Fashion, The Reading List

The Reading List: The Vogue Factor…

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… by Kirstie Clements.

Clements, the Vogue Australia editor who was unceremoniously sacked in 2012, says something in her book that will really hit home with fashion journalists; a newspaper mentality is one that criticises negatively by printing negative reviews, but a magazine mentality is one that criticises negatively by omission. Kirstie Clements has a definite magazine mentality.

For from being the hatchet job that most people were expecting, The Vogue Factor is not a vicious exposé (though the less said about Australia’s Next Top Model, the better), but an informative read through the procedures and practises of a lesser-known Vogue. It’s also a timely reminder that, no matter how high you rise in the editorial ranks, there will always be some kind of invisible pecking order. The Australian fashion industry is beset with problems that are particular to a country that is relatively hard to get to, that relatively few people get to visit, with a relatively small fashion industry (According to Clements Australia has a fair amount of ‘surfies’ and ‘bogans’ – according to a judicious Wikipedia sweep, my new favourite word is ‘usually pejorative or self-deprecating, for a person with an unsophisticated background, or whose speech, clothing, attitude and behaviour exemplify a lack of manners and education). Unique problems means that there has to be a set of unique solutions, and Clements has obviously become, throughout her tenure at Vogue, an incredibly astute problem solver.

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So; not a tell-all. It’s a tell-a-little. There are no juicy anecdotes, no backwards swipes. no secrets spilled like so much Chanel nail varnish. The only sharks here are in the ocean.

Clements is at her writerly best when she’s talking about how hard it is to get tickets for Paris RTW shows, the worrying expectations put on models or the tricky art of negotiating honest content between the PR and the page. It’s very solid, and Clements comes across as a thoroughly likeable person who has no time for slug-a-beds and the unmannerly. A disproportionate amount of the book is dedicated to describing lavish press days and parties in France and New York, which can be a bit discomfiting. Is she promoting the PRs’ products all over again?

Those who want a job in the fashion industry should pick up a copy of this book. If you put down this book feeling disillusioned after finishing, that’s fine. The Vogue Factor, apart from the press day chapters, is free of the filtered, rearranged, idealised bullshit that most magazines are at pains to project to their audiences. It’s an honest look at an industry that deals quite often with fantasy and artifice. Just don’t bank on any tidbits about Anna Wintour.

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Fashion, Inspiration, Photography, The Reading List

The Reading List – Vogue: The Editor’s Eye

I went for breakfast with a good friend of mine last Sunday.  She’s a writer at a (really great) magazine and together we talked about the merits of freebies – non-editorial speak for ‘products for review’.

I was talking about getting a PDF of a book for review.  This is new.  I’ve never been given a PDF to review before, so one has to refine what it is about a book that makes it special.  You’re more focused on the contents, not on the weight and heft or how tactile the experience can be.  She said, Oh yeah, sometimes I’ll go into the beauty desk, see the YSL and think, ‘Tch, where’s the Tom Ford?’

There was a slight pause, then she said to me, “We really are snobby a**holes, aren’t we?”.

And we really are.  It was a humbling moment.

While the feel factor of a coffee table book is the thing that keeps the publishing industry alive, it’s the contents that are really important.  It’s what’s inside the file (or the lipstick tube) that counts.  I can’t believe how lucky I have been this year in regard to getting books for review.  I’ve loved reading everything and am incredibly grateful to the PRs who deem my sphere of work important enough to read their books.

So, with that earnest anecdote aside, this is a review of Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, which, onscreen, looks like this:

editors eye cover

…but in bookshops, looks a little like this.

9781419704406

Before reading the book, I took a trip to my local Eason’s to get a look at the book proper.  I found it (rather disingenuously in the ‘Health’ section), wrapped in cellophane, a tome not to be desecrated with my grubby hands.  It is huge.  Monumentally so.  It is the kind of huge that could easily cover an entire coffee table.  It has the kind of weight that potentially says ‘I Am a Very Important Book’.

The Editor’s Eye charts not only the careers of Vogue’s best fashion editors, but also plots an overarching route through the magazine’s general images, from the mid twentieth century to present day.  How did the world’s most popular fashion magazine go from this…

January 1, 1950.  Whiling away an afternoon, in dresses from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.   © Irving Penn/Condé Nast Archive

January 1, 1950. Whiling away an afternoon, in dresses from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. © Irving Penn/Condé Nast Archive

..to this?

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November 1988. The novel combination of a Christian Lacroix couture jacket with jeans, worn by Michaela Bercu on the cover of Anna Wintour’s first issue of Vogue. © Peter Lindbergh

How did it go through these changes so seamlessly? The truth is that these changes weren’t so seamless, but the fact that Vogue went through seismic shifts, multiple firings and the odd acrimonious dispute is one that the book cheerfully ignores. It’s not a tell-all; rather it is a show-all.  The focus is rightfully on the specific editors’ careers and not focused on what the editor-in-chief was (or wasn’t) doing at the time.

As an introduction to the various fashion editors who captured the zeitgeist and made American Vogue the magazine panopticon of style that it is today, it is seamless.  Each editor is introduced with an essay and a selection of photographs from Vogue’s archives.  I especially enjoyed the essay on Babs Simpson who, at 99 years old and still telling anecdotes about how she accidentally told Carmel Snow to ‘F**k off’, is the woman who transformed models from static pedestal-dwellers to real (albeit ridiculously good-looking) women engaging with the real world.

The selections of images for each editor is entirely appropriate, bringing together a vital thread or theme that runs through each editor’s work (Grace Coddington – romantic, Tonne Goodman – the healthy body, Carlyne Cerf de Dudzeele – the beginnings of high-low and street style).  Layouts are sparse – one collage per editor, then pages of one-photo spreads.  It is high-impact and very effectively done. We also get to see pictures of the editor’s themselves, their homes, their childhoods and can learn about their personal lives and motivations through each essay.

The essays are not of the same exacting quality.  While most are excellent, Michael Roberts’ essay on Coddington is rather fawning (‘best stylist in the world’ gets bandied around more than once) and reveals little about the enigmatic Grace that we don’t already know. Hilton Als’ profile of Camilla Nickerson starts as charming but evolves into a slightly heavy-handed dissection of photography and the female gaze.  On the other hand, de Dudzeele leaps out of the page with sheer personality and brio, while Phyllis Posnick’s story gives hope to aspiring stylists without suitably colourful origin myths.

The story of Vogue is reaching its zenith.  Through this book, casual fans of the magazine’s editorial team can now look at others who may have been overlooked due to time, trends or circumstance.  An excellent buy for Voguettes, wannabe stylists or those who just love beautiful fashion photography.

Vogue: The Editor’s Eye is published by Abrams and is out now.

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Art, Fashion, The Reading List

The Reading List: Masters of Fashion Illustration

Antonio Lopez

For those who missed out on buying the hardback edition of David Downton’s Masters of Fashion Illustration, fear not – Laurence King have just released a paperback edition that is ever bit as well-appointed as its predecessor.

Masters of Fashion Illustration is not a comprehensive history or even a comprehensive list of famous fashion illustrators – Rene Gruau is conspicuous in his absence. However, it doesn’t pretend to be one. The selection of illustrators profiled is entirely up to Downton (one of the best contemporary illustrators living today), who selects his personal favourites as opposed to a line up of the usual suspects. The first illustrator profiled is well-known 19th century social portraitist Giovanni Boldini, which will give you an idea of Downton’s inclination to colour outside of the lines (sorry, bad pun) when it comes to selecting his Masters.

Monvel and Brissaud

Not that this is a bad thing, of course. Delve through the book and you’ll see that Downton has impeccable, elegant taste. His selection is a mix of the well-known and relatively obscure – many of the images have been reproduced here for the first time since their original publication. There are some lovely pictures of Andy Warhol’s whimsical, feminine illustrations of shoes and Schiaparelli perfume (why do we always forget that before Warhol was an artist he was an illustrator?) and Bob Peak’s work is the stuff that Mad Men art directors dream of.

Erte

The final part of the book is a 36 page portfolio of Downton’s work, accompanied by an interview conducted by Tony Glenville. The interview isn’t as much about Downton’s career (although he does talk about it) as much as it’s about the selection process for what goes in the book – which is extra interesting, if you’re a publishing nerd like me. Downton’s work is pretty mermerising and masterful – some lines are really Impressionistic but others are so sure and deft that they are almost photoreal – it’s astounding that he doesn’t do his work digitally.

David Downton

If you’re looking for a comprehensive overview of fashion illustration, you may be better off buying 100 Years of Fashion Illustration by Cally Blackman, which is more timeline based. However, if you want to be reintroduced to some old faces and become acquainted with the new master, then this beautifully laid out book is worth buying.

Vertes

Masters of Fashion Illustration (paperback) by David Downton is published by Laurence King and is out now.

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Fashion, Photography, The Reading List

The Reading List; The ‘Vogue On…’ Designer Series

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.

Coco Chanel

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.

Alexander McQueen

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.

Elsa Schiaparelli

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.

Christian Dior

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.

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