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On the stretch of midtown Manhattan that tourist maps describe as Fashion Avenue and the locals know as the Garment District, you won't find too many believers in the quaint notion of poetic justice. Sweatshops, loan sharks, bent unions and call girls are as much a part of the fashion world as the pins, needles and illegal aliens who sew $1000 suits for $4 an hour.
Go ahead. Call Michele Maher a "garmento." She won't mind. The writer and director of the independent film GARMENTO spent three years working in New York's fashion industry in the early 90s, first as a junior designer and then in sales at various fashion design houses. "It wasn't until I was out of the business that I realized what an unbelievable story I had lived through," Michele Maher says of her stint on Seventh Avenue.
To fashion lovers, the garment district (an area of about 30 blocks southwest of midtown) is home to the headquarters of household names like Calvin Klein, Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. But to the SEC and U.S. Attorney's office, it is better known as a business district rife with corruption. From the infamous 1911 fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory that killed 146 female garment workers to the Luchese family's illegal control of the district's trucking unions starting in the 1950s, the garment district has regularly fed the news with tales of shady business practices and corruption. The 2001 headlines featured the conviction of fashion executive Elliot Lavigne (former CEO of Jordache Enterprises) for money laundering and Calvin Klein's multi-million dollar lawsuit, later dropped, against his licensee Linda Wachner for cheapening the brand by selling his jeans to discount stores.
GARMENTO is an insider's look at the seamy side of the fashion business, as told through the fictional fashion house of Poncho Ramirez Inc. We meet Poncho and his staff in the early 90s, at a time when the company is floundering, desperately trying to recapture its 1970s glory days as a designer jeans trendsetter. When the company decides to relaunch the designer jeans line, their public success is marred by behind-the-scenes misdoings from lying and backstabbing to counterfeiting.
Director Maher says that the story, with " a little embellishment", is based on a combination of her experience at all of the design houses where she worked, "When you watch it you will think the things that are in fact true were made up, " she says. "The truth is crazier than fiction."
After her time in the garment industry, Maher moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career. It was there that she reunited with college friend director/writer Reggie Bythewood (DANCING IN SEPTEMBER, HBO) who encouraged her to write a screenplay about her experience on Seventh Avenue. " I made a short film called *69 which screened at festivals and aired on public television," Maher says. "Then I started writing GARMENTO." It took her about two and a half years to finish the script.
Production on GARMENTO began in late fall of 2000. "When Susan Shopmaker came back to me and said she liked the screenplay," Maher recalls, "the wheels were set in motion." It was Katie MacNichol, GARMENTO'S "Grindy Malone", who originally suggested that Maher contact the New York casting director. "I had met Susan once during an audition and knew that she uses many of the good New York theatre actors," MacNichol says.
In fact, Shopmaker's only restriction was that she would not chase after a Hollywood name for the film, since she believed that the New York talent pool had what GARMENTO needed. "She was right, and the cast is phenomenal," Maher says. "And in the end, this story could only be told through a strong ensemble cast because there is no one main character."
David Thornton who plays Ronnie Grossman agrees. "GARMENTO is interesting because it's about this world-the world of the garment industry, of New York City business," Thornton says. "It's not any one person's story, and therefore not a traditional leading man's role, because all of the other characters are integral to that world."
When Thornton first read the script, another movie immediately came to mind for him-the 1950's sharp-edged drama about the cutthroat world of New York media, THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS. " I thought the script had tremendous potential, but of course, I didn't know where Michele was going with it," Thornton says. "It could be pushed in an edgy direction or it could be a TV movie."
Ironically, actor Jerry Grayson, who plays Ira Gold in GARMENTO, had the same reaction upon reading the script. "I go by texture, what a film feels like viscerally," Grayson says. "The closest analogy I could think of for the feel of Michele's script was THE SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS." Needless to say, Thornton and Grayson found a lot to talk about on set during production.
Another serendipitous event was the fact that Saundra Santiago (Franca Fortuna) and Thornton (Ronnie Grossman) had worked together once before on NEW YORK UNDERCOVER. "I killed him," Santiago recalls with a laugh. "I had a ball working on Garmento," she adds. "Low budget films can sometimes be tedious. But this script was so funny that I looked forward to going to work everyday, and loved every minute." "
This was a wonderfully collaborative effort," says Grayson (Ira Gold). "Michele was open to suggestions and easy to work with." In fact, Grayson swears that only once in his career did he have a better experience, on the movie STRIPTEASE with Demi Moore. "Three months in Florida with a bunch of naked women â¤| I mean, I was driving the teamsters in the morning! I couldn't wait to get to work!"
For MacNichol (Grindy), the experience of seeing Maher's script come to life was personally gratifying. Maher and MacNichol had once performed together in "The Misanthrope" at the Westbeth Theatre in New York, and MacNichol had read many early drafts of the script. She even knew Maher during her "garmento" days. "I remember when Michele was working in fashion, and the glamour of that world," MacNichol recalls. "And I also know that Grindy's storyline comes from Michele's perspective of her having felt like an outsider in that world."
GARMENTO was shot on location in the winter of 2001 in Maher's old stomping grounds, Manhattan's garment district. The most critical location, Poncho Ramirez's office headquarters, was the most difficult to find. "It was getting close to shooting and I began pounding the pavement looking for a showroom," Maher remembers. "No one was very excited to have a cast, crew and equipment come into their offices for two weeks and completely take over the entire space. Making films is not very glamorous."
One day, Maher walked in unannounced to JOE BOXER'S headquarters (where she had once interviewed for a job) and met with office manager Steve Newlin, who introduced her to VP Colette Sipperly. Within days, Newlin, Sipperly, and CEO Nick Graham read and liked the script, and JOE BOXER's showroom headquarters in the heart of Times Square became the location for Poncho Ramirez, Inc. "JOE BOXER made a huge contribution to GARMENTO," Maher says.
Conceivably, JOE BOXER could make yet another "huge" contribution to men's fashions. As the manufacturer of the Poncho Ramirez padded-cup brief featured in the movie, JOE BOXER is now the official underwear of GARMENTO. The first 5,000 pairs arrive from Taiwan in September 2001 and will be used for promotional purposes, but industry insiders are wondering, "could it be American men's answer to the Wonderbra?"
Maher suspects it could be, but laughs at the idea that she is trying to make a feminist statement with the "cup." " I was inspired by a particular designer's underwear ads where the crotch area was just a little larger than life," she says. "When I'd walked by a bus stop or a billboard I'd think, "There has to be a sock in those undies because no man is THAT big!' "