Matthew Miele's Scatter My Ashes is a love letter to luxury
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's is a celebration of fashion, and a love note to luxury brought to life by filmmaker Matthew Miele. The new documentary about the iconic New York department store takes its name from the caption of a 1990 New Yorker cartoon by Victoria Roberts. In the same vein as The September Issue, this film collects insights from fashion industry heavyweights and Bergdorf insiders to create an oral history of the store.
As a New Yorker, Miele was enraptured by the elegance of the four-corner area by Bergdorf's and Tiffany's. "I love New York history and this whole notion of what used to be in certain areas," he says. "You know, the Vanderbilt mansion was on that [Bergdorf] plot of land."
Miele's inspiration for the film came from the beginnings of a screenplay about a window dresser he was researching. "The Tiffany's mystique, that whole Audrey Hepburn coming out of the cab and going up to the windows, that was really my starting off point," he muses. "I love that moment. I always thought to myself what a great image that would be taken from a different angle of a woman in black going over to Tiffany windows, but you see it from across the street or kitty corner. I always wondered who would be out there at 5 a.m. watching this happen, and I can only think of a window dresser at Bergdorf's."
Miele uses the windows at the department store as a loose story arc throughout his film, from concept to creation during the holiday season of 2011. "The windows to me are very thematic," he says. "They tell stories on their own. The windows are always so magnificent. They're museum quality. They're known worldwide. Over a million people pass them in two weeks, so I just thought what attention these need to be given on the background and the people behind them."
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's isn't Breakfast at Tiffany's, but it's definitely got heart -- however gilded in gold leaf and Swarovski crystals that heart might be.
Critics have judged the film for being long (though it only clocks in around 90 minutes) and glorifying an upper-class ideal through thinly veiled marketing. Truth be told, there is something intrinsically PR-flavored to anything about a particular store or person, and that's the danger of doing something centered on such a high-profile, high-priced brand. However, Miele defends his work, having already completed several films on other tiers of New York society in the past.
"We shouldn't strive for mediocrity," Miele warns. "We should strive for the best. And I think Bergdorf's represents one of the last bastions of excellence in fashion."
Miele had only been a fan of the windows before he started the project. "I hadn't set foot in the store before I started filming," he admits. "I would say, because I consider myself a fashion outsider, that I have such an appreciation now for what these people do. They design on a museum quality level. We featured the Alexander McQueen part because we wanted to highlight that the general public can embrace fashion just as much as the fashion community. The lines [at the Met exhibit] were unheard of. It was remarkable to see that."
While the store executives now enjoy the film, they were initially worried about revealing too much about Bergdorf Goodman. "They were a little skittish about the film," Miele starts. "With the attention it's getting, and having some of the facts in there--like the amount employees make. It was something they didn't want in there that I convinced them to put in." (To put it lightly, it's an astounding amount.)
"Bergdorf's is happy with [the film]," Miele says proudly. "They think it's at the Bergdorf Goodman level. They do such exquisite things and the production quality matches it."
Many traditional film critics aren't very well-versed in the inner-workings of the fashion world, so there's a chance that the film's appeal is lost on those who aren't fashion aficionados. "I have a great respect for the people that do [fashion]," Miele says. "You know, it's more competitive than the film industry, which I thought was the most competitive, but fashion definitely trumps this. People really sacrifice for their art."
Too often style-lovers see fashion industry icons as smiling faces quickly waving on the runway or hiding behind sunglasses and an icy demeanor in the front row. That's not the case in Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's. Miele interviewed dozens upon dozens of fashion industry legends for the documentary, from designers to style icons. Shooting the film took a year, due to extensive coordinating and scheduling, but it was essential to providing an in-depth look at the store.
"It was a challenge to have them all agree," Miele reveals. "A lot of them had said yes, and then some of the bigger ones had said no. Despite the fact that the film is about Bergdorf's, [the interviewees] are at such an A-level that with their clout, it's pretty hard to get them in front of a camera--including Marc Jacobs and Karl Lagerfeld."
The tipping point came with the creative director for Chanel. "I think when Lagerfeld said yes, most of the people started coming and committing to it." From there, Miele says it was like a domino effect. "You get a few, and everyone else follows."
Miele also divulged, "Dolce and Gabbana wouldn't do it without Armani in it."
Yes, there are a lot of interviews, but seeing designers like Jason Wu and Olivier Theyskens wax poetic about their love affair with fashion and Bergdorf's is actually a real treat. And if you don't know those names, then there's a good chance this film isn't going to be your cup of tea.
There are enough characters along the catwalk and personalities behind the scenes that tell fascinating stories to move the film along, from anecdotes about Liz Taylor shopping on the fourth floor's "plaza elegante" with amber-colored drinks and cigarettes everywhere to the legend behind Jackie Onassis's iconic Halston hat.
After hearing hundreds of stories about Bergdorf Goodman, there are a couple tales that truly stick out in Miele's mind.
"Jackie O with that hat, that Halston hat," he says. "The fact that she wore it at the inauguration of JFK as well as at the assassination, obviously not knowing what was going to happen that day. It was a poignant story because you don't think of a piece of clothing being able to tell a story like that. We brought Pat Cleveland in to talk about Halston, but I had no idea she was going to go into that."
He also recalls a story about John Lennon and Yoko Ono buying 70 fur coats during the holidays on short notice. "You know in his 'Imagine' song he says, 'Imagine no possessions.' And yet, here's this couple who requests that Bergdorf's visit them Christmas Eve. So there's a bit of a spin that puts on things behind the scenes."
Even having just released this film, Miele is already hard at work on another.
"I'm really diving into the New York history and the iconic brands," Miele says of his next project. "I definitely feel a niche carved out for this type of filmmaking, and I have an equally iconic story that I'm starting on another brand. I can't reveal what it is, but we started production last month."
While the writer-director couldn't let the cat out of the bag, he did give a pretty big hint: "You can probably think of the top brands in the U.S. and on 5th Avenue, and you'd probably be able to guess."
Miele revealed in another interview that his next project wasn't going to be on Barney's. Our best guesses as to the subject Miele's latest doc? Sak's 5th Avenue, Lord & Taylor, Henri Bendel, Cartier, and--of course--Tiffany's.
Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's starts playing at the Landmark Edina 4 Theatre today.
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