“House of Z” – 2017 Tribeca Film Festival Review


The rise, fall and comeback of fashion designer Zac Posen has been well documented over the years.  Posen’s path to success came early and fast, with many an insider heralding him as the next torch bearer of American fashion even before he turned 21.  Indeed, success came quickly for the child prodigy with a clear eye for dressing his female high school classmates turned muses.  Internships with the Metropolitan Costume Institute and Nicole Miller, and training at Central Saint Martin’s were quickly followed by his Sean “Diddy” Combs-backed collections at New York Fashion Week, where the Bryant Park tents prior to his runway shows guaranteed A-list celebrity sightings.  Hit by the economic recession of 2009, an ill-fated move to Paris Fashion Week, and questionable business decisions, Posen had to scramble to save his company.

While all of this is recounted in “House of Z,” which examines Posen’s career through his Fall 2014 women’s collection, the aspect that intrigued director Sandy Chronopoulos was the involvement of the designer’s family.  “The hardest part about making this documentary was that my heart was fully engaged, but as a journalist, I had to detach myself, dig into uncomfortable places and protect the film,” she said in a statement about the documentary.

Perhaps Chronopoulos was a bit too protective.  By treating the story of a former wunderkind with kids’ gloves, “House of Z” skirts around the more deeply personal aspects of Posen’s trajectory.  There are certainly hints that the film will follow a similar stylistic path, though far less tragic, as Asif Kapadia’s gut-wrenching “Amy” – the Oscar-winning documentary about the late singer Amy Winehouse – with the use of past tense juxtaposed with grainy home videos, and the words “pressure” and “stress” to open the story.  Steadfastly loyal to Posen every step of the way are his parents and sister Alexandra, who puts her professional dreams on hold to support his growing business.

Then, as Posen’s career starts to derail, so does the film.  After a company overhaul in 2010, with Posen’s mother and sister exiting the company, family curiously no longer becomes the focus.  The narrative instead turns to Posen’s seeming make-or-break moment with his Fall 2014 show at New York Fashion Week.  Although this section is a fascinating look at Posen’s atelier of tailors – and would be extremely effective as a standalone short film – it distracts, even given the dire financial situation of the designer’s company.  Too much focus is paid to the final tiered gown inspired by the Guggenheim Museum, as if this alone will determine whether Posen can continue his design career.  What exactly caused the personal fallout between Posen and his family, other than a packed schedule and the information shown through news article screenshots? How did everybody reconcile? Most important, how does everyone feel?  These lingering questions are never fully answered, even through numerous sound bites with Posen; his family, colleagues and famous friends; and fashion journalists, which are often used as filler within threads of a familiar narrative.  The results are a missed opportunity to take a deep dive into a complicated artist’s psyche and a lack of emotional investment on the viewer’s part.

“House of Z” made its world premiere at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival.