1978. A little girl is clothes shopping with her mother. She sinks to the floor, her eyes roaming the rows and rows of denim jeans. “This is what I want,”she says, holding up a pair of Poncho Jeans. “Those cost more than your whole wardrobe,” her mother sighs, rolling her eyes. Later that night, the little girl cuts the label out of a fashion magazine and staples it to her own jeans. It’s all about the name.
Flash forward fifteen years, and the little girl is now a young woman named Grindy (MacNichol) on the mean streets of New York and interviewing for an assistant position with Poncho Ramirez executive Ronnie (Thornton). She doesn’t have much experience, but she gets the job after Ronnie has her stand up and turn around.
She, and we, meet some of the main players at Poncho: the fiery Franca (Santiago) and her assistant Rimi (Cleevely) whose main jobs seem to be coddling the childlike Poncho (Hernandez), an artiste who just wants to make a statement; and the convivial Jasper (Harner), the salesman who rescues Grindy on her first day from making a serious fashion fax paus. Jasper becomes her best friend and confidante, changing her look and encouraging her to channel her money into her clothes. “You’ll be broke, but you’ll look like a million bucks,” he tells her.
A crisis: Poncho has designed padded underwear for men that is not selling at all (critics take great delight in calling them “diapers for the penile challenged”). Grindy convinces them that they should start selling denim jeans again, before the company goes bankrupt. Lacking the cash flow to start production, Ronnie reluctantly signs a merger with Romeo Jeans and aging swindler Ira Gold (Grayson). Although he has the money, he has no class and no understanding of the new market. He brings in his brother in law Louie (Servitto) as head salesman; a mistake, in that Louie seems to have stepped whole and breathing from an episode of “The Sopranos.” Tension rises as the jeans are rushed into production.
PR Jeans are a huge hit, and they start flying off the shelves (despite the controversy over the ad campaign, a dig at United Colors that features half-naked boys and whips). Ira predicts that at the end of the fiscal year, they’ll be able to go public, making them all rich. Grindy, her small-town girl demeanor melted by the greed of promised riches, begins an ill-advised affair with the married Ronnie. The future seems bright.
A crucial error is made, however; in the rush to production, no one has taken into account what to do if the product was successful. The warehouses are nearly empty, and it will take three months to prepare the amount of denim needed to keep up supply and demand. A decision is made to take the supply of Romeo Jeans that are moldering in storage, slap a PR label on them and send them out to the stores. After all, who would believe that they would be stupid enough to pirate themselves?
“Garmento” does a neat trick by beginning as a mildly funny slice of life about a young woman entering the world of fashion, seduces us with Mamet-worthy dialogue and characters, and ends with an abruptness that is as shocking as it is inevitable. Writer/director Maher has told her tale well, and the end result is a “Mahogeny” for the turn of the century (without the bad music or the nervous breakdowns).
The characters are a little stereotyped, but that’s ok; the important thing, for a change, is the plot. The actors are mostly impressive, aside from the monosyllabic Thornton as Ronnie (change…your…goddamn…_expression…willya?). MacNichol as Grindy begins as the sweet innocent, but her gradual descent into maddened greed is almost hypnotic. Grayson, who has a wonderful character face and a grit-filled voice, makes Ira into a compelling businessman with a flexible moral fiber. Hernandez makes Poncho Ramirez a charming eccentric, Santiago makes a wonderful bitch goddess, and Cleevely, as a sort of Mini-Franca, has the most withering stare since Elizabeth Taylor.