In the fall of 2008, as Citigroup was slashing tens of thousands of jobs, Lehman Brothers was folding, and AIG was right behind it, documentarian Marc Levin got a call from HBO, for whom he was finishing up a film about the decline of New York City’s garment industry.
HBO senior producer Nancy Abraham was on the line. “Maybe you were right,” she said. “Maybe you should have done the Wall Street documentary.”
But Levin wasn’t doing the Wall Street documentary. That idea had been nixed by HBO a year earlier. Instead he was doing the Schmatta—Yiddish for “rag,” for those who weren’t raised on bagels and lox—documentary, and he figured he was screwed.
At the Marc Jacobs show during Fashion Week of 2008, Marc Levin thought, “The economy has no clothes.”
“You can imagine my reaction,” Levin said in September, following a screening at the Toronto Film Festival of his film, Schmatta: Rags to Riches to Rags, which airs October 19 on HBO. “We were, like, editing. We were still gonna do some final shooting—for fall Fashion Week and the holiday shopping season but we were almost done. It was a moment of panic.”
The panic was short-lived, however. Over the next several months, Levin and his producing partner Daphne Pinkerson wove together a rich and complex story that shines a light not just on Seventh Avenue, but on the world as Americans now know it: precarious, angst-ridden, and nothing at all like it was just a few years ago.
In this way, Schmatta is in no way a film just for fashionistas, or people familiar with behind-the-scenes players in the garment industry, such as Bruce Raynor, president of Workers United, SEIU, and Julius Stern, a Holocaust refugee who was the first president of Donna Karan Inc. (A fair share of celebrities and designers also sashay through the film, including Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, and Isaac Mizrahi, who declares, “Greed is out.”)
Rather, Schmatta is an entertaining, lively tapestry that brings together New York history, including seminal moments such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911; the American Story, as experienced by mostly Italian and Jewish immigrants who found in the garment industry a gateway to success in their new land; and firsthand accounts of that story, from people like Joe Raico, Schmatta’s Joe the Plumber, who, in this case is Joe the Cutter.
After 43 years in the business, Raico decided not to stick around to see his industry completely die, due to rampant outsourcing (today only 5 percent of American clothing is made in the U.S., compared to 95 percent in 1965), and Levin catches up with him just as he opts for early retirement via a buyout.
“All we did was work hard to support our family,” Raico, a sturdy-looking man with a goatee and a thick Queens accent, said in Toronto. “We’d like to do that again.”
Schmatta points out: easier said than done.
Once Levin had gotten past the initial fear that the collapse of Wall Street made his film about clothing irrelevant, the director realized that the parallels between the two stories only made his documentary more powerful.
“As we looked at what we’d already started shaping, I thought, this is more relevant. This only underscores everything that we’re doing,” Levin said, over a plate of pasta at an Italian restaurant in downtown Toronto.
He was further inspired when, while filming the Marc Jacobs show during Fashion Week, he looked up at the stage and thought, “The economy has no clothes.”
“All the bullshit they were telling everyone, economists were basically saying, ‘Long skirts are in, short skirts are in, pleats are in...’ There was no science to it, there were no facts to it… So I think [the collapse] just renewed—it traumatized us at first—but it renewed our sense of trying to enlarge the scope of the film.”
Although Schmatta was originally planned to chronicle a specific time-frame—the seven months between February 2008 and September 2008, when the spring and fall fashion shows take place at Bryant Park—Levin and his team began gathering more historical material, and directing their lens, literally, on Wall Street.
To seamlessly hold it all together, the filmmakers put more focus on the score, which was expanded by editor and co-producer Richard Lowe to include an All-Star list of Americana favorites, including “Rhapsody in Blue,” “America,” and, of course, “Rags to Riches.”
“It became much more musically driven,” Levin said. “It became much more dependent on a soundtrack that somehow moved you through all this, and made it organic—made it seem like you’re watching a movie, not just a bunch of fragments.”
As a filmmaker, Levin has traditionally tackled subjects a bit more gritty than fashion—the Sundance-winning feature Slam, and documentaries such as Thug Life in D.C.; Mob Stories; Execution Machine: Texas Death Row.
Asked if Schmatta was a less-challenging project than he’s accustomed to, he exclaimed, “No! Those are easier!”
“Tomorrow I’ve got to get back to Newark”—for the Sundance Channel documentary series Brick City, about Newark Mayor Cory Booker (Levin co-directed the series)—“and I’ve got the Bloods and the Crips, Sundance is freaking out, ‘Is there gonna be a shootout?’
“But that feels easier. With this, I was faced with trying to make it make sense and be digestable for an audience that’s got to be entertained.”
Levin shrugged and rolled up another bite of pasta. “That’s not easy.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast correspondent for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.