In the fashion world as in cinema, the only thing more exciting than a spectacular crash-and-burn is the ensuing comeback, and “House of Z” diligently adheres to that formula in detailing the up-and-down career of famed American designer Zac Posen. A wunderkind whose Icarus-like flight to the industry’s greatest heights was soon followed by a startling plummet back to Earth, Posen proves an engaging vehicle for a look at art-world pitfalls. Though director Sandy Chronopoulos’ documentary is a somewhat unevenly weighted affair, its candidness and all-access footage should nonetheless help it attract a crowd, following its Tribeca film festival premiere.
Raised in an artistic family in New York City, Posen rocketed to superstardom thanks in part to his tenure at Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s school, where he immediately fell in with such future luminaries as Stella Schnabel, Paz de la Huerta, and Claire Danes, and which served as his springboard to sought-after fashion opportunities. So fast was his ascent that he immediately recruited into his professional fold both his corporate lawyer mother Susan and his devoted sister Alexandra (“my best friend”). Stitching together a business in whatever way they could, they quickly catapulted Posen to the center of the spotlight, where he became a favorite of innumerable industry bigwigs (Naomi Campbell and movie stars wore his stuff, Sean Combs invested in him, Anna Wintour attended his parties).
Nonetheless, as “Vogue Runway” director Nicole Phelps remarks at the start of “House of Z,” “He’s the designer who we got to watch fall.” And fall he did, thanks to a backlash spurred by both a belief that he’d been given too many early advantages (and thus hadn’t earned his stature on his own), and also by his own over-the-top flamboyance at shows and in the press. Those growing attitudes, coupled with financial strains placed upon him by the 2008-’09 stock market crash, swiftly undercut his dreams, leaving him to flee to Paris, where another flop only further underscored the notion that he was an arrogant “poseur.” Worse still, it led to a deep rift between Posen and his mother and sister, who’d soon leave the company.
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“Fashion has a dark side. Not all runways and lipstick and fishtail gowns,” Posen says about his chosen milieu, and while “House of Z” is aesthetically quite straightforward, it receives a jolt of unique energy from Posen’s own front-and-center participation in this portrait. In interviews, he frankly addresses the personal and strategic missteps that caused people to think “Everybody hates Zac Posen” — a view that Posen can barely articulate on-screen without struggling to hold back tears behind a smile. In those revealing chats, he comes across as a young man humbled by failure and appreciative of the opportunities he still has, not to mention now capable of viewing his past through a more mature, objective lens.
Chronopoulos weaves together archival material and new interviews with virtually every member of Posen’s team (past and present), as well as critics, journalists and fashion insiders. That gives “House of Z” its comprehensiveness, although its construction is more than a tad uneven, considering that it races through much of Posen’s initial career, and then spends a relatively inordinate amount of time on the construction of an important green dress intended to close his momentous return engagement to New York. As such, the film’s structure suggests that it really has only a full hour’s worth of material, and is stretching to attain a feature-length runtime.
Still, in Posen’s continued dedication to making dresses in his atelier — and by personally draping gowns over female bodies, as the foundation of his process — “House of Z” captures the way in which direct hands-on engagement is vital to an artist’s continued relevance, and vitality. And also, in this case, how it serves to reconnect Posen with the very things (inspired creativity, family) that led to his success in the first place.