'House of Z': Film Review | Tribeca 2017

Courtesy of Tribeca Film Festival
An enjoyable doc overflowing with stunning pieces of clothing, both on models and on its star.

In her filmmaking debut, Sandy Chronopoulos chronicles the fashion career of Zac Posen.

Comeuppance does the trick in Sandy Chronopoulos's House of Z, a rise-fall-rebirth portrait of dress-designing wonderboy Zac Posen. Fashionistas will obviously appreciate this undishy but intimate doc, which is especially strong in its account of the designer's flowering as a creative teen. But civilians they drag along with them will also find it visually stimulating and fleet enough to justify their time.

Raised in 1980s SoHo by New Yorkers who prized creativity (father Stephen was a painter, mother Susan a corporate lawyer), Zac started dressing things as a toddler. Discarded fabric from manufacturers could still be found on the street, and Dad's semi-sculptural wall pieces introduced him to the joy of draping cloth in three dimensions. Home movies show that the boy's imagination went far beyond putting pre-made dresses on dolls.

By high school, he had flesh-and-blood dolls to dress. Going to class with the daughters of famous or otherwise successful families, he knew teens who had modeling careers or who simply appreciated his flamboyance. (A large and delightful array of photos of his own attire shows how, as Susan puts it, every school day was "an experiment in dressing.") He made Julian Schnabel's daughter Lola a dress out of garbage bags; put Paz de la Huerta in gowns. These were the kind of friends who, when wearing his creations in public, might cross paths with Gianni Versace and have him ask, "Who made that?"

After internships at the Met museum and with Nicole Miller, then attending the London school that produced Alexander McQueen and John Galliano, he was noticed by Naomi Campbell, who wanted a dress. He was featured in the New York Times Magazine at 20, before his one-off creations had even become a real business. Realizing the time had come, he asked his big sister Alexandra to help sell his vision.

The movie tells fun stories of the brand's early days, operating out of their parents' loft. Scooting the furniture aside, Posen coached his models and organized an elaborate presentation for buyers from Henri Bendel. By the time he showed his first collection in the East Village, everyone wanted to be there. More importantly, the show lived up to the hype: As Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan recalls, the impressive thing was that he had the beyond-his-years craftsmanship to make his visions work.

An instant "Vogue baby," Posen was fawned over by the glitterati — and he dressed for the part, outfitting himself in capes and costumes sure to get his picture in the paper. But Chronopoulos (making her feature debut here) doesn't quite communicate how the predictable backlash grew into something uglier, and the increasing stakes of Posen's commercial operations knocked his vision off-course. It isn't that she has no taste for negativity — Posen admits to mistreating his sister and his mother, who had by that point become a large voice in the company — but more specific examples would help us understand how much his oncoming problems owed to ego, how much to a global economic downturn.

Though that sense of missing some of the story lingers, Chronopoulos offers a clear plotline in the final third, starting with a striking 2011 comeback at Lincoln Center. The film starts to focus on Posen's decision to maintain a real atelier in New York City, working intimately with skilled craftspeople instead of farming work out to far-off factories. Though it lacks the exquisite focus on craft seen in the 2014 doc Handmade With Love in France, this section illustrates Posen's values and the challenge they present to his bottom line. It also feeds nicely into suspense over the debut of a 2014 collection the doc presents as make-or-break for Posen's business: Scaled down and presented in his own company's work place, it ensured that craft would, for once, steal the spotlight from attitude.

Production company: Ideal Partners
Director: Sandy Chronopoulos
Producers: Jana Edelbaum, Rachel Cohen, Sandy Chronopoulos
Executive producers: Ronnie Planalp, Donna Gruneich, Kevin Gruneich, Suzanne Rogers, Jordan Schwartz, Robert Souza, Colette Watson, Laura Rister, Jason Weinberg
Directors of photography: Konrad Czystowski, Nadia Hallgren, Mark Klassen
Editors: Holle Singer, Madeleine Gavin
Composer: Eric Stamile
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Special Screenings)
Sales: Hailey Wierengo, UTA

87 minutes

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