The department store is a decidedly American entity. Nowhere else in the world has the art of peddling so much shit in one single structure been as artfully mastered. Bergdorf Goodman is a rare exception in the generally déclassé nature of department stores. Priding itself on selling only the finest (read: most expensive) of goods and setting their prices and standards so high, Bergdorf’s has developed something of a reputation for exclusivity and elitism. And it is this reputation, presented in Matthew Miele’s documentary Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s that forms much of the basis for materialism in our society. Although the focus of the film is somewhat "scattered," ranging from the early history of the retailer to the Anna Wintour-like power of Fashion Director Linda Fargo, what shines through in it most is the emphasis on status and wealth in New York City and throughout the Western world.
Interviewing iconic designers and influential tastemakers associated with the store, Miele ends up drawing out some of the most materialistic statements from people like John Demsey, the president of Estee Lauder, who asserts, "Bergdorf Goodman is part of the aspirational dream of people all over the world." Throwing in other heavy-hitters in the world of fashion—including the always captivating Iris Apfel, who just shows up and ends up being the most interesting person in the room—for good measure, the entire purpose of the documentary seems to be a promotion of how great you can be if you have the money and the stature.
Overt in its espousal of buying as a way to prove what your worth both to yourself and others, one of the most disturbing observations comes from film producer Jean Doumanian, who uses the example:
"If a young girl is going to college, she can't wait to become a lawyer or get a full-time job so she can buy that pair of shoes she's been looking at. Everybody wants to better themselves, so they aspire and I think that's why stores like this are necessary...to make people want to aspire to bigger and better things. You need this for the American dream. For people to actually reach it, they have to see it."
And apparently how they see it is through tangible, ludicrously priced material. While, yes, Bergdorf’s has always been known for quality, is anything quality enough to warrant price tags that are, at best, in the three or four figure range? All it serves to do is ostracize, and make those who can’t afford this so-called aspiration feel utterly inadequate and defeated.
At the same time, Bergdorf’s has vaguely offset its polarizing price points with the discovery of much beloved designers like Michael Kors (who might be the most overrated designer of the current fashion epoch). Before Linda Fargo took over as Fashion Director, there was the equally as revered Dawn Mello, who happened to see Kors dressing his own store window across the street from Bergdorf’s. She promptly asked him to bring his line over to Bergdorf's to show to the buyers, and the rest took care of itself.
Another telling sign of the somewhat sickening wealth that comes with the ability to shop at Bergdorf’s is the documentary’s acknowledgement of the economy-altering Bernie Madoff scandal. In the wake of the financial crisis, Bergdorf’s suffered immensely from their clientele’s losses—proving, once again, that “poor people money” counts when times get rough. Kate Betts, a contributing editor for TIME, likened the event in terms of fashion:
"When you think about hemlines and the whole relationship between hemlines and the financial world, they always said, 'You follow hemlines and you follow the market: They went up and down with the markets. So, in the 60s, obviously, when the boom happened hemlines went up. In the 70s, with the recession, they came crashing down."
Another interviewee made the faint connection between being rich and living in New York City as he stated, "When you look around the world, what seems to have happened is that a smaller and smaller number of cities have become more and more important in terms of the movement of where the very wealthy members of the international society live." It's an alarming and obvious fact to bring up, making one wonder if Bergdorf’s could thrive in any other city outside of New York (apart from London). Further commentary by Stephanie Clifford, a retail reporter for The New York Times, offered, "[Retail] is a direct window into the American consumer. You see all these economic reports about how consumers are feeling and how they're saving, and in the retail world it reflects precisely what they're feeling and how they're saving and what they're buying." Bergdorf's customers probably feel like dollar bills are pennies.
Incidentally, in spite of how wealthy you have to be to shop at the establishment, associates who work on commission are rewarded handsomely (top sales associates can make up to $500,000 a year) for enduring what are presumably some difficult personalities. So, I suppose, in this sense, there does exist some sense of egalitarianism within the Bergdorf’s social strata. And then there is the perk of the Holly Golightly-esque parties. Continuing the motif of excess, the final portion of the film puts a spotlight on Bergdorf’s knack for throwing lavish fêtes. Whether it’s Fashion’s Night Out or Fashion Week, no expense is spared. For about six minutes, we’re shown a montage of decadence with a song playing in the background that repeats “Barbra Streisand” throughout (a name that is already overly bandied because her first TV performance was filmed there in 1965, in which she ironically sang several songs under the title “Poverty Medley”).
Culminating with the final result of the windows dressed in the theme of Carnival of the Animals for Christmas, it's clear that we're supposed to feel some sort of sentimentality and connection to the glamor of the aesthetics presented. It's supposed to make us want to strive, to become a part of a higher tier in the class structure. But it kind of just makes you want to go to the Gap and buy sweatpants out of protest. This isn’t to say that luxury should be done away with or those who enjoy it should be punished. But it is indicative of how materialism is the barometer for success in America in particular and throughout the world as a whole. Perhaps it’s time for a new, more realistic gauge.