Zac Posen did not have final cut.
“It’s scary,” Posen said, a few days before “House of Z,” a documentary following his meteoric rise as a 21-year-old fashion wunderkind and, subsequent, very public humbling, premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival. He signed over his rights and put his faith in director Sandy Chronopoulos after working with her five years ago on a segment for Canadian TV as part of a charity event through Rogers Communications. “Sandy and I had built a level of trust,” he said. “I thought she was smart and sensitive.”
But she didn’t go easy on him.
“House of Z” is not a glossy “Dior and I” or “September Issue.” While ultimately redemptive, the documentary offers an unfiltered, at times unforgiving, look at Posen’s history. “Fashion has a dark side,” warns Posen in the opener. “It’s not all runways, lipstick and fishtail gowns.” There is a fair amount of that, but the film features just as much struggle, including a spate of bad collections, negative press and stifled resources that drove a painful rift between Posen and his mother, Susan, and sister, Alexandra, with whom he started his business.
The film is well-done, set with a compelling narrative arch and enough famous faces — Sean Combs, André Leon Talley, Naomi Campbell, Claire Danes, Natalie Portman — to entertain those with a passing interest in fashion while taking industry veterans, many of whom were interviewed on camera, on a vivid trip down memory lane.
Scenes from Posen’s childhood growing up in a close-knit family in the Eighties in a SoHo artists’ loft — his dad was a painter, his mother a corporate lawyer — highlight his early creative inclinations and eye for fashion. The story segues to high school at Saint Ann’s in Brooklyn, an extremely liberal school, where Posen met his friends, early muses and models Lola Schnabel and Paz de la Huerta, creating his first designs for them. The pre-social media snapshots and home videos are incredible depictions of creative art school kids in their element. Posen dressed as the pope for his graduation.
He enrolled in Central Saint Martins in London and dropped out after de la Huerta wore one of his dresses and caught the attention of a New York Times reporter. He moved back to New York and started his business out of his parents’ home.
From there, it was fast and furious. Karen Elson, Jemima Kirke and Sophie Dahl walked his first show in 2002. There’s footage of the late Isabella Blow comparing Posen to Alexander McQueen and proclaiming that she had “never met an American bohemian before.” Posen took his bow looking a bit like a vampire with slicked hair in a topcoat with tails, hissing at the photo pit.
“It’s embarrassing at times when you look at it,” said Posen of watching those early shows. “But you can reflect on it and be taken aback by a kind of bravery. Sometimes I look back and say ‘What was I thinking?’ But, in general, I don’t like to live with regret, so I didn’t look at it that way.”
Combs and Ron Burkle took Posen to another level through their investment and celebrity connections. Video of Posen’s shows at the Bryant Park Tents clock Jay Z, Rihanna, Kanye West and Nicole Richie in his front row, with Combs backstage corralling the press — “Let’s get these cameras over here, some splashing going on, it’s fashion week!” It depicted a wildly different time.
As quickly as Posen rose to stardom, he began to wither under his own hype. At one point, Robin Givhan, the fashion critic for The Washington Post, recalls sitting at Posen’s show in September 2007 in Bryant Park, which included a finale of theatrical gowns cut to look like clouds in the sky, “I remember this editor saying to me, ‘Why are we all here?’ and my response was, ‘I have no idea.’”
The recession hit Posen, like many designers, hard and drove tension between him and his mother. “I was angry with my mom,” Posen said on camera, discussing deals made with sponsors and partnerships. “I felt like she was trying to sell me cheap.”
After a disastrous season showing in Paris in 2010, Alexandra left the business and Posen pushed his mother out. “At that point the whole team left, there was a full walk-out,” Posen recalled. It was a low point for him; he was close to losing his business.
As Nicole Phelps points out in the film, fashion loves to watch someone fall. But at the same time, fashion has a short memory. Posen’s struggles were very real, but at this point they’re far enough in the rear view that it’s a wonder he would want to dig them up again.
“Through the experience that I’ve had, I feel very fortunate that I’m still standing in certain kinds of ways,” said Posen a few days before the premiere. “I have such a great relationship with [my family], better, stronger than ever. But what a toll that can take, building something. When you’re very young and have lots of creative ideas, and kind of naive to the industry and are very ambitious, what kind of journey that can lead you to? What are the pitfalls? I wanted to show what it takes to survive, prevail and grow.”
Three years after filming wrapped after capturing a make or break show for fall 2014, Posen is in a much more stable place with his own collection, as well as working as creative director for Brooks Brothers women’s, and going into his sixth year as a host of “Project Runway.” His comeuppance yielded a person who would be unrecognizable to his younger self.
“A lot of the people in the movie are still with me,” Posen said. “I don’t use this word, but I feel blessed and lucky I have these people with me. And then I feel fortunate that the experience I had was humbling. It made me a stronger person, and a better creator and a more sensitive person.”
The House of Z is still standing.