Fashion Fixation: True Documentary or Marketing Tool? ; 'Bergdorf's' Joins Long List of Films That Border on Mass Merchandising

By Barnes, Brooks | International Herald Tribune, May 2, 2013 | Go to article overview

Fashion Fixation: True Documentary or Marketing Tool? ; 'Bergdorf's' Joins Long List of Films That Border on Mass Merchandising


Barnes, Brooks, International Herald Tribune


A new movie about the Bergdorf Goodman store in New York joins a growing line of cinematic works that are deferential to the fashion industry.

Is "Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's" a film or an advertisement?

The movie, which charts the rise of Bergdorf Goodman from modest tailor shop to Manhattan institution, arrives in limited release in the United States on Friday. 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."

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 characters -- the fussy designer, the stylist throwing a tantrum, the celebrity clients in the front row.

But there is a cynical side to this cinematic mass merchandise: Fashion may be the savviest industry when it comes to spotting branding opportunities, and many of these films function as marketing tools. Designers and luxury brands have come to see that a documentary film could be worth their time.

"Bergdorf's" may well win ecstatic reviews, as many of these films have. But like many other fashion documentaries, it also approaches the territory of an infomercial. 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.

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 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.

Mr. Malloy, in a telephone interview, described his family's relationship with Bergdorf Goodman as "umbilically connected."

"I thought it would be a nice legacy piece for my kids," Mr. 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."

While skittish at first, Bergdorf Goodman 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. (Mr. Miele had originally wanted to do a fictional film centered on the store.)

Linda Fargo, the store's fashion director, said in an e-mail: "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."

Mr. Miele, a literary agent turned documentarian ("Symphony for a Suicide"), said 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, Mr. 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. …

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