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:
…but in bookshops, looks a little like this.
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
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.