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The Tomes of 2015

In his latest column, Colin McDowell reviews the best fashion titles released in time for the holiday period.
  • Colin McDowell

LONDON, United Kingdom — The fashion adage that death needs pearls, attributed to Diana Vreeland (erroneously, I suspect) is as crass as the belief held by some fashion magazines that pictures of clothes need colour. It is a belief that has bedeviled the fashion book for years, making it the bimbo of illustrated publishing: pretty, but dumb. By and large for clothes, line, volume and scale are much more important than colour, and they are much more easily understood in black and white — things colour normally distorts.

Which is why "Dior by Avedon" (Rizzoli, £115), published by Rizzoli and priced at a whopping £115, is worth paying for. The work of one of fashion's great creators (many would say its greatest), photographed by a truly great photographer whilst the couturier was at the top of his creative stride, printed to the highest standards, simply can't be cheap. As every fashionista knows, quality doesn't come at a bargain price. So, take a deep breath and hand over that card. You are buying a masterclass in design, photography and fashion history — you will not regret it.

Along with Irving Penn, Richard Avedon was the greatest fashion photographer of the late 20th century, and it all started with an assignment to shoot the collections in Paris in 1947 — the year of the “New Look.” Catching the spirit of Paris and using top models such as Susie Parker, Avedon took fabulous, statuesque pictures but he also had his models running across roads, sheltering from the rain, roller-skating in the Place de la Concorde. Couture had never been treated in such a light-hearted way before. Dior by Avedon is a history of a perfect creative coalescence: a magazine (Harper’s Bazaar); an editor (Carmel Snow, who is credited with giving the “New Look” its name); a fashion editor (Diana Vreeland who later lured Avedon away from Harper’s when she became editor of Vogue; and an inspirational art director (Alexey Brodovitch). It was the sort of marriage of true minds that could only have been made in heaven, and only happens once.

True high fashion was in its death throes only 10 years after Dior’s sudden death in 1947. In this book, what has been lost is beautifully, amusingly and dramatically photographed, to be relished in the same way as a vintage car or classic wine.

Impossible Wardrobes (Rizzoli, £85)

Tilda Swindon is an actress whose performances have a refined assurance and perfect understanding of her roles. The same is true of her appearances as a fashion and photographic model. A beguiling mixture of femininity and androgyny, on the catwalk or in the studio, Swinton is always commanding — in the least bombastic way imaginable. Olivier Saillard, meanwhile, is the director of the Musee Galliera in Paris, a post he has held since 2010. He is a searcher, looking for a deeper meaning in clothes, which the normal fashion show or glossy magazine rarely exposes.

An interesting pair. And, to prove it, they set out to look at 20th century fashion in an entirely new way. They are not the first nor will they be the last, but their approach will probably remain the most intelligent for some time to come. "Impossible Wardrobes" is the boxed three-volume chronicle of their search for meaning, similarities and wearability of clothes in three shows in different Paris venues. Pretentious at times, naive at others, these investigations should nevertheless be read and re-read by everyone involved in fashion design. They are both a revelation and stimulating.

Diana Vreeland: the Modern Woman — The Bazaar Years 1936–1962, edited by Alexander Vreeland (Rizzoli, £40)

At first glance, this book might seem merely another trawl through memories of an extraordinary woman and a visionary fashion editor. Even devotees — of whom Vreeland has many — might ask: 'What's new?' And there is an answer. What raises this book above the rest is that it replicates the actual pages laid out by Vreeland, as seen in Harper's each month from the '30s to the '60s. They elevate the book to the level of visual primer: a 'how to' for stylists, photographers, models and, above all, art directors. From the art of the cover, to the jewellery and beauty pages, the reader is electrified by the verve and courage of a woman who worked with the aforementioned Alexey Brodovitch and used the greatest photographers: Lillian Bassman, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Martin Munkacsi and Richard Avedon. As this book shows, Vreeland — who once declared, 'Elegance is Refusal' — knew more about the value of white space and the pithy epithet than any other editor of her time. Look and learn, mes enfants.

Kimono: The Art And Evolution Of Japanese Fashion (Thames And Hudson, £50)

Every fashion library needs certain standard reference books, even when some of them are written in impenetrable ‘Acadamese,’ a language only  understood by calling out across the scholarly wastelands where few are attracted to tread. My own library has a fair few such books, gathering dust and taking up space. Almost unreadable and certainly not exciting, they are frequently not nearly as erudite as their authors think they are, and only too often have the damp smell of warmed up theses, revived to make a buck or two or ensure tenure.

So that is why I am excited about "Kimono: The Art And Evolution Of Japanese Fashion" (Thames and Hudson, £50), a collection of exceptional essays expertly edited. The book makes a complex, historic and artistic story a clear, informative and valuable one. After all, Japan is one of the world's great creative hubs and possibly the only one in Asia that has had a consistent material influence on the West, especially in fashion. The boldness and radicalism of designers such as Rei Kawakubo and Yohji Yamamoto has consistently enlivened and advanced western fashion for several decades, and continues to do so. And, at the heart of it all, is the kimono, a seminal garment. Why do I find this volume so valuable? It is because Japan is valuable to modern design, as anyone who reads this book, written and curated by the right sort of academic, will very soon realise.

Fashion: A Timeline in Photographs — 1850 to Today (Rizzoli, £50)

"Fashion A Timeline in Photographs: 1850 to Today" is a labour of love by one of the most reliable and informed fashion scholars in the United States, Caroline Rennolds Milbank, who, as an author, curator, contributor to major fashion exhibitions and Sotheby's expert, has a remarkable CV. Milbank's breadth of knowledge spans the whole period the book covers with equal authority, from La Belle Epoch, to the early years of the 21st century.

This is a timeline made up entirely of contemporary photographs. In the earlier years, therefore, pictures show not models professionally shot for glossy magazines, but family snaps. They give such a marvelously clear picture of how women actually looked in the dress of the time that one can only regret that professional models and photo-shoots became more prominent in the second half of the twentieth century.

This does not diminish the value of this book at all, but it does have a major design flaw. Placing the valuable notes to the pictures in a big chunk at the end of the book limits the ease with which the reader can coordinate picture and commentary. It would have been so much better to position them at the end of each section (the book is divided into decades), but this is only a small quibble. Costume designers, fashion designers, stylists and editors will find this book as invaluable as the general reader will find it engrossing.

Bottega Veneta: Art of Collaboration, (Rizzoli, £90)

Bottega Veneta became an intellectual player after it was acquired in 2001 by Gucci Group (now Kering). It was going through a bad period, with no one quite sure how to direct a series of disparate and by no means leading designers. Tomas Maier, who Tom Ford appointed creative director of the house in 2001, changed all that very quickly, showing the quality of his mind as much in his approach to advertising, as in his design.

"Bottega Veneta: Art of Collaboration" is a very large catalogue raissoné of work produced for Maier by a roll call of the world's top photographers, from Nick Knight, Annie Leibovitz and Steven Meisel to less familiar talents such as British photographer Robin Broadbent, whose still-life studies of Bottega Veneta classic leather are an echo — and a very strong one — of Irving Penn's classically-still, individual photographs of objects. Traces of Penn's photographs of Issey Miyake's work can also be detected in the advertising campaign by Robert Longo. Strangely distorted shapes, bizarre poses and lots of pure white space make Longo's work stand out from other campaigns by more famous photographers, far too many of which seem pedestrian.

Fashion and The Art of Pochoir (Thames & Hudson: £50.00)

The beginning of the 20th century, when fashion artists were becoming aware of the power of photography and the effect it could have on their craft, was one of the great moments in fashion illustration. To counter the speed and cheapness of the lens, Pochoir was created: a technique using stencils that allowed only pure pigments to reach a surface of a page. It was comparatively easy and cheap to reproduce illustrations in bulk, which was essential for the increasing number of fashion journals appearing in Paris. Pochoir also had the advantage of being very flexible and open to wide interpretations and techniques by many different artists. But the real value of Pochoir in those days, was that the stencil could be reused many times to produce pages rapidly and cheaply.

The possibilities for the techniques for illustration and magazines were obvious. Couturiers such as Paul Poiret realised its potential very quickly and began to use artists to draw their collections to distribute to their customers. These vignettes of the high fashion life of Paris, showing the mode of the day, had a delicacy and refinement not seen since the days of Watteau. Paul Iribe was generally considered the master of the genre, closely followed by George Lapape and George Martin, all of whom worked for high class journals such as La Gazette du Bon Ton and Vogue. Their drawings were often witty, showing ladies of fashion wrestling with an umbrella in a high wind, trying to restrain minute dogs from quarrelling with larger dogs and engaged in a little discreet flirtation with elegant young men. Light hearted though they were, the clothes were drawn with the great precision required by customers, couturiers and artisans who needed not just an impressive image, but a delineation. In its clarity, Pochoir perfectly answered their needs. Nowadays collectors eagerly seek out Pochoir drawings. This beautiful book captures the mood of a great period of fashion illustration at its stylish and wittiest best. I loved it.

Giorgio Armani, (Rizzoli, £100)

"Giorgio Armani" is a very beautiful and distinctly no-nonsense book, by and about a designer who spent many years at the very top of the fashion tree — simply by ignoring what other designers were doing and following his own aesthetic. By doing so, Armani made himself one of the most influential designers of the 20th century, with an approach more purely modern than most.

Looking back on Armani's career through the pages of this book, it is clear that he was — at the height of his powers during the 1980s and 1990s —  not just a trailblazer, but a revolutionary in both men's and womenswear. Like Calvin Klein in the 1960s and 1970s, Armani manage to create clothes that were both totally modern and beautiful, through his ability to merge form and function. Almost like a scientist, he re-examined everything and, in the case of menswear, came up with a young, fresh approach to the suit by deconstructing it to make it easy to wear and comfortable. While other designers — Versace, Moschino — were being exuberantly Italian and playing recklessly with pattern and colour, Armani's Italian influences were much more sober, infinitely more considered and even pious in their purity.

And much of this comes through in the photographs, largely black and white, which are frequently more akin to architecture and abstract art than to the clothes of his fellow designers, not least in the images of Aldo Fallai, who understood better than any how to capture the essence of Armani fashion. Armani's creativity is fading now, but as this book makes clear his name is up there with Vionnet, Madam Grès, Balenciaga and Yves Saint Laurent as a designer who, at their best, made people like me proud to be working in an industry capable of producing such giants.

Giorgio Armani, like the Bottega Veneta book, raises the question of the value and purpose of the designer book. Such books can be seen as the ‘real deal,’ worked on and husbanded by the designer himself, or as nothing more than an exercise in vanity publishing. They usually tend to be bland and tightly controlled, and with every page requiring a nod of approval from the designer himself: only the designer’s voice is allowed within the covers. What I longed for in both books was a sharp flurry of salt (or even vinegar) to cut through the honey of egos exceedingly well disposed towards themselves.

Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue, (Phaidon, £100)

Finally, a welcome re-issue. Grace Coddington, once an anonymous fashion stylist on American Vogue is now the quietest and most private of fashion's international superstars. She shot to fame in "The September Issue," a film that surprised everybody as the assumption had been made that it would be editor-in-chief Anna Wintour who would be the star. Coddington stole the show for her superb indifference to the filming as she quietly fought for the pictures she had styled. This is a beautiful book of her work, for which she is generally considered the most consistently perfect of all fashion stylists, and has a fabulous cartoon cover of her by Michael Roberts. The book became an instant collector's item. It sold out very quickly and second-hand copies have reputedly been changing hands for many hundreds of dollars. It has now been re-issued by Phaidon as "a taster," for their own Coddington book due out next Autumn. Put your order in now and start saving the pennies.

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