There’s an undeniable thrill at seeing a cavalcade of top designers, and a few not-so-top celebrities, in the opening moments of the documentary “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” This, you think, must be big.
Oscar de la Renta, Michael Kors, Jason Wu, Manolo Blahnik, Vera Wang, Marc Jacobs, Giorgio Armani, and Karl Lagerfeld talk about Bergdorf Goodman as if it’s a religion rather than a posh shopping playground for the 1 percent.
As the seventh or eighth talking head fawns over the store, it’s clear that the next 80 minutes of “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” which takes its title from a cartoon in the New Yorker, will be as soft and harmless as a Marchesa ostrich feather gown. This is an infomercial disguised as mildly entertaining cinema.
Director Matthew Miele interviews designers to give his audience a taste of the store’s influence, but these are the same designers who desperately need their merchandise to be carried at Bergdorf's. If they ever experienced difficulty with the store or its buyers, they certainly wouldn’t say as much on film. Even designers who are not featured at Bergdorf’s keep a tight smile on their face as they talk about how they wish they could be.
“If your clothes are not at that place, they have no future. There is no future,” says Isaac Mizrahi, whose designs are carried by the store.
Nearly 15 minutes in, Miele gives us hope that he’ll start telling a story when we’re introduced to Linda Fargo, the affable fashion director of the store. She is described as the anti-Anna Wintour, a warm and friendly presence who doesn’t attend fashion shows with a security staff. But that’s it. She is a lovely woman with good taste and a white, asymmetrical bob.
There is also hope for drama, or at least a pulse, when Miele starts following window designer David Hoey as he prepares the store’s opulent, dramatic holiday window displays. Tiled fish and polar bears constructed of flapper fringe make for lovely scenery, but if there are any hiccups in the process, they are tucked behind the mannequins draped in glittering Naeem Khan creations.
The most interesting character to emerge in Miele’s unfocused film is personal shopper Betty Halbreich, a very appealing dragon lady who helps celebrities select their ensembles. We hear from Joan Rivers and Candice Bergen how cutting Halbreich’s approach can be, but when Miele asks her how honest she gets with customers, Halbreich’s response is “I can’t give you an example. I won’t have a job next week.”
The lack of transparency on the inner workings of “Bergdorf’s” is frustrating when compared to a daring fashion documentary such as “The September Issue.” The Vogue staff opened up to director R.J. Cutler, resulting in an enthralling look at the clashing personalities of the divas who produce the sartorial bible. Nothing interesting happens in “Bergdorf’s.” The most entertaining part of the film is its final few minutes, when Barbra Streisand is shown frolicking in the store in a 1960s TV special cooing “Second Hand Rose.”
Miele has done his research and gives us the store’s illustrious history, but his film is about consumerism, not people. Even a story about John Lennon buying hundreds of thousands of dollars of furs on a Christmas Eve is told in the context of a salesman who was afraid he wouldn’t hit his numbers that year.
“Bergdorf’s” feel like a missed opportunity for examining what makes this grand dame of Fifth Avenue such an integral part of New York and fashion.Christopher Muther can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Chris_Muther.