Tribeca 2017: House of Z and Premiere Q&A

Stephan Cho - April 26, 2017

Flawed but compelling, House of Z is strongest when it allows fashion designer Zac Posen’s craft to speak for itself.

As one of the biggest personalities in the American fashion world, it’s clear that much of Posen’s life and career have been leading to a project like this. In House of Z, first-time director Sandy Chronopoulos is provided with a wealth of footage of Posen documenting himself throughout his young fashion career.

As is the case for many prodigious talents, Posen’s rise in the New York fashion world was aided by privilege and connections. Posen first made waves in fashion during his time at the Brooklyn arts high school Saint Ann’s School, where he met New York fashion insiders like Paz de la Huerta and Claire Danes, and began his entry into the competitive fashion world. (In a discussion with Posen and House of Z director Sandy Chronopoulos following the premiere screening, Posen also spoke about his job taking fellow Saint Ann’s student and future Girls creator Lena Dunham to school every morning.) In House of Z, Posen also discusses growing up in what he calls a “culturally rich and supportive household,” as the son of artist Stephen Posen based in an artistic Lower Manhattan neighborhood. Posen also enjoyed the early support of Vogue editors like Anna Wintour, who calls Posen “a friend of my son” in footage documented in House of Z, and André Leon Talley, who moderated the discussion following the premiere screening of House of Z.

However, House of Z also shows how Posen’s clear talent for design and self-promotion were apparent even from an early age. Posen first made waves in the fashion world by photographing his designs on young fashion darlings like de la Huerta and Danes, and set off to London to attend the prestigious Central Saint Martin’s College of Art and Design. Even in these early stages of his career, it’s clear that Posen clearly relishes the spotlight, and House of Z shows how his brash personality and photogenic presence came together at the right time to fuel his prodigious rise in the fashion industry. After his first runway show in 2001 at the age of 21, we see Posen cockily stomp the runway, having already conquered the fashion world.

From there, House of Z follows a conventional rise-fall-redemption documentary structure, with Posen at a crossroads as the world deals with the fallout of the 2008 U.S. recession. These parts of House of Z are far less engaging than those that deal in the specifics of Posen’s craft and career. Posen is open about the creative, business, and personal mistakes he made during this stage of his life, and is compelling as always as an interview subject. But the missteps made during these collections are expected for anyone who find success at an early age, as opposed to signs of a profound existential crisis. By structuring these difficulties in a conventional documentary structure, Chronopoulos prevents Posen from providing his full insights on what specifically went wrong at this time.

Thankfully, House of Z finds its footing when it focuses on the 2014 collection staged on the floor of his atelier, which refined his interest in tailoring and emphasized the value of his hand-crafted approach to fashion in an industrialized climate. These sequences allow Posen to reveal the details and process behind every stitch of his work, and these process-oriented scenes will prove most valuable for viewers outside of the bubble of the fashion world. Posen is referred to as an artisan throughout House of Z, and the documentary and Posen himself work best when Posen is allowed to speak through his work.

The premiere screening of House of Z was followed by a discussion between Posen and director Sandy Chronopoulos, moderated by U.S. Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley. Talley, both in his appearances in House of Z and in the discussion, came off like a DJ Khaled-esque figure of positivity and sage wisdom for the fashion world. He provided Posen with lavish complements, such as referring to him as a "New York Celebrity" in the vein of “an Andy Warhol figure”; comparing his movement and theatricality in the film with that of Gene Kelly; calling his creations as “Brâncu?i-esque statutes”; and speaking lovingly about Posen's attention to craftsmanship.

In turn, Posen provided further details on the craft of his most well-known pieces, such as the light-up dress that Claire Danes wore to much acclaim at last year’s Met Gala, and the dress that Posen designed for Rihanna on the occasion of her first Diamond Ball charity event, which Posen called one of his favorite pieces from his career.

In their conversation, Posen also discussed his expectations for the future of the fashion market and industry. Posen spoke about the impact of pieces like his light-up dress for Danes at the Met Gala, the success of which he attributed to its hand-made construction. “In global retail, people will buy something special over a simple shift dress or T-shirt...a special occasion piece,” Posen said. When asked about whether pieces like Danes’ were commercially viable in a more industrialized fashion market, Posen mentioned that he had sold “dozens” of pieces like Danes’ in the days following last year’s Met Gala, including in fabrics that didn’t light up like Danes’ had.

On the topic of social media, Posen called Instagram “a great [opportunity] for young creators today,” and said that in the future, “fashion designers and brands will become storytellers...content creators,” beyond the sphere of the fashion industry. Posen also plugged his projects outside of his fashion line, like a cookbook set for publication in October and an upcoming collaboration creating new uniforms for Delta Airlines.

On the horizon of the upcoming annual Met Gala next week, Posen also recounted his experiences as a staff member at the event when he was 16. Posen recalled meeting “idols” like designers John Galliano, who was recently appointed as head designer of the Christian Dior fashion house at the time. Posen also recalled his first encounter with late designer Alexander McQueen at the event. “He smelled me; that’s how he said hello. Then he asked me where my jacket was,” Posen said to much laughter from the audience. Based on House of Z, it’s clear that Posen knows exactly how to work an audience.

Stephan Cho

Stephan Cho is a junior studying political science and film at the University of Pennsylvania. His interests include pop culture criticism, creative writing, and music production.