Department stores have been fruitful sources of inspiration since 1883, when Émile Zola wrote the novel Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise), loosely based on Le Bon Marché in Paris. Even as recently as HBO’s Mr. Selfridge, the series starring Jeremy Piven that follows the rise of Selfridges in London, the department store has played backdrop to romance, scheming, class conflicts and, most important, the art of conspicuous consumption.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s takes a documentary approach to its titular subject, the most glamorous of all American department stores, Bergdorf Goodman. Yes, the store has managed to attract big spenders for more than a century, but the film reveals that there is as much richness in good anecdote as a painstakingly conceived window vignette.
Praise is certainly owed to filmmaker Matthew Miele, who secured 175 interviews over the course of the project. All the designers – including Karl Lagerfeld, Giorgio Armani, Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, Isaac Mizrahi, Diane von Furstenberg and Jason Wu – paint a picture of Bergdorf’s as the Mount Everest of retailers. Meanwhile, interviews with long-time personal shopper grande dame Betty Halbreich, fashion director Linda Fargo and senior director of visual presentation David Hoey prove that a retailer is only as good as the talent it employs.
We hear from some of the famous clients and supporters: Sex and the City stylist Patricia Field, Joan Rivers and Susan Lucci, who happened to overhear a French woman saying she wanted her ashes scattered around the store. In fact, the movie’s name comes from a cartoon by Victoria Roberts published in the April 30, 1990, issue of The New Yorker. Parse the title beyond its macabre humour and it implies that Bergdorf’s – not Bloomingdale’s, not Saks Fifth Avenue – is a sacred place.
Of course, fashion people are experts in overstatement, as when Michael Kors claims that Bergdorf’s has “the most discerning clientele in the world.” And then there’s Mizrahi’s comment that “if your clothes are not at that place, they have no future.”
But maybe he’s not being so dramatic, after all. Just this week, the trade paper Women’s Wear Daily reported that Ally Hilfiger (yes, daughter of you-know-who) has opted to suspend her budding fashion label, NAHM, after less than two years. In the film, we watch as she and her partner, Nary Manivong, presented the collection to Fargo – and Fargo’s decision was to take a pass.
Miele must have sensed that the film required a central narrative aside from a chronological highlight reel (the store dates to 1899). So he zooms in on Hoey, who is deep in preparations for the 2011 holiday windows. Dubbed the P.T. Barnum of Bergdorf’s, Hoey dryly muses that everyone – “scholars, zoologists, all the kids” – will love his animal garden party theme.
The windows turn out to be magical. No surprise there. But ultimately, they are less dynamic than the people whose convictions about the importance of consumerism run deep. “You need this for the American dream,” long-time Woody Allen producer Jean Doumanian explains. “For [people] to reach it, they have to see it.”
Do you need to see this film? No. But if you want to see it, you’re in for a treat.