“There is Breakfast at Tiffany’s and there is Bergdorf’s—it’s just something you fantasize about,” Diane von Furstenberg says early in Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, clueing the viewer in to the iconic status that department store Bergdorf Goodman carries not just in the fashion world but in Big Apple dreams. A benchmark for luxury fashion, Bergdorf’s plays such a key role in cultivating designers that Isaac Mizrahi declares, “If your clothes aren’t [there], they have no future.”
Strategically situated on Fifth Avenue between 57th and 58th streets, between Tiffany’s and the Plaza Hotel, the store incurs an unparalleled amount of foot traffic (especially during the holiday season, when its windows are dressed to the nines). Most, of course, wouldn’t dare enter, where four-figure shoes await, but international fashionistas consider it a mecca. “You’re only as good as your clientele,” comments Michael Kors. “Bergdorf’s has the most discerning clientele in the world.”
Director Matthew Miele includes a rapid-fire overview of BG’s history—tracing its move uptown to its current location, where it was run by the Goodman family, who lived in the sixteen-room penthouse for decades, before selling the store to Neiman Marcus—but his focus is on the cast of characters that maintain its relevance and vibrancy today. The queen bee is Linda Fargo, a surprisingly smiley tastemaker who decides whether designers make the cut or not. Perhaps second most influential in shaping the store’s vibe is window designer David Hoey, whom the narration dubs “the P.T. Barnum of Bergdorf’s.” We follow him from design studio to outer-borough warehouse to the store’s facade as he oversees the production of the holiday windows, which serves as the documentary’s ersatz narrative arc. Last, but certainly not least, is Betty Halbreich, a gloriously sardonic top seller who was, as one interviewee puts it, “a stylist before it was fashionable to be a stylist.” Loved and, for her brutal honesty, perhaps a little bit feared by moneyed customers (BG actually terms them ‘clients’), Betty has dressed celebrities for decades, in turn influencing fashion in film, as costume designers Patricia Field and William Ivey Long testify.
As exhilarating as the glimpses we get of the creative spark and insider anecdotes in this temple of couture are, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s is more than a backstage tour. The documentary occasionally saunters out the store’s doors, for example, uptown to the Met’s Costume Institute where crowds line up for an Alexander McQueen exhibit, to demonstrate the prime importance of fashion to our city’s culture. Other excursions, e.g. to the Dakota, where one Christmas Eve Yoko called on a salesperson to make a monstrous order of fur coats, point to the central role Bergdorf’s has placed in how we dress ourselves. Rising and falling with our city’s economy, but always maintaining an element of surprise and grace, the store’s history is a microcosm of Manhattan’s own.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s opens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center this Friday.