Nary Manivong is a self-taught fashion designer trying to make it on a wing and a prayer to New York Fashion Week in the fashion documentary, Dressed. He has surmounted significant obstacles as a child, creating his first fashion collection as a teenager in his hometown, despite having been abandoned by his family at 14 and becoming homeless. Now, he finds himself faced with possibly an even bigger challenge: can he succeed in the cutthroat NYC fashion business where a designer is either “one order away from bankruptcy or mega-stardom”?
It’s a compelling premise for a film and Manivong is a worthy subject. You want to lean into the designer’s soft voice, and figure out whether it’s Zen or melancholy or desperation underneath the placid look on his face. Unfortunately, Director David John Swajeski makes so many missteps that the documentary is almost completely drained of drama.
From the outset of the film, the pacing and emphasis feel off. Dressed starts with friends of the designer intimating that Manivong has a “secret” from his past. Yet, the director strings us along for so long before sharing that Manivong was abused as a child that it feels manipulative. Then, we have the obligatory appearances by fashion insiders like Simon Doonan, Fern Mallis and Nanette Lapore, who are brought in to lend credibility to the film and to add context about the fashion industry to the personal story. Swajeski fails to extract anything deep or revealing from them, and they all begin to feel like salty old dogs repeating the same cliches about the harsh realities of the fashion industry we already know: “the fashion industry is tough”, “it’s less glamorous than it looks”, “only the most driven and talented survive”.
None of the three different storylines in the film ever fully coalesce into a satisfying narrative. While Manivong’s childhood feels skimmed over and the NYC fashion scene cliche, his personal journey to Fashion Week is confusing. At one point, we are “eight months away from Fashion Week”. Two minutes later, the narrative has not moved forward, yet, Fashion Week is sixth months away. Part of the problem is that the film is heavy on b-roll of Manivong walking along city streets and pinning muslin on fit models. The film ends up looking the same visually and blending together without generating any sense of time passing. We are left with little sense of the arc of creating a clothing collection, and only see some evidence of the personal challenges that Manivong faces along the way.
We won’t spoil the film and tell you whether Manivong makes it to Fashion Week or not. We will leave you with one piece of advice, though. If you’ve read this review and really want to know what happens to Manivong, it’s quicker and more satisfying to do a Google search of the designer than to watch the film, Dressed.
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