Review: Dressed to Impress?

Seeing as the city is once again all atwitter–figuratively and, certainly, literally–over the upcoming Fashion Week, Dressed, director David Swajeski’s first feature-length documentary, which opens at Clearview’s Chelsea cinemas tomorrow, is well-timed. The movie follows a young designer, Nary Manivong, who struggles to put together his first show despite having no money and no connections, save for a high school principal willing to front some cash. It’s an unglamorous peek behind the scenes of one of the world’s most luxurious, aspirational industries, but while the film has its charms it also shows its seams; it’s kind of like a dress on the sale rack in an outlet mall, wearable except for a factory error that left one arm shorter than the other, or the hem hanging, vulnerable and visible, below the skirt.

Thousands of people start fashion labels every year, and, as Dressed reminds us via on-screen titles, 80% of them have failed within two years. So what makes Nary special enough to star in his own movie? The short answer is this: The son of Laotian immigrants, Nary was abandoned by his parents (along with a twin brother, a younger brother, and a sister) at age 14. In the present day of the film (a few years ago, judging from the fact that Fashion Week was still being held at Bryant Park), Nary is still technically homeless, crashing on the couch of a friend’s 320 square-foot apartment, but he’s saved a little over $5,000 to finance his first professional fashion show. He’s not the most commanding screen presence–he’s quiet and unassuming, and his face is often expressionless, save for sad, watery brown eyes–nor is he particularly articulate, and at times it’s hard to figure out why he was chosen as The Face of Fashion Strife. Also, the film is only really half about Nary; at least forty minutes are spent interviewing various fashion professionals, among them Fern Mallis, Simon Doonan, Lynn Yaeger, Nanette Lepore, and Paper magazine founder Mickey Boardman, about how hard the fashion business is, and what would-be designers should know before they jump in. Of these talking heads, only one–Mr. Boardman–actually attends Nary’s show. The rest neither mention him by name nor appear to have any idea that they are part of a movie about him.

Dressed tries to impress, but it drags–it would be much better suited to an hour-long television format. Mr. Swajeski likes to linger on Nary’s forlorn face and zoom in slowly on old photographs, suddenly switching to black and white or freezing frames for no apparent reason other than to hide the fact that the film contains hardly any truly captivating footage. He overuses titles, which sometimes could use a copy editor (“After attending school each day, he worked 2 jobs and sleep some nights at the donut shop.”) These annoying, amateur hang-ups not only get in the way, they bloat and already swollen film. Over and over, we hear how resilient Nary has been in the face of adversity. Over and over, we hear how tough the fashion industry really is. With more aggressive editing, Dressed might pack more of a narrative punch, but as it stands it meanders, and no amount of sincerity can make up for the fact that nothing happens for long stretches.

I do not mean to take anything away from Nary’s accomplishments, which are, if not extraordinary, extremely admirable. He clearly works hard and has passion. But Dressed doesn’t quite know what it’s doing with his story. It ends up feeling like an extended home visit on Project Runway… but without Tim Gunn, it’s hard to know if he’s making it work.