Sex and the City’s Clubby Temple for the One Percent

I’ve never passed through the hallowed doors of the legendary New York department store Bergdorf Goodman, for decades its name a shorthand for refined high-end consumerism. Although a native New Yorker, this bridge-and-tunnel boy departed the Empire State at 19, before I could indulge a life of urbane conspicuous consumption, flitting between tony Manhattan shops like a trustafarian hummingbird. In the breezily hagiographic documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s, director Matthew Miele attempts to show us deprived souls exactly what we’re missing.

Miele’s incongruous opening sequence depicts a Bergdorf’s employee leaving his Long Island tract home in the early morn, riding the L.I.R.R. into the city, as the grand store awakens. Time-lapse photography abounds, as a brash disco tune throbs, and it all seems like a hip TV spot, perhaps aimed at Millennials and younger Gen Xers. The film quickly cuts, however, to Michael Kors’s proclamation that Bergdorf Goodman attracts “;the most discerning clientele in the world,” followed by Vanity Fair columnist Amy Fine Collins asserting that “Department stores are great stories.” That may be so, but those “stories” are increasingly few and far between, as the department store as we’ve known it inexorably fades from the scene (more on this later).

Legend insists that an adoring French patron who worshipped Bergdorf’s requested that her ashes be scattered there after her passing. A curious coincidence, as New Yorker cartoonist Victoria Roberts published a humorous 1990 strip declaring the same. It suggested that this film’s title was appropriated from the latter.

Narrated by the decidedly un-patrician William Fichtner, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s is a mostly reverential examination of Bergdorf’s, or rather, the meaning of the store in the imaginations of its well-heeled and often storied patrons. Clearly, Bergdorf Goodman is a sort of clubby temple for the One Percenters who regularly browse its aisles, and an aspirational fantasy for the less affluent, whose numbers have exploded during the Great Recession, both in New York and across the country.

Indeed, considering the sheer star power of the film’s interviewees, watching it is akin to thumbing through the pages of sleek, fragrance-marked Vanity Fair, that gossipy mash-up of Town & Country and People. And what glamorous folks we meet… Isaac Mizrahi, Candice Bergen, Giorgio Armani, the vampiric Karl Lagerfeld, to name a few. Is it any wonder that Carrie Bradshaw and her gal pals loved to strut their stuff through Bergdorf’s?

The land beneath Bergdorf Goodman — which opened just in time to thumb its nose at the Depression – has itself a distinguished pedigree amongst Gotham’s chattering classes; it’s the former site of the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion, largest private residence ever built in NY. In an earlier era, the Goodman family occupied a 16 room penthouse above the massive Beaux Arts edifice, even as arcane occupancy regulations forced them to refer to themselves as “custodians”. Miele evokes this time period — I call it the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Epoch — through a series of crisp vintage photographs, most in retro-chic black-and-white.

Miele also grants ample time to Bergdorf Goodman employees and client designers, including Fashion Director Linda Fargo, the statuesque, silver-haired doyenne of Fifth Avenue. One might expect an imperious diva of the Anna Wintour ilk, and the Vogue empress is referenced here, but by all accounts, at least in this doc, Fargo is a gregarious, approachable person who enjoys contact with underlings and clients.

In a more detailed interview among the disc’s Extras, Fargo explains that she once worked for a mass-market chain, but felt a desire to be around “beautiful, beautiful things”. Most would agree that she’s hit the jackpot by landing at Bergdorf’s.

We also meet the impossibly pretty Jason Wu, a young designer of ladies’ apparel. His dresses hang at Bergdorf Goodman’s, and he’s dressed the First Lady for both of her husband’s inaugurations. However, Wu is also selling some frocks at unfashionable, downmarket Target, and this may put him in dutch with the Bergdorf’s brass, as — like many shops in this rarefied stratosphere — a certain exclusivity, a separation from the unwashed masses, is demanded.

No surprise that the store’s warehouse is “secretly” located across the East River in middle-class Queens. Image is key, and one needn’t watch Mad Men to grasp this. To wit, another key member of Bergdorf’s staff is David Hoey, who creates striking window displays of surreal elegance. Apparently, his sartorial dioramas are are a magnet for tourists and locals alike.

Bergdorf Goodman is hardly immune to the vicissitudes of the marketplace, though. The Goodmans no longer pull the strings, as the store has long been a member — albeit the crown jewel — of the Neiman Marcus Group. Also, the Madoff affair financially hobbled a fair number of Bergdorf Goodman’s regular patrons. Still, Bergdorf’s has thrived during our much-publicized economic meltdown, despite the cultural shifts caused by the Three I’s: immigration, Internet, increasing wage gaps, and while the traditional department store, a touchstone of my generation, is slowly vanishing. Despite Adam Gopnik’s prescription of doom for the “immense, slow ocean liners” that department stores have become, I suspect that nothing short of nuclear obliteration would dislodge the store from its lofty perch.

In Manhattan’s pressurized new money hot zone, there will always be a copious number of Page Six denizens with the means to keep their personal shoppers at BG busy. You’ve read about them in The Bonfire of the Vanities and in numerous Dominick Dunne tell-alls. Not to mention their counterparts from Shanghai and Moscow, whose ranks continue to swell. Hell, the eastern tycoons will probably own the joint someday. In the meantime, those aforementioned personal shoppers will continue to rake in mid six-figure wages.

The festive luxe of Bergdorf Goodman is also on display in Miele’s film, as his camera surveys the haute parties — suggestive of the halcyon days of Studio 54 — hosted by the store during the city’s annual Fashion Week, and we’re also treated to a clip of la Streisand parading through Bergdorf Goodman, in a dreamy filmed scene from the Broadway chestnut Funny Girl. Bergdorf’s in fact, has been well-represented in pop culture, appearing in films like Arthur and That Touch of Mink, not to mention the 2005 bestseller Bergdorf Blondes, which includes a real-life BG heiress in its satirical Sex and the City-inspired narrative.

Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s doesn’t invest much time in telling a detailed history of the eager Jewish strivers who created the store — probably the 2001 doc Dita and The Family Business fills that bill better — but it is, for worse some would say, an unapologetic wallow in human nature’s craving for status and material filigree, within an unabashedly capitalist demimonde. To that end, it’s the perfect electronic wallpaper for a winner-takes-all petit bourgeois cocoon.

RATING 5 / 10