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Tomes of the Times

Just in time for the holidays, Colin McDowell picks the best fashion books of the season.
Cover images from Ann Demeulemeester and Yohji Yamamoto books published by Rizzoli | Source: Courtesy
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — Few of us want to wake on Christmas morning to see a weighty academic fashion tome at the foot of the bed. Usually, half-way through their sticky prose, you realise that they aren't books at all, but dissertations gussied up with a few cheap pictures. What normal person falls on such a book with yelps of Christmas morning joy and happily delves into explanations of their methodologies?

But, of course, it doesn't need to be like that and two books published by Rizzoli, which has made itself the go-to for good designer monographs, top my list this year.

Ann Demeulemeester, the Flemish designer who was one of the Antwerp Six, (a group of avant-garde designers who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp in the early 1980s), is a quietly independent and original force. In the eponymous book, she offers no maps or signposts to an understanding of who or what she is. All we get is the clothes, but unpromising as this may sound, do not be discouraged. Like everything the designer does, this volume eschews what has gone before and avoids the large format and heavy, high-gloss paper that make most fashion books impossible to hold for any length of time. Instead, Demeulemeester gives us the antithesis.

Ann Demeulemeester | Source: Rizzoli

The book is small and very thick – think Webster's dictionary or even the Holy Bible – and you've got it. Contained in a box with a black and white picture of the designer on the front, it shows up most other fashion books published this season for what they are: opportunistic, shallow, bandwagon-jumpers to be enjoyed for a few minutes and then put aside to never be looked at again.

After a brief but perceptive essay by Patti Smith, the book plunges into over 1000 images of the designer’s runway shows for men and women, none of them with any clue to date or season. What's more, there is no additional commentary apart from a brief dedication at the end of the book: “To all of the people who have believed in me... and have added their personalities to my clothes to make them complete.” This is a book not just to be cherished, but also to be emulated. It is an object lesson in how taste and logic can bring coherence and knowledge.

My second pick from Rizzoli is devoted to another directional designer of our times, Yohji Yamamoto, who has gained worldwide authority by largely ignoring what the world thinks of him. Yamamoto & Yohji is a vibrant, confident and beautifully designed catalogue raisonné of the thoughts and beliefs of one of the great trailblazers of modern fashion. It is also a glorious celebration of the man and his many collaborators, including Nick Knight, Marc Ascoli, Stephane Marais and Max Vadukul, not to mention an illuminating reminiscence from Wim Wenders on working in film with Yamamoto. The content is presented with elegance and understated modesty, yet still leaves one in no doubt as to the important position Yamamoto has held, and still does hold, on the international fashion stage. I have no hesitation in declaring this my book of the year. It will remain the classic reference for this designer for many years to come.

William Helburn: Mid-Century Fashion and Advertising Photography, published by Thames & Hudson

The iconic imagery of Avedon, Penn and Newton, the great photographers of the last century, is widely known, but few are familiar with the work of William Helburn, although he was a contemporary of all three. Examples of his work have now been collected in William Helburn's Mid-Century Fashion and Advertising Photography, published by Thames and Hudson. The reason his work is not well known, is that he specialised in fashion photography for advertising, rather than editorial. Virtually every image is new to the modern eye. This book shows that at his peak, Helburn was every bit as good as Avedon, with whom he shared a tangibly American eye for fifties fashion and beyond. And, like Avedon too, he was a protégé of Alexander Brodovitch's Design Laboratory. Although he never worked for Vogue (a career mistake one might say) he shot for Harper's Bazaar, Life, Town & Country, and Esquire, among others. Add his work for New York's top advertising agencies, and you will share my excitement and pleasure that this book has been published – better late than never.

Hats by Madame Paulette: Paris Milliner Extraordinaire

Another Thames and Hudson book forging new paths is Hats by Madame Paulette: Paris Milliner Extraordinaire, which gives a new slant on the 40s and 50s in Paris, when hats were considered as important as the rest of the fashionable outfit. Every woman of style went to Madame Paulette including Marlene Dietrich, Greta Garbo and Rita Hayworth, not to mention the Duchess of Windsor, Princess Grace of Monaco and Jackie Kennedy. Hats are typically ephemeral but, during World War II, Madame Paulette invented a true classic with the modern version of the turban, a statement look that is, even now, reinvented on a regular basis. Apart from those who love hats, this book, which benefits from a charming introduction by Stephen Jones, will appeal to a broader audience, because it is a marvellously alive recreation of an important period in French fashion.

I Just Arrived in Paris, Louis Vuitton: Fall/Winter 2014/15

When is a book not a book? When it is a box, of course! And Steidl has created both in I Just Arrived In Paris, the story of Nicolas Ghesquière's first collection for Louis Vuitton, visualised with Juergen Teller. The box contains a statement from Ghesquière and Teller about their first meeting and creative relationship and presents a portfolio of looks from the collection that reveal the inner workings of their creative minds in differently sized images. It is a concept that might bewilder initially, but grows more significant with each viewing. I do not think that books (or boxes!) should be bought as investments but I am sure that I Just Arrived In Paris will, deservedly, become a collector's item.

Monsieur Dior: Once Upon a Time

Finally, on Christmas morning, I would want to wake up to Monsieur Dior: Once Upon A Time, a small, elegantly square volume devoted to the life and work of Christian Dior from the New Look to his sudden death in 1957. Published by Pointed Leaf Press, this is a very personal account that covers those tumultuous years in great detail, and even manages to contain some previously unseen images – no small feat in a career that has been picked over so many times.

Colin McDowell is the author of Fashion Today and the Anatomy Of Fashion, both published by Phaidon.

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