It’s so unglamorous. Really, being a butcher would be more glamorous.
— Lynn Yeager
“I don’t know,” says Jason Napier. “My first impression of him was like, ‘Here’s this cool cat that’s trying to come up in the world and he’s got some great ideas and a lot of good talent.’ The frontman for the band Sink to See, Napier is remembering how he came to know fashion designer Nary Manivong back in Columbus, Ohio. Napier goes on, “I had more respect for him, finding those things out, that he’d come from a tough place and sort of came and found the other side.”
Napier’s recollections stop here, but this “other side” is something like a focus for Dressed, which follows Nary’s efforts to pull together a collection for New York’s Fashion Week. Such structure is familiar from other fashion industry documentaries, which tend to find a narrative in deadlines. As occasional intertitles remind you that the big day is approaching — two weeks away, a week away, 19 hours away — you watch Nary working to achieve his goal: he sketches designs, selects fabrics, pins dresses to models, and frets about the money he’s trying to raise.
Nary is unusual within the industry, the documentary proposes, in that he’s putting together this collection without help from an investor. As he explains it, he has $5,829.86, cobbled together from “odd jobs” (not named) and from friends’ loans. He lives in a tiny apartment (320 square feet) with a roommate, Janet Mock, who enthuses about his energy and ambition. “He’s like this little machine,” she says, “clawing his way up to something he can see, he has it in his mind’s eye, like, it’s there.”
That vision remains a bit elusive, but you’re encouraged by an assortment of industry insiders to believe that a designer’s vision and passion — whatever they are — are very important. You also hear that the business is competitive. None of this is precisely news, of course, but the film repeats it, framing Nary’s “tough” background with the “tough” business he’s in now.
The industry representatives appear not to know Nary per se, but they speak on the business in a general sense. Very general. Lynn Yaeger, fashion writer for the Village Voice, observes, “To be successful in New York, you need to be incredibly tenacious, you need to be original, you need to stick to your vision.” Simon Collins, of Parsons’ New School for Design, who says, “It’s a tough business… You need an absolute passion for being a designer.” And Fern Mallis, a fashion consultant and creator of New York Fashion Week, adds, “There’s something really magical about this industry. It’s being around creative people who really put everything on the line.” And don’t forget, as Yaeger says, the business is also “incredibly hard work and incredibly jinxy. It’s very cutthroat, it can be very mean, it can be very backstabby. It’s just a weird little business.”
If this all seems a bit vague and obvious, Nary’s own story would seem more specific. That is, he and his siblings were homeless and abandoned by their parents when he was just 14. But once he reveals these basic facts and Dressed provides several photos of the kids looking haunted, that story is done. Nary suggests that he fell in with gang members and drug dealers, remembers that he slept at a 24-hour doughnut shop, and expresses gratitude for teachers who encouraged him to complete high school and made sure “that I was eating.” How any of this has shaped his current thinking — aside from his drive and passion — is mostly omitted. He notes that he began designing as “an escape,” that perhaps he even designed clothes he couldn’t have as a boy. But the film offers no suggestions regarding social systems, poverty, or racism, or even particulars regarding his parents, whether they were pathological in some way or so devastated by their material conditions that they were unable to function.
Instead, the backstory functions as melodrama. When preparations for the show become especially nerve-wracking, Nary and a friend drive to Columbus, so he can direct the camera to his childhood home and the school he attended. The former principal and an old teacher speak to his hardships, admire his strength, and the film returns to New York, “Two days before Fashion Week.”
If Nary’s story is unusual, the film is not. In addition to interviews and shots of Nary in motion — in the car, on the sidewalk, traversing Union Square Park (where, he says, he goes to “think and meet friends and grab a cup of coffee”) — the film includes montages (Nary designing and sewing, models posing and runway walking) that are propelled, no surprise, by Sink to See’s soundtrack.
Nary also provides insights into the business. When he’s not posed against brick walls or tearing as he remembers his difficulties, he offers, “I think every artist has their own path. The path is maybe who I am now, it definitely drives me wanting more in life I have a different outlook than anyone I believe.” Based on what the film shows, you have to take his word for that.