The Vogue On… Designer series has been debuted this month by the good folks at Quadrille Publishing with a bumper crop of revered designers. Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel (of course) have been given the Vogue treatment in four not-quite-pocket-sized, accessibly slim volumes.
It’s hard not to notice the proliferation of Vogue-themed books that are starting to dominate this winter’s output of fashion books. We have this series to contend with, the release of Vogue: The Editor’s Eye with Abrams, Grace: A Life by Vogue’s popular creatice director Grace Coddington with Harper Collins and the updated version of In Vogue: A History with Rizzoli. Vogue literally has a book in every good publishing house.
Quadrille are a publishing house better known for their beautifully presented cookery books – all of which are rich, aspirational snapshots of a distinctly culinary lifestyle. They are also the publishers of one of my favourite fashion books, Celia Birtwell, which is a very sweet, visually appealing travel through a life not totally untouched by scandal – a scandal that is almost totally ignored (and with good reason – the book isn’t a biography). It’s with that in mind that I read the Vogue On… series. I have no expectations of hearing about Coco Chanel’s anti-Semitism, McQueen’s demons or the cultural implications of Dior forcing corsets on a generation of women who were finally beginning to liberate themselves. It’s all about the clothes – the designer’s lives are told through their body of work.
The books are beautifully presented, with half slipcovers revealing full-scale covers of fashion plates and portraits of the designers previously seen in Vogue. Almost every illustration and photograph came originally from the magazine. The writers of each book are also Vogue alumni, with varying results.
It’s incredibly hard to say something new about Coco Chanel that hasn’t already been said before – unless it’s to praise or denounce her. This book chooses to do the former. While Chanel’s activities as an Axis spy are up for debate and might have no place in this book, the omission of her attempt to wrest power from her Jewish partners, the Wertheiemers, through exploitation of anti-semitic laws is far too wrapped up in her legacy and her work not to be dealt with. Chanel was an incredibly complicated person, as women put under intense scrutiny usually reveal themselves to be. There is an imbalance between dark and light here, so the Chanel we read about is a little lopsided; a frivolous aesthete instead of a ruthless businesswoman. Illustration-wise, there is much that we haven’t seen from Vogue’s archives and this book is worth buying on pictures alone – sketches by Beaton and Berard, dresses from the Twenties, reams of colourful costume jewellery and some salient but not overused snippets of wisdom from the woman herself.
I gave this book to my mother (who is, admittedly, not a huge McQueen fan) to flick through and she had the bulk of the book finished in twenty minutes. “It’s very accessible, isn’t it?’ she said to me on handing it back. And it is accessible; an accessibility that (joyfully) directly contravenes the drama and violence of McQueen’s work. Written by Chloe Fox, Vogue on Alexander McQueen is a easy, pleasant, well paced read. The photographs are a great mix of the social, catwalk and editorial and build up a great picture of one man’s singular working life. McQueen fans aren’t going to encounter anything that they haven’t seen before, but this is a great place to start – a lovely addition to any bookshelf.
My incredibly biased favourite in terms of photographs and illustrations, Vogue on Schiaparelli is chock-a-block full of beautiful, masterly fashion plates from the golden age of art at Vogue. Schiaparelli’s Surrealist leanings were tailor-made for full-colour, semi-abstract drawings and the book is full of them. Schiaparelli herself was a bit of an elusive figure, often left in the shadow of her couture nemesis Chanel. While we follow her life and work the enigmatic Schiaparelli who emerges from the pages of this book is strangely bloodless and monotone in contrast with the vibrancy of her work. What does emerge from the work, though, is a picture of a woman only now starting to get her due. Again, well worth buying for the photos and illustrations alone.
We all know about the label, but delve into your fashion knowledge and you may find that you know close to nothing about the man – not surprising considering that Dior’s career at his eponymous house would last only a decade. I there’s one word that sums up this volume, it’s ‘elegant’ – all clean lines, arched brows, long swan-like necks, the quizzical expressions of Lisa Fonssagrieves and the perfectly composed black and white photographs of Avedon. The story of Dior’s career is dealt with in a breezy, pacy style in an easy read. Accessibility, again, is the watchword.
The Vogue On… Designers series is published by Quadrille and is out now.