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.