It’s no surprise that I stop and stare at the towering bronze columns and giant lanterns greeting customers to the Bed Bath & Beyond store on Sixth Avenue and 18th Street in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. It’s the former home of the Siegel-Cooper Department Store, one of New York’s premier emporiums in the early 20th century and the beautiful building still retains its grandeur despite the modest operations of its current retail tenants.
I have a deep fondness for grand department stores and fashion retailers going back to teenage years working at Strouss-Hirschberg Co. in Youngstown, Ohio; selling TVs at Marshall Field’s while a college student in Chicago and working at Lazarus in Cincinnati while attending Xavier University.
Recently, I’m listening to filmmaker Matthew Miele describe the creative sparks behind his current documentary “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” an engaging and holistic look at the world famous Fifth Avenue fashion retailer Bergdorf Goodman, its relationships with top designers and its loyal community of shoppers. I’m a quick advocate when Miele describes Bergdorf’s as a symbol of the American Dream for success because, well, like him, I’m also a fan of classic retailers.
“I’m a firm believer in America and manifest destiny and capitalism and the competitive nature of this country,” Miele says, speaking before the New York opening of “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s.” “I mean New York is a microcosm of success and entrepreneurial spirit. Every skyscraper is the result of an entrepreneur and someone who made it in America. They’re physical manifestations of it.
“Bergdorf’s is also a trophy of success like the private jet, the private island and all those things you can work for and all those emblems of achievement.”
Many other grand New York stores like B. Altman and Bonwit Teller join Siegel-Cooper in the retail graveyard but Bergdorf’s continues to thrive after 111 years with a worldwide brand identity stronger than ever.
Its luster and glamour attracted Miele to shift his original plans for an indie drama about a Bergdorf’s window dresser to a feature-length documentary filled with 175 interviews from fashion designers Karl Lagerfeld, Oscar de la Renta and Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen to stylist Rachel Zoe and loyal client Joan Rivers, all gathered over 12 months of shooting at and around the store.
Early in our phone call, Miele insists on his status as a fashion outsider; a guy with a couture-less wardrobe that would be of little interest to style bloggers. Although fashion documentaries from “Unzipped” to “The September Issue” and the recently premiered “The Director” are more popular than ever, Miele wanted “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” to be about fashion and more.
In fact, the beating heart inside “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s,” what lifts the movie above its celebrity stories, is the spirit of New York captured in the movie and its convincing portrayal of the city as one of the world’s “Center of the Universes” for key industries including fashion.
“I love iconic New York and I love the history of the city,” Miele adds. “Bergdorf’s is so entrenched in New York’s history and has become such an institution. This store has become so near and dear to multiple generations of families.”
Want to know another example of Bergdorf’s status on America’s cultural landscape? A filmmaker just dedicated more than a year of his creative life making a documentary about it.
“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” is playing select art-houses in New York with plans to expand nationwide throughout May from eOne Films.