A documentary on a store? But darlings, this isn't any store - it's Bergdorf Goodman's, the venerable blue-chip retailer for Manhattan's elite class. Project Runway fans will likely lap up Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's, director-writer Matthew Miele's zippy 2013 examination of one of fashion's most iconic destinations. Those who don't believe that shopping is the be-all and end-all of human existence might be befuddled by this shallow portrait, however.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's opens with a dizzying collage of rapid-fire imagery (lots of time-lapse photography) and loads of admiring testimony from people who simply adore everything that Bergdorf's stands for. These include celebrities such as Joan Rivers and Candice Bergen, designers such as Michael Kors and Isaac Mizrahi, critics, fashion journalists, employees, just-folks… even the New Yorker cartoonist whose gag inspired the film's title. Having an impressive roster of names gabbing about the store in fragmentary, seemingly haphazard fashion sets the tone for what's to come, unfortunately. "Scattered" is a good word to keep in mind, as the film attempts to be a comprehensive history of the store, a star-studded celebration of high end glamour, a nitty-gritty rundown on the realities of the current retail landscape, and a straightforward chronicle of the working lives of various Bergdorf's employees.
As much as it appears to be about fashion and celebrities, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's sticks with the business end of its subject. You do get some history (not enough, in my opinion), along with lively anecdotes about Edwin Goodman, the brash merchant who occupied the store's penthouse apartment and turned the imposing 5th Avenue building into the landmark it is today (Mr. Bergdorf, bought out by Goodman in the early 1900s, doesn't figure as prominently). Mostly it's devoted to Bergdorf's current cachet as a world-class fashion retailer, and the efforts that designers make to get their wares within Bergdorf's hallowed walls. Maybe the director never intended it, but Scatter My Ashes reinforces the depressing fact that today's retail landscape is all about the branding, to such an extent that even the products themselves are something of an afterthought. The branding that you see in middle-end retailers like Macy's and Target is amplified here, with dozens of big-name designers speaking in admiration of Bergdorf's exclusivity and clout. Sellouts or not, the people involved have plenty of interesting stories to share (Michael Kors' tale of how he was discovered by a Bergdorf's buyer is a highlight).
Scatter My Ashes also follows the day-to-day activities of the store's tastemakers who decide what they sell and who gets it. There's a brief visit with personal shopper Betty Halbriech, a colorful lady known for her unvarnished opinions. Bergdorf's head buyer Linda Fargo shares her criteria for accepting product in the store, while we observe her department holding a critiquing session for young designer Ally Hilfiger (Tommy's daughter and one-time star of putrid MTV reality show Rich Girls). Fargo appears to be a gregarious, elegant lady with fabulous fashion sense. The way this film presents her job, however, inadvertently makes it look like whoever schmoozes her the best wins the coveted Bergdorf's contract. There's a consistent impression here that making it in retail is a matter of who you know rather than what you can do, although thankfully the green Ms. Hilfiger does not make the cut.
By far the most interesting sections of Scatter My Ashes deal with Bergdorf Goodman's window dresser, David Hoey, as he prepares an elaborate display of five themed windows for the 2011 holiday shopping season. In contrast to the down-and-dirty maneuvering on the retail side, it's actually inspiring to witness Hoey pull these window displays together - a year-long process involving inspiration meetings, contracting with artists and craftspeople, and scouring antique shops. It's beautiful work, breathtaking when the time comes to reveal the final displays (themed around wood, brass, cloth, glass, and paper). Since Bergdorf's is one of the last remaining department stores to bother with elaborate window displays, these segments supply some of the uniqueness and artistic flair that's strangely missing from the rest of the doc.
Any of the people mentioned above would make good subjects for a full-length documentary. Matthew Miele's directing tactic amounts to never lingering on one thing too long, however. The sensory overload dazzle employed here makes viewing his film an experience similar to sitting at the dinner table with a hyperactive kid who can't shut up. Individual aspects sustain a certain level of intrigue (especially that window dresser), but the lack of overall direction makes Scatter My Ashes more frustrating than it ought to be.
The digitally shot 1.78:1 image on Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's is given a polished, quite lush treatment on Entertainment One's DVD edition. The light/dark balances look terrific, with colors that are lush without getting over-saturated. The mastering brings out the details and textures in the photography in a satisfactory manner.
The soundtrack on this film is given a spacious, pristine Dolby Digital 5.1 mix with clear dialogue and thumping music which never gets too overwhelming. Whenever used, surround effects are subtle. A 2.0 audio mix and optional English SDH subtitles are also provided.
Besides a Theatrical Trailer, a selection of bonus interviews with footage not in the final film are included. These brief pieces play more like internet teasers than substantial additions to the disc, but I suppose they're better than nothing. They are: Alternate Introduction (1:07); Libertine (1:07); Karl Lagerfeld (1:31); Young Designers (3:24); Reg & Bone (1:37); Under the Glass (2:20); The People (2:44); and Linda Fargo (2:15).
Having already experienced a bunch of recent fashion documentaries, I'd rate Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's somewhere around the middle. It lacks the insight of Bill Cunningham New York or The September Issue, but then again it isn't as smarmy and annoying as something like Ultrasuede: In Search of Halston. Between the requisite fawning and superficiality, the film acquaints us with some of the movers and shakers that make Bergdorf Goodman a prime destination for luxury fashion. While the doc never attempts to get any deeper than the vivid shade of red on the sole of a Manolo Blahnik pump, it's slick enough to enjoy on its own frivolous terms. Rent It.
Matt Hinrichs is a designer, artist, film critic and jack-of-all-trades in Phoenix, Arizona. Since 2000, he has been blogging at Scrubbles.net. 4 Color Cowboy is his repository of Western-kitsch imagery, while other films he's experienced are logged at Letterboxd. He also welcomes friends on Twitter @4colorcowboy.