The Business of Fashion Books

Over the last decade, the once humble fashion book has been sexed up, styled and placed front and centre on shop floors from to Boston to Beijing. To what end? BoF investigates.

Photo: BoF

NEW YORK, United States — No longer dusty tomes on Elizabethan ruffles, empire line dresses and gallant pantaloons, fashion books have left costume history behind and become fashionable. Weighty monographs, beautiful biographies, costly compilations of salacious advertising and celebutante style guides have been filling fast-growing fashion sections of bookshops across the globe.

Retailing on average between $150 and $500, with limited editions like Taschen’s tome on Valentino Garavani’s life and work priced in the thousands of dollars, fashion books have become highly desirable branded objects in and of themselves. But is the proliferation of fashion books seen over recent years a response to genuine market demand, or is there more to the story?

“I remember the year well, 2004, when Rizzoli published the big tome on Tom Ford,” recalled Jennifer Pierson, vice president and commercial director of leading publishing house Rizzoli. “The book trade reaction was like, ‘Wow we have not seen a book this big in terms of trim size, pages and corresponding price.’ [There was] a certain degree of sceptisim: ‘The book is fantastic, but how will the consumer react?’ And the consumer reaction was very strong and here we are ten years later and it’s still in print. I think that is something that we hadn’t seen prior to 2004, at least not in the same volume as we see today.”

“To me Tom Ford became a wonderful vehicle for looking at what happened with the whole business of fashion books and how consumers were reacting to both fashion and its recreation in print,” Pierson continued.

But how significant was that consumer reaction in real terms?

“I think it has changed enormously, but I still think it is still a very niche vein; you know Dan Brown sells a lot more books that the most successful fashion book will sell,” said Charles Miers, the publisher of Rizzoli.

“Publishers always said that fashion books, per se, would always have a limited audience. So few books in the fashion world are likely to be a best seller,” agreed Valerie Steele, fashion historian, curator, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the author of over 15 books on fashion. “I think that despite the incredible rise in interest in fashion as a kind of spectator sport, with everybody watching the shows live on the Internet and so on, I think that the audience for buying fashion books is still relatively limited.”

So in the absence of significant consumer demand, what is behind the rampant proliferation of fashion titles? Why do many of the largest book stores in the world stock more fashion titles than product design, architecture and interior design books combined?

“I would assume that most of the books that are published by individual brands are fundamentally vanity projects where the publisher is paid by the brand for a certain number of copies,” said Steele.

Part of the funding for increased print runs does, indeed, come from the desire of brands and individual designers  to create permanent records of their work. “I realised after I left Gucci, that I needed to own what I had done, so the first thing I did was a Tom Ford book. I did it within 4 to 5 months of leaving. I thought, ‘I’m very proud of what I’ve done and I’m going to claim it, and I’m going to put it all in a big thick book and label it Tom Ford,’” the celebrated designer told BoF’s Imran Amed back in July.

The gravitas and permanence of a book are no doubt compelling to designers, whose work is by nature ephemeral. But the promotional benefits are equally attractive. “I was very aware that I needed to promote my name, and so I was conscious of that from the very beginning,” Ford continued. “[The book] gave me the ability for magazine stories; gave me the ability to go do signings at Bergdorfs, Neimans. It was a link to keep my name alive.”

Naturally, the power of a designer name like Tom Ford can be lucrative for publishers. “We benefit very much from having one of the world’s great designers in Tom Ford or Ralph Lauren or Thomas Maier,” said Miers. “And they definitely benefit from the tangible record that a book gives them.”

But there’s more to the story.

Fashion brands, of course, have significant retail presences of their own. But by agreeing to share distribution with publishers, they are able to not only utilise a publisher’s knowledge of book markets around the world; they can also place a powerful representations of their brands, in the form of these books, in important international markets, at comparatively low cost. What began in 2004 with Ford’s desire to take ownership of his work and “promote [his] name,” has over the past decade, become a widely adopted global marketing device.

“In initial meetings, almost without exception, there is a kind of open information sharing [between Rizzoli and the brand],” said Pierson. “Where is it really important for you to be? Why don’t you list for us the places of importance, from one to ten, countries, cities, stores and we will layer that on top of our expertise. Then we have an interesting conversation about how we are able to take advantage of marketing that they are doing with the release lets say of the new collection, all that sort of thing where we match up their marketing plans with our marketing plans.”

“It is incredibly important to the fashion houses that their books are in those markets where they are targeting specific nationalities, or where they already have a strong presence from a retail point of view. Thankfully, those parts of the world that are important to the fashion houses, in terms of nationalities which are spending money, mirrors nicely with the market for illustrated books.”

Indeed, fashion books play an important role in helping brands to educate consumers in fast-emerging global markets like China, said Miers: “The books bring a certain sense of history and the brands are very conscious of the importance of educating the customer about their histories. China is a priority we are always looking to expand. We are very active in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea — all very good book buyers. But China is a priority.”

Over time, the shifting purpose of fashion books, from permanent records to marketing tools aimed at developing customers in new markets, has altered the nature of the books themselves.

“The fashion houses see the book as a way to communicate with their ‘Audience’ with a capital ‘A,’ so that is people who are avid followers of the brand, read the magazines, appreciate what the designer is doing and might not be able to afford the clothing,” said Pierson. “This is why two things are of the utmost importance to the fashion industry: number one, making something that is really consistent, representative and celebratory of their brand and, number two, wanting it to be fairly ‘accessible’ to a broader audience, from students to professionals — so wanting to make [the books] available to people who are not necessarily spending thousands of dollars on clothing each year, but who appreciate fashion.”

“The [high fashion] consumer, of course, also [reacts] to well published, well curated fashion books with a strong point of view and made in collaboration with the creative directors of fashion houses, in the same way that they might respond to couture or ready-to-wear from those same houses,” she continued.

Steele added: “[The books] are now marketed as kind of luxury items, almost like buying an accessory. $350 for a Taschen book is a lot of money, but it’s a lot less than a pair of designer shoes.”

But the phenomenon is not universally lauded. Amanda Renshaw, the editorial director of international publishing house Phaidon, told BoF: “I would very much like to do monographs on individual designers, as we do in art and architecture or graphic or product design, but we have refrained from doing it because I have found that the companies that own the designers want to have too much influence and the books become vanity publishing frankly. What Phaidon is trying to do is take an area that can be quite complex and complicated and take the reader by the hand and help them navigate their way through this world that is fashion.”

Phaidon continues to have success with more informative tomes, such as The Fashion Book and, more recently, The Anatomy of Fashion. But even a cursory glance in the fashion sections of most bookstores confirms its brand and designer monographs that dominate the genre.

“I would say the vast majority of our fashion books are very personal creations with creative talents in a house,” said Pierson. Steele added: “It’s much harder for people to publish an individual book that has no exhibition associated with it; no brand backing it and buying it for its stores as sort of a big luxury object.”

Indeed, the fashion book as an object d’art is typically far more important than the information contained within (and has resisted the broader shift, in fiction and non-fiction alike, towards digital, tablet-friendly “e-books”).

“You are dealing with people that by definition are really interested in beautifully made three-dimensional objects, whether that is a piece of furniture, a painting, a dress or a bag. That is what they are interested in — and the book is part of that,” said Miers.

Pierson put it more simply: “An ex-boss of mine used to have a note outside his room, saying ‘If you don’t think you can judge a book by its cover, you have not worked in publishing.’ People respond to the packaging.”

There are, after all, infinitely more people in the world that desire to own a little piece of aspirational design, than those who wish to learn about it.

On the subject of fashion books, don’t miss Colin McDowell’s latest column, in which he reviews Jean Patou, A Fashionable Life (Flammarion), Dior Glamour (Rizzoli) and Memos: The Vogue Years (Rizzoli)  

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  1. Interesting! The last sentence is especially apt. Shame on the consumer for continuing to focus on artifice and choosing not (or rarely) to participate in the more thoughtful interactions with this field.

    The proliferation of branded or brand-intensive books (including the dozens of books about Vogue and other magazines) counteracts critical and theoretical inquiry, for which published academic books are the still most common media outlet.

    I hope that if fashion book consumers actually go to a bookstore to purchase designer books, they will be intrigued by nearby titles like “Fashion at the Edge” or “The Anatomy of Fashion” and support independent writers and scholars as well.

    A.E. Funk from Stockholms Län, Sweden
  2. This is a great article. Only because I think it’s a pitty that people buy fashion books as coffee table books, I started to write my blog called “fashion on bookshelves”. I think it is extremely important for the fashion professionals and lovers to be curious about what the books say. Unfortunately many times the books do not really say anything but surely this is also linked to the demand. This is why good books need support.

    Asli Ozbek from Paris, Île-de-France, France
  3. Love the article….been interested in fashion books and believe they add value from the point of learning about the fashion and the industry and not just as coffee-table-pretty-pictures-prestige-kind of items (even though they do make great accessory in designing). Wondering if there is widespread interest in fashion books…would love to own coffee shop -fashion bookstore… it would be great place for learning about fashion and socializing….time will tell (pretty soon) where will fashion publishing finds its value.

    darnikk darnikk from Pittsburgh, PA, United States
  4. A book still has a certain amount of gravitas, even if it is a vanity project.

    And the price of self-publishing, whether it is a vanity project or the author’s venture meant to circumvent the publishing insutry, has fallen away to almost nothing.

    12 years ago, when I was still an academic, we had been paying a publishing house to print our conference proceedings, then shipping them out ourselves from an on-campus “warehouse.” The year my team took over, we swtiched to on-demand publishing and fulfillment, and it cost $750 per volume, which reduced our expenditures on working capital, improved our margins, AND kept us out of the “warehouse” because the printer handled fulfillment, too. Now, most publishers wil do this for free, the only charges might be cover design and editing. Granted, Fashion Books are far more visually appealing than our dry academic tomes, but the point is the same, the actual printing cost (as opposed to the production cost of writing, aranging, proofing and photography) has effectively gone to zero, so why not create them if you can handle the production costs?

    Dave Kaiser
    Business Coach to Fashion Entrepreneurs

    Dave Kaiser from Clarksburg, WV, United States
  5. Augmented Reality would be great for these types of books.

    Being Able to visualize the clothing in 3D if desired seems ideal.

    Using this technology might also make it possible to clearly show how certain garments were constructed or even initially conceptualized without additional pages.

    LXIV APPAREL from Raleigh, NC, United States