LONDON, United Kingdom — The holiday season is here and there are several books that fashion lovers, or indeed those buying Christmas presents for them, would be criminal to miss. BoF columnist Colin McDowell brings you his bi-annual list of the most intriguing fashion tomes, including new retrospectives on Calvin Klein and Yves Saint Laurent, how The Face magazine changed culture and Chris Moore's six decades in the photographers’ pit at the end of the runway.
Although there have been unauthorised books on Calvin Klein’s private life, this is the first one to be published with his approval — quite rightly, given that it is essentially his own look at his career, telling us what he wishes us to know.
The result is this year’s top fashion book, not only because of the high-quality production levels, but also because Klein’s hand and eye are clear on every page. He is, of course, the most interesting of all New York mid-century fashion designers and the one who will be most referenced in years to come.
Just look at the photograph on page 281: it says everything about Manhattan elegance and Klein’s perfect pitch at all levels. The perfect white silk shirt, the perfect model (Christy Turlington), the perfect photographer (Bruce Weber) and the perfect venue (the Virgin Islands).
But it is even more than that. At his height, Klein created clothes of a sophisticated elegance as cool as a building by Pawson. But at the other end of his creative span, he didn’t forget the disaffected youth and how to annex their loyalty too — from Brooke Shields to street culture, exemplified by his fragrance campaigns starring Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss.
Klein could understand all levels of New York counter-culture and sell it to the world, in unforgettable photographs. He was fearless when it came to using naked models; he and Weber created a men’s underwear range which went viral. I have been waiting for this overview of a long and influential career, as I am sure many people have. The wait was worth it.
The House of Worth was the longest-lived fashion establishment of all, being active from its inception in mid-nineteenth century France until it closed just four years from celebrating what would have been its centenary. But it was more than that. Founded by an Englishman, Charles Frederick Worth — born in Lincolnshire in 1825 — whose family was firmly middle-class until his father’s drink and debt problems meant that his son’s education was curtailed. His mother had to work as a housekeeper to feed the family, while Charles worked in a blacking factory: one of the lowliest jobs in Victorian Britain. Neither mother nor son could have imagined that such an apparently dead-end job would have led to the face of fashion changing for ever, but Charles Worth had ambitions to make his way in the growing world of retail.
For that to happen he had to be in Paris, the world’s most stylish city in the second-half of the nineteenth century. Worth moved there in 1846 aged 20, and lost no time in learning the language. By the time he was 26 he was ready to marry, choosing as his bride a woman working at the prestigious fabric shop, Gagelin and Opines, where Worth obtained a post and was soon made a partner. He began with gowns designed by himself, secretly, and made anonymously by his seamstress. The story of how he moved, found a partner and set up a business in his own name in the prestigious luxury area of Rue de la Paix is well known and yet, even today, still amazing.
How Worth became the first man to call himself a couturier, but also one of the most famous and respected men — not only in France, but across Europe and even America — is told in this well-researched and beautifully designed book.
Out of that story comes the whole history of haute couture — an invention of Worth’s that, somewhat shakily perhaps, still survives today, although on the fringe of fashion and with a market consisting largely of gowns for red carpet appearances and weddings, especially in Asia and the Middle East.
The dynasty that Worth established, whereby sons of sons took hold of the reins, as each generation in turn inherited control of the firm, lacked the strength to continue as the company slowly became more about business than fashion: a story brilliantly told in this volume. The House of Worth is in the top three for its engaging and almost-encyclopaedic text, crisp design and beautiful production. Every library should have it.
It is probably true to say that the fashion world is broadly divided into two groups when the name Donald is mentioned. Group one will look bewildered and ask “who?” and the other would become rather excited and say, “Oh, Donald!” So, who is this man who has created a marvellously stimulating book for Assouline, one of the most grand and highly respected publishers of top-quality illustrated books?
I would like to say that he is a total rarity, a complete one off. Anyone who knows the work of Viramontes will recognise elements of it, but only faint ones, the link being between the deceased fashion illustrator's famous red-and-black drawing of an abstract line of models for Halston in 1958.
But there the similarity ends. Donald is no plagiarist but a true original and what he does with the “line up” is bold, powerful and immediately engaging. The movement in these paintings bring an original eye and sense of humour much needed and appreciated by people who understand it, including Carine Roitfeld, Anna Wintour, Pharrell and Anna Della Russo and, above all, Linda Fargo of Bergdorf Goodman, who virtually gave Donald the run of the store with his drawings.
So what makes him different, apart from the fact that he is married with five children, born in Ontario and now lives in LA? He uses thick paint, large brushes, works on large scale with pure colour, straight from the pot. So far, so not unusual. But what makes Donald Robertson's work unique is his deft way with duct tape – as anyone will see in this entertaining and surprising book — which did three things for this reader: made me smile, made me think and made me want.
Just when you think everything possible has been said about Yves Saint Laurent, the man, the creator and probably the most brilliant couturier since the fifties until his death in 2008, up pops a cheeky little boy book called "All About Yves." And it is exciting. While it may not be of interest to the hard-core fashion follower, it is very much of interest to the general reader, including students and others, on the edge of the fashion world.
The text, written by a French academic who studied at the École du Louvre and Studio Bercot, is both illuminating and comprehensive, examining the effect of the designer's creativity — given his love for literature, opera and fine art — augmented by archival and studio material. And this is what makes this book different. Pierre Bergé actively worked with Catherine Ormen on it before he passed away earlier this year, so the overview is a panoramic one, including “removable” inserts of drawings, polaroids, official letters, and even cut-out examples of the clothes.
An enjoyable Christmas read, but also a source of useful information from the horse's mouth — including a chapter on the finances of the house — which is a clever idea because it is much more than beautiful pictures. It is a comprehensive overview of the most famous French fashion house of the past 56 years, informed with the authority of Yves' life-long partner and business controller.
We also learn about his inspirations as well as the women who inspired him as muses and friends: Catherine Deneuve, Zizi Jeanmaire and closest of all, Betty Catroux and Loulou de la Falaise. "All About Yves" also coincides with the opening of the Yves Saint Laurent Museums in Paris and Marrakech.
The Face magazine was, in its time, quite a miracle. Started in London in 1980 on a shoestring, it was the brainchild of Nick Logan, who had previously cut his magazine-teeth as editor of NME and Smash Hits. But with The Face, he set out to do something new and, it soon turned out, prophetic. It was not only new, but cheekily so, as it made a rude sign to all the more established fashion or lifestyle publications at that time.
By aiming squarely at the urban youth coming out of colleges and universities as ‘first generation’ educated — resolutely determined not to be judged by their class nor to become teachers or “pen-pushers” — who realised that The Face was the masterpiece they wanted, because it was talking to and about their generation.
I was teaching at the time in a rough boys’ school and I remember the excitement caused by each new issue. The first magazine was dedicated to the 15-to-25 age ranges which, like most magazines, was urged, but its chosen parish was the area of cities where fashion never went, where Logan knew the creative pulse was throbbing with new energy.
What impressed me most were the magazine’s design standards, exemplified by its topography — designed by Neville Brody — and especially his very strong “statement” covers. Add Nick Knight photos, Ray Petri’s Buffalo styling, Spandau Ballet: it was a breath of new air, with a faint whiff of cordite to add just enough danger and excitement to guide teens into a world that was theirs alone. Anyone interested in knowing the path along which British urban youth moved music, fashion, politics, the media and social issues to centre stage will find it here.
It isn’t so long ago that even fashionistas were unsure how to pronounce Schiaparelli's name, even though that of her great rival Chanel managed the trick of being sempiternal, as her name and brand owners along with Karl Lagerfeld continued in that way. But which woman was the better designer? Both had a serious flair for publicity, based on their ability to make friends of the creative classes of Paris, the undisputed centre of intellectuality.
Both designers had a fatal flaw, which was the jealousy of insecurity which fanned the flames of their rivalry. Whereas Chanel had no formal education but a great deal of experience of the ways of the world, Schiaparelli was from Italian upper middle-class academic stock, which gave her the assurance to make fashion not just amusing but outrageously so. “Schiaparelli & the Artists” chronicles how she and her cronies made “shocking” clothes the talk of the town. How could they not?
The line-up of Schiaparelli's friends and collaborators is certainly impressive, even for those extraordinary times. Salvador Dalí and his eccentric wife Gala, Vertes, Picasso, Man Ray and Magritte were just some of the artistic and intellectual movers and shakers who, between the late 1920s and 1939, worked with her to realise her “madcap” ideas.
But — and this is important when we think of some of the clothes produced in the last quarter century — Elsa Schiaparelli never forgot that her job was to create clothes that could be worn by chic women without anyone ever laughing at the wearer, instead enjoying the joke with her.
If one looks at her tailoring and draping today, it is apparent that, in most cases, the “madness” of “Schiap” was a controlled addition to a beautiful cut, subtleties of scale and balance at the highest levels of French couture. In many cases, the press of the time confused the singer and the song, but Elsa Schiaparelli, her collaborators and customers (including the Duchess of Windsor) knew that here was a woman who was a couturier, first and foremost, and an entertainer only when everything else about a garment was perfect. Just how successful she was is amply demonstrated by the many marvellous photographs and illustrations in this sophisticated book.
This is the first book ever devoted to a “snapper” — one of the troops who, during international fashion weeks, wage guerrilla warfare with security and PRs to get into shows and then have to fight for a place in the sweaty, jammed “pen” deemed suitable for them.
It has to be said that few of them are very good at their job, not surprisingly, considering that every day of fashion shows is one of constant stress and strain. They are the foot-soldiers of fashion weeks, but that doesn't stop them being more knowledgeable than most of the guests, including some journalists, out front.
Imagine their job. Models come and go at different speeds, according to the show's choreographer; light intensity changes as the show unfolds; and there is only one chance for getting the right moment. When the brief 15-minute show (for which they have waited maybe an hour or more) is over, they carry on trucking: pack up, race to the next venue and start all over again. Meanwhile, the journalists sip champagne with the designer.
Chris Moore, now in his 80s, is the doyen of the trade. He has been in the photographer’s pen longer than anyone else, which is why he is treated with respect by everyone, rather as the other snapper Bill Cunningham was when taking his photos of the glamorous audiences as they arrived at fashion weeks venues.
Moore started his life as a photographer in the 1950s when he was given a job in the studio of British Vogue. From there, he became a freelance photographer for various London magazines and newspapers. Then he became Suzy Menkes' catwalk photographer and his march to the head of snapper aristocracy was complete, still continuing today, although now as a freelance worker. Although not especially interested in fashion, Chris certainly responded to beauty and style, as the pages of “Catwalking” demonstrate. Split-second decisions as to when to take a photograph are never easy, but Moore caught the right moment almost always — and certainly more frequently — than his colleagues, and he still does.
It is a pleasure to see this glamorous book devoted to one of the fraternity, who have played such a vital role in picturing the way fashion has been chronicled over the last 40 years. This book is a valuable testimony, not only to an exceptional man, but also to a particular moment of fashion. In a very brief time, snappers will disappear as chronicling fashion changes for ever.
It must seem perverse to start a review of a book dedicated to the world’s top photographers, from the late 19th century to today, by saying that the words are great but the pictures are not. This book was originally published by Aperture, which brings its own high credentials but, nevertheless, it is occasionally predictable and even banal.
It seems strange that in a book on fashion photography, some photographers have one photo: others have pages of them, based on no clear logic or merit of work.
All of that being said, this book should be in every college library or art directors' desk and within close reach of fashion journalists and writers. The introduction and individual commentaries are good, but there are far too many tired and oversized images here. And there are also serious omissions. No Willy Maywald from the 1940s and 1950s, only two for Henry Clarke (compared with four for Avedon), no Ronald Traeger— not even his iconic pictures of Twiggy on a bicycle, which have become the symbols of Swinging London in the 1960s.