“Shopping is a feeling,” reads an intertitle in David Byrne’s 1986 film True Stories. The feeling may be empowerment, ascendance, discernment, sex appeal, or escape, for the joy of shopping is not just the thrill of spending, but the dressing-room possibility of being someone else, someone better, someone who could wear that. So what’s it like to try on clothes at one of the most expensive stores in the world? You won’t find out in Matthew Miele’s documentary about New York’s Bergdorf Goodman, Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s. Though the title would seem to promise effervescent fun – I expected to see Liza Minnelli jangling her bangles in the aisles or Saudi princesses taking the handbag department by storm – that’s not what’s in stock. The long list of big-name designers on the poster is also misleading. Miele amasses an impressive inventory of sound bites from Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Louboutin, Giorgio Armani, and others, but the film’s primary focus is the Bergdorf’s staff: the same solemn, purse-lipped people who fired Joan Rivers and Miss Piggy for having a laugh behind the cosmetics counter in The Muppets Take Manhattan.
The Bergdorf employees are like sadistic wizards waving Swarovski-Crystal-encrusted magic wands. Pity the hopeful designer pitching her line to Fashion Director Linda Fargo; bow down to Betty Halbreich, the famously bitchy personal shopper to the stars; and scoff along with director Miele, who informs a customer outside the store that its salespeople can make upwards of $400,000 a year flattering people like him.
Fashion docs bore me to my core, but a good retail movie is something different. As a fan of Frederick Wiseman’s 1983 doc about Neiman Marcus, The Store, I was hoping to learn something about the mechanics of merchandising, the science of selling luxury goods: not just what Bergdorf’s does, but how they do it, and precisely what the department store can offer that the designer flagship stores located within a one-block radius of Bergdorf’s – Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, etc. – can’t.
Of course, the irony goes unacknowledged: Bergdorf’s, which condescends to aspirational shoppers, is an aspirational venture in itself, striving to transcend retail, to become a museum of fashion. This is why we scarcely see a single shopper during business hours, and why the staff refer to tourist visitors as “the audience.” Scatter My Ashes isn’t about shopping, but about branding – or rather it is branding, and remains relentlessly on-message. Everybody’s tantalized by the store’s exclusivity because next to nobody makes the cut. Thus the title’s morbid connotation rears its ugly head: Having somebody sprinkle your mortal remains on the marble floor is the only way you’d ever fit in.