Film Review: Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's

Fashionistas will kvell over this paean to the Mecca of Materialism.

Bergdorf Goodman, on perhaps the priciest plot of real estate in Manhattan, smack on Fifth Avenue and 57th Street, is often referred to as the most luxurious, glamorous store in the world. (Personally, this writer found it even more so before all the renovations in recent years, which transformed the appealingly period and cushy jewel-box look of the place into the typical, high-key fluorescent-lit sterility of the modern mall, with its smothering glut of clothing.) As such, it has long enjoyed a very special, supremely acquisitive mystique, appearing as a backdrop for one of Barbra Streisand’s early career-making TV specials and mentioned by no less than Bette Davis in All About Eve (“Make it Bergdorf Goodman!” she snarls, when someone compares her to a five-and-dime store.) Writer-director Matthew Miele, obviously in thrall to the emporium, has created a splashy celebration of it with this film, bearing the over-the-top title Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.

The doc’s major interest is historical, in its delineation of the line of proprietors, from Herman Bergdorf, who founded it in 1899, to Edwin Goodman, who took over ownership with his son, Andrew. The details of its starkly classic architecture—grandiosely taking up an entire Manhattan block—and the distinctively commercial, yet elevated, reasons behind them are fascinating, as is the fact that the Goodmans actually had New York’s most magnificent private apartment above the store on the top floor. (And old Edwin would prowl about the floor at night, in PJs and robe.) The store’s rise to prominence paralleled the flamboyant, ever-changing arc of fashion in the 20th century itself, mirroring every society-changing trend, from the liberation of women’s bodies in the flapper 1920s through the swinging mini-clad ’60s and beyond.

The costly, über-chic women’s drag which the store specializes in takes center stage, while the men’s store—nearly as large as the ladies’ edifice across the street from it—is never even touched on. Personalities legendary in the fashion world, who are barely known to your average Kmart shopper, like fashion director Linda Fargo, here presented as a kinder, gentler Anna Wintour, and Betty Halbreich, the store’s reigning personal shopper—a wrily materialistic dame who’s seen it all—are amusingly featured. The utter importance of their approval for young designers struggling to make a name for themselves in this horrendously difficult field is emphasized; in this world, getting your line into Bergdorf’s is akin to being nominated (at least) for an Oscar. Happily ensconced style eminences like Karl Lagerfeld, Michael Kors, Tom Ford and Marc Jacobs weigh in with genuflecting paeans to the place, and it’s clear that even for these most jaded of souls, the joint still packs a thrill.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s features the likes of the Olsen Twins, Rachel Zoe and Nicole Richie fluffily weighing in for a posterity which, decades from now, may well wonder who the hell these mouthy clotheshorses were (as well as the always outrageously amusing Joan Rivers). It’s an unashamed ode to conspicuous consumption in these hard-pressed times, and one heady, opulent ride, the cinematic equivalent of consuming an entire box of Ladurée chocolates, with perhaps a matching, somewhat queasy after-effect from all the richness. The only bits of hard reality which intrude come in the accounts by employees of what an impact the Madoff scandal had on the sales floor, with many regular customers literally disappearing forever overnight.

Miele obviously prefers the glitz, for he blithely skips over this aspect, along with any deep sociological observations. He seems to take more obvious delight in the arch responses of the sales people as to what one can actually make working there ($400,000 a year is one figure bandied about). And God forbid there should be any mention of—horrors!—sales, at which this writer has been surprisingly able to score some pretty fine pieces by top designers like Vivienne Westwood and the much-maligned John Galliano for relative pittances, proving that one need not necessarily be a millionaire to shop there.

If any figure emerges as the star of the film, it is assuredly chief window designer David Hoey, who is responsible for the lush visual orgy which comprises the store’s annual Christmas windows. Miele’s timing was great, for his filming coincided with the creation of the “Carnival of the Animals” display of 2011, which, as a commercial presentation, will probably never be surpassed, anywhere or anytime. Hoey’s discerning eye for quality and detail, which went into the concoction of the most amazing beasts painstakingly created from the most unlikely mosaic tiles, fringe and paper over an intense year of planning, was responsible for the jaw-droppingly triumphant results. Indeed, these Christmas windows remain one of the city’s greatest special treats, which, unlike so much else about Bergdorf’s, can be enjoyed by everyone, rich and poor, young and old alike, and this truly makes the store an essential part of New York.