I once had a chance to buy a couture suit by Chanel that was made sometime in the nineteen-fifties, her comeback years. She had closed her maison de couture, on the Rue Cambon, when war was declared in 1939, and reopened it in 1954, when she returned to France, at seventy-one, from self-imposed exile in Switzerland. The stories of her attempts to wrest control of Chanel Parfums from her partners, the Wertheimer family, by exploiting the Nazi race laws, and of her startling offer to Hitler’s secret-police chief to broker a negotiated peace with her old friend Winston Churchill—a farcical operation code-named Modellhut (fashion hat) by Chanel’s S.S. handlers—have always somewhat dampened her charm for me. But the suit was a classic tweed in opalescent pink, with flecks of mauvish blue and a selvage trim, a slightly flared skirt that grazed the knee, and a boxy jacket with her signature cropped sleeves and narrow armholes. The dealer who was selling it, a Frenchwoman, sized me up—literally—before she let me try it on. She had been keeping it under wraps in her back room like a rare piece of erotica, waiting for the right customer. Read more.

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Even for those only remotely interested in fashion, the names of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld must surely conjure a ring of Parisian chic. The former, YSL, had over the course of his 40+ year career as couturier, produced a legacy of classics such as the trapeze dress, the safari jacket, the Mondrian shift and the iconic “le smoking”. The latter, KL, is the eccentric Chanel designer with the white hair in a ponytail, dark sunglasses, and fingerless leather gloves omnipresent in the media and high society scene.

Both men debuted in the fashion world at the same time when they shared the stage at the awards for the prestigious International Wool Secretariat fashion design competition, where YSL took 1st place in the dress category and KL in the coat category. The year was 1954; YSL was 18 years old, and Lagerfeld 21.

Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld were similar and yet very different. Both were foreign to Paris — YSL was a French native of Algeria, while Lagerfeld was an expatriate German national. Both were were prolific designers and driven by a shared aesthete to clothe the female form. In the beginning they were good friends who relished in the fun and folly in the post-war French capital, working to excel in their art by day and partying and wooing models together by night.

From friends, they progressively became rivals. Perhaps this was inevitable given the intense competetiveness in the fashion world. When Christian Dior died in 1957, YSL became the house’s creative director, a glorious feat for a 21-year old. Lagerfeld, on the other hand, worked for the house of Balmain for a few unremarkable years and then struck out as a free-lancer for other designers, most notably Chloé and Fendi. As it turned out, the fundamental difference between the two men was that YSL cared about fame and glory and aesthetics, while Lagerfeld cared for self-image and money. Ultimately, the schism was complete as they diverged into two separate camps hermetically sealed off by their entourage, with the exception of one Swann-inspired minion named Jacques de Bascher who clung on to both men but died of AIDS at an early age.

Read superficially, this can be a simplistic analysis. But Alicia Drake’s book The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris goes beyond detailing the life and work of these two icons of design. She documents the generational repercussions of the socially tumultuous decades of 60s, the libertine and unrepressed 70s, and the AIDS-ravaged 80s. More than a biography of the two famous designers, it is a commentary on society at large, viewed through the microcosm of the fashion world. Her intelligent and thoughtful juxtaposition of the two men, backed by in-depth interviews and archive research over 5 years, sheds light not only on their characters and temperaments, but also the core motivation and inner drive of each.

YSL was a manic-depressive who could sketch brilliant designs for entire collections over several weeks, fuelled by nothing more than cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs, then collapse into a period of intense emptiness and emptiness. When he left Dior to start his own couture house in 1961, he had the moral and practical assistance of his life partner Pierre Bergé, who shouldered the quotidian demands of life to allow YSL to concentrate on his couture work. It was Bergé who rescued and cared for YSL through his constant battles against depression and addiction. Until the end of his life, YSL inhabited his own imaginary world where beauty reigned in a romantic past, much like the cherished memories of Proust.

Lagerfeld’s teutonic background never allowed him the luxury of being tended to. He did everything himself — his free-lance contracts, licenses, public relations, advertising, marketing, and money management, in addition to designing for Chanel and other labels. At his apex, Lagerfeld designed up to 8 collections a year. He amassed great wealth, made and broke friendships, cultivated a self-image to go with the current trend. He does not smoke, drink, take drugs or indulge in promiscuity. He is a rock, a survivor in the high-casualty world of international fashion.

Yves Saint Laurent died in 2008 from a brain tumor. He had officially retired from fashion in 2002 when his creativity was no longer in tempo with rapidly evolving trends. But Karl Lagerfeld kept marching along with the times, inventing and reinventing himself, each time better than the last and without any sign of ever stopping. Dorian Gray himself probably couldn’t outdo him.

Lagerfeld did not attend Saint Laurent’s lavish funeral with heads of state and celebrities. Perhaps he was off somewhere alone, away from the flash bulbs, to mourn a friend, an arch rival, or a decadent era, without actually having to confront mortality himself?

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970’s Paris
by Alicia Drake
432 pages

From blurb:

In the 1970s, Paris fashion exploded like a champagne bottle left out in the sun. Amid sequins and longing, celebrities and aspirants flocked to the heart of chic, and Paris became a hothouse of revelry, intrigue, and searing ambition. At the center of it all were fashion’s most beloved luminaries – Yves Saint Laurent, the reclusive enfant terrible, and Karl Lagerfeld, the flamboyant freelancer with a talent for reinvention – and they divided Paris into two fabulous halves. Their enduring rivalry is chronicled in this dazzling exposé of an era: of social ambitions, shared obsessions, and the mesmerizing quest for beauty.

As much as Proust’s madeleine evoked one man’s nostalgic memories of a far away past, a pair of Laura Ashley curtains could elicit recollections of a time back in the last decades when all things “Laura Ashley” was the rage. Invariably described as ‘quintessentially English,’ the Laura Ashley name conjured up images of pretty, romantic women and rooms draped in refined, graceful dresses and soft furnishings.

The Laura Ashley “brand” back then was based on much more than just a nebulous concept or trendy idea that other brands rely on today. Hers were beautiful, original, and quality merchandise. Laura Ashley fabrics were expensive but their goodness was palpable and their alluring motifs supremely seductive. Yet today, much of that golden glory has faded. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Laura Ashley’s untimely death from an accident at the age of 60, just as her company was about to go public. Since then it seemed like the spirit of Laura Ashley products had died with her.

Laura Ashley 1920-1985

As with most home decorators who came of age at that time, I became swathed in Laura Ashley in the 1980s when my children were born. We had just moved into a big colonial style house in Houston (as things are wont to be big in Texas), which meant that I had room upon room to play out my fancies. I wasn’t alone — it seemed like almost everyone in America wanted to turn their home into a Victorian English country cottage. The bright florals, demure pastels and stripes that were Ashley’s trademark adorning draperies, furniture, wallpapers, rugs, and even clothing were seen everywhere.

At the apex of her fame, Laura Ashley was perceived by the world as a brilliant and savvy businesswoman. But that was only peripherally true. In her biography “Laura Ashley: A Life by Design“, author Anne Sebba showed us a simple woman from Wales who was driven by her passion for fabric design to recreate a more perfect past where beauty, harmony, and serenity reigned in the home. Sebba had never met her subject and relied on archives, correspondence, and interviews of Ashley’s family, friends, and employees to write her account from a neutral, unsentimental, and unjudgmental perspective. What the author showed us was a woman full of contradictions who was a success in spite of herself. She left school when she was 16 and had no formal training of any kind. Yet she was bright and a hard worker who could teach herself to do anything from books. She was married to Bernard Ashley, a man who was somewhat of a bully, but the union suited her and together they built their business from nothing into a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Chateau de Remaisnil in Picardie, France, where Ashley lived and worked

Strangely enough, the popularity of her products never translated into real profits. The company grew “organically” without any business plan or strategy and considered by many experts to be an MBA case study for what *not* to do. “What I found when I arrived was a brilliant brand with tremendous customer loyalty and opportunities and potential, but internally a business mess,” said Ann Iverson after her tenure as CEO at Ashley in 1995. “The brand had lost its way from a design direction after Laura Ashley died, and no one had stood up and identified what the company’s point of view or identity was supposed to be.” Now, the Laura Ashley group is owned by a Malaysian conglomerate. The largest concentration of Laura Ashley stores is located in the UK with a significant number still remaining internationally.

Is it possible to conceive that Laura Ashley designs will once again come back in vogue? Laura Ashley had marketed a dream of English gentility and elegance, countryside wholesomeness and purity. In today’s Internet-speed society where fashions and trends change as quickly they emerge, it takes a driving force and an originality to propel a brand to the forefront and have it remain there. In the absence of which, Laura Ashley products risk becoming like Proust’s madeleine… an invocation of a romantic yet distant past.

Laura Ashley: A Life by Design
by Anne Sebba
207 pages

Though I am not a regular Vogue reader, I picked up this biography out of curiosity to see what Anna Wintour’s splashes in the tabloids were all about.

Although the subject matter’s interest potential is high, Jerry Oppenheimer’s work reads like a 300+ page deposition against Anna Wintour from everybody who had/has a major or minor gripe with her. It’s a heavy and boring read.

Gossip, if one can get over oneself and admit that it can be entertaining, should remain light and diverting. In this book, it is difficult to garner much sympathy for the subject or its author, much less derive the slightest enjoyment from it. I didn’t wait for the ending before I put it down.

Perhaps this lackluster effort will compel someone else to attempt a better job. But then again, when that time comes, Anna Wintour may be have disappeared completely from public interest.

From blurb:

She’s ambitious. She’s a perfectionist. She’s insecure and needy. But most of all she’s extremely successful. She’s Anna Wintour, editor-in-chief of Vogue, the most powerful arbiter of fashion and style in the world. This is the inside story of the public and private worlds of the enigmatic icon often hidden behind dark sunglasses and under the fringe of a Louise Brooks bob, a style she’s been wearing since she was a teenager obsessed with fashion in “Swinging Sixties” London. A dropout at 16 from a tiny private school, Anna Wintour grew up in a home dominated by a powerful and icy British newspaper editor father and a cold and critical American heiress mother who had a scandalous marriage. Anna Wintour has been called many things over the years: “Nuclear Wintour” by her fearful subordinates at British Vogue, “cold, suspicious and autocratic, a vision of skinniness” by Grace Mirabella, the editor-in-chief whose job she grabbed at American Vogue, and “The Devil” in a recent bestselling roman a clef, written by Wintour’s assistant. In her mid-fifties, nearing her second remarkable decade at the helm of Vogue, her story is part Cinderella, part Horatio Alger: an ambitious fashionista arrives here – from London in the mid 70s and fights her way to the top of the bitchy and very competitive fashion magazine world, artfully rafting and reinventing herself along the way. Front Row is also the scrupulously researched story of this ingular woman’s personal passions and needs, of her loves lost and won, of her battles and feuds, and of her incredible achievements.