Sandy Chronopoulos’ House of Z is just about every documentary or film ever made about youthful prodigies who blow up way too big way too early. It’s subject, legendary fashion designer Zac Posen, hit the fashion world in the early 2000s like a meteorite. Spurred on by endorsements from British supermodel Naomi Campbell and hip-hop mogul Sean Combs, he became the toast of the town on both sides of the Atlantic before imploding during an ill-advised residency in Paris. Largely dismissed by the industry, he regrouped for a 2011 comeback that re-established him once and for all as one of the leading voices in world fashion. The film itself ends with a triumphant fashion show in his Manhattan atelier that climaxes with a gorgeous green dress modeled after the central skylight in the Guggenheim Museum designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s all trite, predictable stuff that settles comfortably into a traditional Hollywood three-act structure.
That’s Posen’s story, but what about the man himself? It’s when House of Z addresses this question that it briefly comes alive. The segments documenting his childhood and upbringing are the stuff of Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach’s wildest fantasies: born to a well-to-do family of SoHo artists, Posen was raised in a home where he could indulge all of his craziest artistic whims from puppetry to sculpting to fashion. When he got older he went to special schools for artists which once again allowed his imagination to run rampant, using his female classmates as models for guerrilla photoshoots all over the city. Immediately afterwards he got a scholarship to the world-renowned fashion school Central Saint Martins in London followed by internships with the Metropolitan Museum of Art and fashion designer Nicole Miller. The inadvertent subtext of these scenes, we realize, was that despite being a homosexual Jew, Posen was blessed with a life of intense artistic privilege. The man may be an indefatigable workaholic—in the mid 2000s he was doing 8 collections a year—but one wonders if he would have had the same opportunities if he had been born in rural Alabama to a family of farmers instead of in the center of one of the world’s fashion capitals to a family of artists.
And yet, I left House of Z feeling like I understood very little about Posen. Time and again the film refers to him as a temperamental bad boy whose brashness and egotism pushed friends and family away. The trouble is that Chronopoulos almost never gives any examples of Posen being anything other than a determined kid from Lower Manhattan with big dreams. There are times where he’s overworked and stressed, but we never see him lashing out or behaving poorly. There’s a brief spat with his family where he fires his mother from his company, but that’s about it. The best parts of the film are the brief moments where we see him at work, obsessing over minor details in his dresses like a great filmmaker or painter. But most of these are reserved for the buildup to the concluding atelier fashion show, so for much of the film we see Posen simply as an enigma of talent, success, failure, and reinvention. It sounds more interesting than it actually is.
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