and jewelry. I stared longingly at all the clothes that I wished would fit my plus-size physique; this was, in every other way, “Whitney’s Wonderful Emporium.” It was the intersection of so many fun and wonderful places, containing the glamour of a rock show, the whimsy of Willy Wonka’s factory, and the meticulous curating of a museum. And like a real museum, I dared not touch anything. I took one wistful look around me, then turned around to leave.

I didn’t get far before a sales associate stopped me, asking if she could help. Normally, I would have politely said “no thank you,” but I couldn’t abandon those clothes without giving them a fair chance (Did I mention the tutu?). In a small voice I explained that while I loved every single thing in the store, I bore no delusions of petiteness and knew nothing would fit. But the sales girl wouldn’t take no for an answer.

She plunked me in the change room and set out to navigate the wild rapids of frothy dresses, bringing me lacy and delicate garments I would have never dared pick out myself—one wrong move and I would split these in half like the Hulk. But she encouraged me to give them a try.

After building my confidence with a few sunnily-patterned sheath dresses, I found myself worming into a tight black pencil skirt with a jaunty peplum. I was attracted to that skirt, but in the same way I might be attracted to Leonardo DiCaprio—that is to say, from a distance. Actually trying it on could be enough to end a love affair; if this one didn’t fit, that would be the end of this little pretense. With a loose white cashmere poncho on top and a pair of electric blue heels that felt alien on my feet, I was ready for my usual disappointment.

As I emerged, the customer in the change room next to me said “Whoa.” I looked in the mirror and was shocked; I had legs. The skirt fit perfectly and clung to my body in all the right places. I looked tall and polished and felt flat out sexy. For the first time ever, I felt great in a fitting room.

I purchased the outfit and sincerely thanked the sales associate. I wish I could remember the name of the woman who guided me through this intimate awakening. I never go shopping with girlfriends, mostly ’cause we can’t shop in the same stores, so I could never relate to other women who spoke of shopping as some female bonding experience—until now. What was probably a regular work day for this woman helped me overcome some pretty deep personal insecurities. I walked out of the store grinning and high off my epiphany into a twilit evening. Suddenly all these possibilities were in front of me, and I couldn’t stop putting outfits together in my head. Was it an artificial high brought on by consumerism? That’s one way to interpret it, but I finally felt like I could fit in with these cultural arbiters so often relegated to femininity (after all, it’s a lot easier to think about subverting convention when the rules automatically apply to you). I finally knew how Becky Bloomwood felt after a particularly erotic session of shopping at Prada, or the cult of Carrie Bradshaw that swept the nation in the late ’90s.

This was going to change everything.

photography // Brianne Burnell