It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Four books are currently sitting on my bedside table: In My Shoes (Tamara Mellon), the Jimmy Choo co-founder’s autobiography; The Compass of Now (DDNard), a part-coaching, part-autobiography book teaching you “to be happy and fulfilled regardless of the circumstances”; The Making of Her (Susie Nott-Bower), about a makeover TV show and The Secretary: A Journey with Hillary Clinton from Beirut to the Heart of American Power (Kim Ghattas).

Last December, I vowed not to spend another penny on books until I had read all the ones I currently own. In keeping with this resolution, I haven’t paid for any of these titles. The deviance is that back in December, none of them were on my shelves. The Compass of Now and The Making of Her were both sent to me for review by PRs, In my Shoes and The Secretary were both lent to me by friends.

Not buying books has had an unexpected effect: I read less and I am actually less focused on what I read. I flit around from one book to the next. Discovering that I hadn’t read 15 books in the past four months, a low figure for me, resulted in some reading introspection.

At first, I struggled with the sudden decrease in my reading rhythm. Devouring books is part of who I am, it’s why I choose to spend so much time on my own.

I looked at the practical reasons. Since realising, during the February Tube strike, that taking the train home would save me between 20 and 30 minutes a journey, my public transport reading time has shrunk from 45 minutes a night to 15. I am working on the launch of a site about women, foreign policy and education, scheduled for September, and the time I invest in it isn’t spent reading. Since I was a child, I have preferred reading over doing. Deciding to launch this website, putting together its critical path to hit the self-imposed deadline and realising the work that needs to go into it, has forced me to rethink this.

Shifting priorities and shrinking time on public transports aren’t the only reasons for reading less. I only realised the third explanation after seeing Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent. The film brought back my Saint Laurent obsession and I re-read Lettres à Yves (Pierre Bergé), extracts of which feature in the movie, Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Marie-Dominique Lelièvre) and The Beautiful Fall (Alicia Drake)in the space of ten days. This was reassuring (I can still read!) but more importantly, it showed me the role of flow in my reading habits.

Choosing books linked to what is going on in my life at a given moment is key to my reading. I am not one to pick titles based on glowing reviews or on what’s in the 3-for-2 promotion at Waterstones. All the unread volumes on my shelves tell the story of what I was doing when I purchased them. Laurence Benaim’s Yves Saint Laurent was my first biography of the couturier, bought at his Petit Palais retrospective. The Cairo Trilogy (Naguib Mahfouz) was my way to investigate the Arab Spring and to learn more about a country I had holidayed in and had studied at university.

When I don’t read a book at that specific time however, the momentum is lost. Purchasing The Buddha and Dr Fuhrer an Archeological Scandal (Charles Allen) was logical when I was working at the British Museum, helping put together a catalogue for a Buddha exhibition in China. Although it still sounds intriguing, it makes less sense now.

Of course, this made me question the sustainability of my book-buying habit. Not only did I spend significant money for the purpose of a gratification that never came, but that money has been immobilised ever since.

Not buying books was the answer to a financial imperative. As I near 30, not saving money starts to be more irresponsible than carefree. Tying up money in books is less financially viable than investing money in fashion: whereas I can re-sell the latter for a decent price on eBay, the going rate for a read book is often too low to make it worth more than the read, or so I tell myself. Considering the number of second-hand books I have purchased online for £0.99, I am only too aware of this. Arguing that books are an intellectual investment is only valid if I actually read the books.

2014 is meant to be the year where I reap my investment. Unexpectedly, the self-imposed ban has had another consequence: for the first time, I am asking for things in the name of this blog.

Trying to figure out how I would cope without buying books for a year, I suggested last December I would ask publishing houses to send me books to reviews. So far it has worked, thanks to the launch of Books4Media, a platform linking industry PRs with journalists or bloggers. This is how I learnt about the publication of Suffragette Autumn, Women’s Spring, of The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War and how I got in touch with Lynn Michell at Linen Press. Most books on Books4Media are from small publishing houses who are more than happy to put me in touch with their authors. This fits nicely with my desire to base more Fashion Abecedaire articles on people and to celebrate achievements, especially women’s achievements.

The most unexpected thing to come out of these four months though: I haven’t even been tempted to but a single book. Not once. I am planning to spend the next quarter investigating that change.

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: book review, first person,.

Classy Film: Quai d’Orsay (The French Minister)

Some childhood dreams are hard to let go. For me, it’s the determination I had, aged 12 to 18, to do my higher education at Sciences Po Paris, then the ENA, followed by an obviously brilliant career as a diplomat for the Quai d’Orsay, home to the French ministry of Foreign Affairs. Neither four years at the LSE or four years of project management for a luxury British brand have deleted it.

Having followed a different path, I satisfy the child in me by watching and reading endless material on these three French institutions. Quai d’Orsay, a comic book turned feature film about an ENA-graduate working as the Foreign Affairs minister’s speechwriter, ticks all my boxes. Add to that a healthy dose of humorous criticism of the French administration, first class acting and directing, and you get a film I just couldn’t not like.

The original comic book is based on former Foreign Affairs minister and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin’s time at the Quai d’Orsay and builds up to his Security Council speech against US intervention in Iraq. It is inspired by co-writer Abel Lanzac’s (real name Antonin Baudry) time as cultural and economic advisor to Villepin. Written by the comic book authors Christophe Blain and Lanzac, the movie closely followed this scenario.

Quai d’Orsay opens with Arthur Vlaminck (Raphaël Personnaz) trying to work out what to wear to his interview with Foreign Affairs minister Alexandre Taillard de Worms (Thierry Lhermitte). He settles on a pair of white chinos and some square, dirty shoes, a choice that has the civil servants he bumps into laughing and makes him feel out of place. Although very much an administration insider through his ENA training alone, Vlaminck is an outsider and the viewer’s eyes through much of the movie because of his novelty to the ministry, a status exemplified by his wardrobe faux pas.

Lesson learnt, on his first day, Vlaminck switches to a dark suit, though not a matching one. It earns him some advice from one of his more careered colleagues: try wearing a matching suit but avoid black, especially with a black tie and square shoes or risk looking like a bodyguard.

Vlaminck’s dress sense is a recurrent theme of the first half of Quai d’Orsay, as he tries to find his footing as a speechwriter, to figure out what Taillard de Worms expects and learn to navigate the system. He gets a schooling in office politics when Valérie Dumontheil (Julie Gayet, who, when the film was released, was known for her acting work, rather than as François Hollande’s mistress), the Quai’s Africa specialist, compliments him on his first speech, hits on him and makes fun of his poorly-ironed collar and his polished shoes, only to backstab him in a team meeting ran by the real Quai boss, Claude Maupas (Niels Arestrup, awarded a César for this role).

Dumontheil’s character is in itself a criticism of the administration. She is the only high-level woman in the team. All the other women featured are secretaries, or Vlaminck’s girlfriend. The Quai is a testosterone-charged universe, with the expected ribaldry. After Dumontheil publicly destroys Vlaminck’s speech with her criticism, one of their colleagues explains him that this is the Quai’s way of fucking, before illustrating it with a saucy song. Considering there is a gratuitous shot of Dumontheil in her underwear half-way through the movie, director Bertrand Tavernier might have missed the sexist angle of his story.

Criticism of the administration, for instance how the Quai d’Orsay doesn’t have Internet access (I’m not sure if this is still true), is only a small part of the scenario. At the heart of the parody is the minister, rather than his civil servants. Taillard de Worms’ personality oscillates between the ridicule of a five minute speech on the importance of getting the right yellow highlighter - because he needs to highlight the best sentences in everything he reads, especially Heraclitus’ Fragments, his trusted-to-the-point-of-absurdity text - and the eventual greatness of his UN Security Council speech.

Heraclitus and the highlighter obsession are not the only two jokes from the original comic book that Tavernier translated well on screen. Another of his coups is Taillard de Worms’ way of walking into rooms: he sends all loose sheets flying and the secretaries sitting on piles of paper to prevent disaster the second they hear him coming.

Between these funny moments and the insider look I crave to the Quai d’Orsay, this was never the film which was going to quash my childhood aspirations. Instead, it got me googling madly for documentaries on l’ENA.

Quai d’Orsay will show at the Ciné Lumière, followed by a Q&A with Raphaël Personnaz, as part of the Rendez-Vous with French Cinéma festival on 28 April 2014.

Posted at 1:15pm and tagged with: Classy film, france, politics,.

From news reports to charity appeals, highlighting the plight and hardship of Syrian children has become a way to get the Western public interested in the civil war that’s divided the country for the past three years.

Sumia Sukkar's first novel, The Boy from Aleppo who Painted the War, aligns with this trend though in a much more moving and effective way than any reportage can achieve. “Fiction raises awareness by creating well-rounded characters in a situation, bringing to life the pain and suffering. I aimed to bring to the surface the cry for help from the heart of the Syrian war, hence, raising awareness”, the author explained in an email interview.

We meet Adam, the 14-year-old narrator who lives in Aleppo, Syria’s largest city and the object of a bloody military confrontation since 2012, just days before war breaks out. Adam likes painting, Adam likes his older sister Yasmine, and Adam likes watching American movies. Adam doesn’t like noise, Adam doesn’t like when people shout at him and Adam really, really doesn’t like when things get in the way of his established routine. Yet Adam’s life, pre-war, although seemingly comfortable, wasn’t fully sheltered: he lost his mother to an unnamed illness and he suffers from Asperger’s syndrome.

Of Algerian and Syrian descent and raised in London, Sukkar was inspired by her own relatives and their experiences of the war to write The Boy from Aleppo. “Most of [Adam’s] family members are based on my family members and my memories of them from when I visited Syria. From there, the characters wrote themselves, depending on the situation they were in”, she remembers.

By her own estimate, “more than 50% of the book is fiction”. The rest is based on real stories she has heard and been told.

For the character of Adam, Sukkar “did countless months of research and went to Autism foundations and met autistic people”. She uses the three main areas of difficulty for Asperger syndrome sufferers, i.e. social communication, social interaction and social imagination, as well as the characteristic love of routine, special interests and sensory difficulties (as described by the National Autistic Society) to construct an effective story.

Electing to have a young Asperger sufferer for narrator works because it highlights the sheer absurdity of war. First person narrators are by nature unreliable, yet Adam’s very condition, his difficulty in reading social signals, make the tale more poignant and believable. When an adult narrator would rationalise, when an adult narrator would hide part of the truth so he can better deal with it, Adam just describes and never hides his lack of understanding. “I wanted to portray this horrid situation through the eyes of a delicate and innocent young man. I wanted to rid Syria of judgement and show it through a pure mind. Syria deserves this much”, Sukkar says.

Most of the book’s events, from the happiest to the most horrific, ring true. Thanks to Adam’s creativity and imagination, Sukkar tells a story of war through two key senses, smell and vision, making reading her novel a realistic and vivid experience. For example, Adam discovers that the house next door is used to store cadavers through the stench emanating from inside the building, invoking a more horrific reaction in the reader than any straight description would.

Although Adam’s brothers are siding with the Syrian opposition, this isn’t a political tale. Adam repeatedly expresses his surprise that the two fighting sides are so hard to differentiate, when encountering them in the street for instance. By choosing to remain above the political debate, Sukkar develops a novel which talks of the horror of modern warfare and which anybody, no matter their location or their life experience, can empathise with.

I have been reading a few first novels for this blog and so far, The Boy from Aleppo has been the best written. It is also the only one whose author studied creative writing at university, making Sukkar a poster woman for how important it is to train in a discipline that many like to consider intuitive. The course enabled the author to find her voice. “It helped me know my strengths and weaknesses. This influenced the writing of my novel. I learnt many things that I have implemented. Taking a creative writing course helped me transfer my thoughts and ideas into a novel”, Sukkar explains.

Next, she is planning to do a master’s degree in creative writing and publish a sequel to The Boy from Aleppo. But before that, she’s started another, very different novel. I can’t wait to read it.

A complimentary copy of The Boy From Aleppo Who Painted the War was kindly provided to me by Eyewear Fiction for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Sumia Sukkar on 21 March 2014.


Posted at 8:05am and tagged with: book review, writing,.

Food, Fashion, Beauty and Culture: My Toulouse Coups de Coeur Addresses


Les Sales Gosses, 7 rue de l’Industrie, 31 000 Toulouse

Worth a visit for the concept alone, Les Sales Gosses is a booking-compulsory restaurant where dishes and décor are inspired by childhood memories. For instance, the round hand soap in the toilets is attached to the wall, as in every French primary school. The à la carte menu (€17.50 for two dishes at lunchtime, €29 in the evening) changes regularly. For starters, my sister and I enjoyed breaded Camembert with sautéed vegetables and a soft-boiled egg with mash potatoes and a mustard emulsion. Steak with old-fashion vegetables and Kiri soft cheese-ham ravioles with courgette spaghetti followed. The café gourmand looked really good too: a cup of coffee with a Kinder egg, cotton candy, Malabar-flavoured ice cream and a slice of cheesecake.

Le Paradis du Fruit, 10 place du Capitole, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 1)

The go-to place for healthy lunches, brunches, breakfasts and dinners, the Toulouse version of the Le Paradis du Fruit franchise doesn’t disappoint. I’ve had some bad experiences in Paris with restaurants in the chain, but this one serves fresh food at a good price point. The menu offers real choice: for instance, you can pick the base for a salad and the proteins to add to it. I had Chinese cabbage with avocado and grilled king prawns, my friend had spinach, mushrooms and tomatoes with salmon (both €11.90). The sauce is automatically brought on the side. Make sure to look at the dessert menu and its decadent ice cream compositions. My personal favourite: the Parad’Ice with whipped cream, strawberry and raspberry and mango sorbets as well as fresh mango and strawberries (€9.50).

La Gourmandine, 17 Place Victor Hugo, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 2)

Imaginative, tasty cuisine and swift service at this French cuisine restaurant. Each dish offers a take on traditional, often local, flavours - for instance a trio of foie gras, each cooked differently, or duck confit and duck filet spring rolls. If you go at lunchtime, don’t miss the great cheese shop offering French, local and international cheeses just opposite the restaurant.

Le Bibent, 5 Place du Capitole, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 3 and 4)

The most expensive of the four thanks to its incredible location, bang on Place du Capitole, and its Michelin-starred, Parisian chef-owner Christian Constant, Le Bibent mixes traditional French and Southern cooking. I had a foie gras-based starter and a beef stew for main, two tasty and comforting dishes. Located in a renovated 19th century brasserie, with an original Belle Epoque decoration, Le Bibent is worth a visit for the surroundings as much as the food.


Nude by Emi, 12 rue Léon Gambetta, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 5 and 6)

A new-ish shoe brand my sister swears by, the Nude by emi store is a bit off centre. It’s worth the few additional steps though: in the girly space, you’ll find ballerina shoes, lace-up brogues and Chelsea boots in an array of colours and prints. Everything is made in France and is of the highest quality. My personal favourite: the Bonnie (€59). This style comes in the same shape for the left and right foot; each shoe takes the shape of your foot as you wear it. I own them in three colours: lacquered turquoise, bright blue velvet and salmon leather.

Repetto, 25 rue de Metz, 31 000 Toulouse (photo 7 and 8)

Repetto stores are the same everywhere, so why this particular one? Customer service. The sale assistants are knowledgeable about the brand and helpful. As Repetto expands its range to include elegant, ballet-inspired womenswear, comfortable, pop colour trainers and fruity fragrances, the Toulouse store is a great space to experience its latest offerings. Make sure to try out the handbags (from about €500), which are perfectly finished and light to carry.


Spa Carita, 12 rue Ozenne, 31 000 Toulouse

A nice enough spa, served well by its employees and its products, but it lacks in serenity and is a bit pricey. As for the Spa Nuxe in Paris last summer, I went with my sister and we were disappointed. I chose the papaya face care (€69). The best part was a sunflower seed and essential oil exfoliating cream, sadly not available as part of the Carita offering because of how messy it gets: you have to rub it in until the essential oils have been completely absorbed by the skin and nothing but the sunflower seeds remain.


Le Musée des Augustins, 21 rue de Metz 31000 Toulouse (photo 9 and 10)

The city’s fine arts museum, this convent-turned-museum houses sculptures from Romanesque times to the early 20th century, alongside paintings covering the same period. Schedule about 90 minutes for the visit (€4), and be sure to stop at the small monastic garden that’s filled with aromatic herbs. My favourite part: a brick staircase where sculptures by local artist Alexandre Falguière feature, both in plaster and as a finished bronze or marble.

L’Utopia, Impasse du Château, 31170 Tournefeuille

A cheap, charming cinema in the Toulouse suburb of Tournefeuille, L’Utopia shows small films d’auteur you won’t find anywhere else in Toulouse as well as Hollywood successes in the original English. Here again, the décor is half the experience, with old-fashioned seating, beautiful wooden stairs and fireplaces inside the cinema. There’s also a garden and cafe to have lunch in between showings.

Previous Coups de Coeur addresses: Paris

Posted at 3:26pm and tagged with: france, address,.

I heard from Lauren Zwaans, founder and editor of online Australian fashion magazine The Urban Silhouette, before I even started reading her website. Last summer, Lauren messaged me on LinkedIn to say she was moving to the UK and that working for the company I work for was one of her London goals.

Lauren has been working three desks down from me as a sub-editor for five months, which tells you a few things about her: she knows what she wants and she knows that the best way to get it is to ask for it. It also tells you a few things about life in general: LinkedIn can be an effective way to reach out to professionals, if you know what you want it’s easier to ask for it and you have nothing to lose.

Below, she shares her method for juggling a day job and editing a magazine, her unique way of combining fashion and politics and her feelings when writing about Charlotte Dawson’s suicide.

Why did you set up The Urban Silhouette (TUS)?

I started The Urban Silhouette shortly after leaving my job in news. I’d been working at a metropolitan newspaper in Australia and I was ready to have more creative freedom with my writing. I’m passionate about the fashion industry, so the site was always going to be fashion focused. The site is Australian focused because Australia has some of the most talented and innovative designers in the world. I also subscribe to the idea of buying locally wherever possible. Supporting the next generation of young designers is very important to me too, so a local flavour and a focus on young designers has always been a big part of what we do at TUS.

You have contributors to the site. How do you manage them and ensure quality across all articles?

I have a fantastic team of contributors and I feel very privileged to work with them every day. My phone and I are joined at the hip and I’m forever typing emails on my lunch break and on the Tube on the way into work. At night, I’m always sat in front of the computer subbing work and responding to emails. It’s sometimes a tough juggling act, but it feels worth it! Our contributors are all handpicked and most of our writers have a background and formal qualifications in journalism or media, as well as a demonstrated interest in fashion and beauty. Having said that, I’m a bit of a perfectionist, so everything is subbed by me to ensure that the site has a consistent tone.

TUS focuses on Australian fashion. How do you combine this with living in the United Kingdom?

With some difficulty! I am working for a fantastic British heritage brand in London and I’m learning so much about the industry. I really love the brand and London is such an innovative and inspiring city that it brings me many fresh, new ideas for where I want to take TUS. Having said that, TUS has always been largely Australian-focused, so being in London I feel slightly out of touch with what’s happening at home. I’m very reliant on my team, who remain Adelaide-based.  As always, we’ll have attendees at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week and we’ll continue to bring readers high quality interviews, runway coverage and collaborations with Australian designers.

You don’t write that much anymore but you did write the article on TV personality and former model Charlotte Dawson after her suicide. Why was it important?

I moved over last August and spent a few months travelling, then it was on to London, where I was fortunate to fall on my feet and land a job within a few weeks.  It’s meant that things have been much busier than expected. When I started TUS more than three years ago I did all of the writing myself, and now I’m lucky to write an article a month. Instead, most of my time is spent subediting, responding to emails, liaising with my team and planning our major projects – I’m working on a biggie with our graphic designers and developer at the moment - so stay tuned!

When it came to the Charlotte Dawson article, it was a particularly important one for me. I don’t pretend to know her. I was really just a fan who watched her weekly on Australia’s Next Top Model. I felt that her death was a great loss for the Australian fashion industry and we needed to say something on the subject. I’m a firm believer in high ethical standards for journalists. Sending a message into the public domain that is read by thousands of people is a huge responsibility, and it’s not one that I take lightly. My time working in news and, even beyond that, my years working with journalists as a political adviser, really affirmed that for me. I hope that what was written about Charlotte was done so with sensitivity and respect. I really admired her outspokenness and the way she fearlessly stood up for what she believed in. I don’t imagine that’s an easy thing to do when you’re in the public spotlight.

In the past, you have worked for political parties and homeless charities in Australia. How does that fit in with/feed your interest in fashion?

I suppose if I’m honest it probably doesn’t to a large extent, although there is some overlap. For instance, I love the idea of buying less and buying better and I think the luxury brand I work for definitely falls into that category. That concept fits with my ‘green’ views. Like most people, though, I’m not one-dimensional. There’s so many issues and subjects that I’m passionate about and I do have a strong social conscience. It can actually make life a little bit annoying at times, like when I’m juggling 10 grocery items because I’ve forgotten my reusable bag and I don’t want to take a plastic one, or when I feel immense guilt for throwing food out because I know there are people in the world who literally don’t have anything to eat today.

My work in the fashion industry is ‘me’ time and after my previous roles in news, politics and the not-for-profit sector, it’s a welcome change. I know I’m not saving the world, but I am loving every minute of it. I love working in a creative space with like-minded, innovative people. Having said that, I’m so passionate about the political party I worked with in Australia, the Australian Greens. I’m in awe of the Greens’ MPs for staying true to their values and for really doing all that they can to make Australia a better place. I’m grateful that there are people like them.

You’re the third subeditor I have interviewed for this blog. Do you think there is a link between being a sub and starting a blog?

I’m not sure whether there’s a link! I kind of fell into a subbing role and it suits me well because I am a bit of a perfectionist, so much so that my year 12 English teacher gave me a quote that said ‘Aim for Success Not Perfection’ when I finished the course. I put it up in my home office for years. When it comes to subbing, however, if you’re not aiming for perfection, you might as well go home.

I think most subeditors start their careers as writers and they’re usually quite disciplined types, so perhaps they’re more likely to start a blog and stick with it? I’m really not sure, though; I’m thinking aloud!

Posted at 5:41am and tagged with: blogger adventure,.

With local and European elections just around the corner, this spring is a good time to revisit how many of us women, but also men, have enjoyed the right to vote for less than 100 years.

Ian Porter’s Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring is a reminder that until 1918, non-propertied men, like the main character Alexander Nash, weren’t allowed to vote, and that until 1928, neither was any woman.

Porter packs a lot into the 374 pages of his second novel, including a lot I had never thought about: the Titanic as a defining moment of class identity, the difficulties of the shipwreck survivors, particularly the ones from steerage, and the specific struggles of disabled people who lived in the early 20th century, like “the cripple suffragette” Rosa May Billinghurst.

Although I like to think I am a feminist, Suffragette Autumn was a humbling read, highlighting how little I know about the suffrage movement. The gap in public knowledge about right to vote demonstrations is one of the reasons why Porter decided to write this book. “Before starting to research Suffragettes, I was shocked by how little I knew of them. And I was supposed to be a women’s early 20th century historian! If I knew so little, it was reasonable to think that most people were similarly ignorant,” explains Porter.

Looking into the topic, Porter discovered that his usual go-to places, like the local library, didn’t offer a single book about suffragettes. “TV, the great driver of public interest, has avoided the subject for the past 40 years. I suspect it’s because the women come out of the story well, whereas the government come out of it badly, but it could be argued that the women were terrorists. And in the troubled world we live in today, TV doesn’t want to show terrorists in a favourable light”, is how Porter explains the lack of knowledge in the movement.

With Abi Morgan’s upcoming film Suffragettes, starring Meryl Streep as Emmeline Pankhurst as well as Carey Mulligan, Helena Bonham Carter and Ben Whishaw, this might be about to change. At least, Porter hopes so: “I would imagine that with such a big star on board the film will receive a lot of publicity, so hopefully this will lead to plenty of interest from the public. Being a political issue, there is always both a right and left wing version of history, hopefully there will be plenty of debate and argument from women’s groups, historians, politicians, documentary-makers about women’s issues 100 years ago, how they relate to women’s issues of today and what we can learn from history, both regarding women’s issues and fights for a fairer society in general.”

The Pankhurst family, one of the driving forces behind the UK suffragist fight, appears in Suffragette Autumn, even though the storyline doesn’t centre on them. Ruby Martin, who survived the Titanic thanks to Nash, joined Sylvia Pankhurst's East End movement shortly after returning to England. She became an employee and was involved in high-profile publicity stunts such as the 18 April 2013 capture of London’s Monument and Emily Wilding Davison’s protest at the June 1913 Epsom Derby.

Historians still disagree what Davison aimed to do when she threw herself in front of the King’s horse, was injured and subsequently died. Porter was careful not to take side.

A horseracing fan himself, Porter based his writing for the scene on two 1913 films: “The old theory that it was sheer chance that she happened to collide with the king’s horse is less persuasive. One thing is for certain, she did not ‘throw herself under the horse’ or ‘commit suicide’ as some people have believed over the years.” Based on the clearest of the two films, Porter thinks there is a possibility that “Emily did target the king’s horse and tried to place her Votes for Women scarf in its bridle. Her scarf was found on the turf afterwards. And having been to Epsom I can see how the incident was possible.”

Although a book about women’s right to vote, Suffragette Autumn isn’t a gendered story. Each chapter shows how much the suffragist movement was supported by men as much as women. Nash, who joins as Sylvia Pankhurst’s bodyguard, was modelled on “Kosher Bill, a Jewish 6-foot tall, ex-boxer”, explains Porter in his author’s notes. Ruby repeatedly notices that men make up the majority of attendees at suffragist public speeches. “Look at any old photograph of a Suffragette giving a speech, and all you can see is a group of men surrounding the woman. Working class women were too busy working 14 hours a day in a factory or sweatshop, or bringing up large families, to be at political speeches.”, Porter explains.

Obviously, the author himself is a man. “I have always had an affinity with the viewpoint of women and my main interest whilst studying history at university was women’s history, particularly in the 19th and early 20th century. Perhaps it’s because I am particularly interested in inequality and unfairness, and of course much of this has been aimed at women throughout history. I would like to think that I have approached the book as a novelist, a historian and a socialist, rather than as a man. Purely on a practical writing side, my wife was my editor, so if anything didn’t ring true to her, she would put me straight.”

Like Nash, Ruby is inspired by many real-life suffragettes, a storytelling device which allows her to be in multiple interesting places. Porter actually apologises to some of the suffragettes he replaced for the purpose of the plot, particularly to the memory of Mrs Watkins, who met with Prime Minister Asquith in Ruby’s stead to convince him to grant women the right to vote.

Constance Lytton, a real-life member of the Pankhurst’s Women’s Social and Political Union never mets Ruby, yet her activism is felt through one of the most harrowing scenes of the book. Jailed for partaking in suffragist demonstrations, Ruby start a hunger and thirst strike and ends up being force-fed. The torture, which was repeatedly used against suffragettes, as well as its effects, were described by Lytton in her memoirs Prison and Prisoners and was the basis for much of what Ruby undergoes in jail.

In memory of every single one of these women, and men, who gave time, money or even their life “to the cause”, go and vote on 22 May.

A complimentary copy of Suffragette Autumn Women’s Spring was kindly provided to me by Troubadour Publishing Ltd for the purpose of this review.

Exclusive email interview with Ian Porter on 1 March and 16 March 2014.

Posted at 5:51pm and tagged with: book review, feminism,.

Classy film: Yves Saint Laurent 

I normally use the “classy film” label for any and all film reviews I post, but rarely has one been so deserving of the title. Jalil Lespert’s Yves Saint Laurent biopic, which got unprecedented access to the Saint Laurent archives, is as elegant, as high-octane and as fashionable as the man himself.

The film starts shortly before Saint Laurent took over at Dior (1957) and ends with the Ballets Russes collection (1976). Two decades of revolutionising fashion and giving more power to women through the way they dressed. But also, two decades of drugs, alcohol and tumultuous love.

Packing 20 prolific years into 110 minutes was risky. At times, Lespert walks a very fine line between cramming short, almost cameo appearances by all the Saint Laurent legend-makers (Betty Catroux (Marie de Villepin), Loulou de la Falaise (Laura Smet), Karl Lagerfeld (Nikolai Kinski), Anne-Marie Munoz (Adeline D’Hermy) etc.) and lacking depth and substance.

Guillaume Galienne, who plays Pierre Bergé, Saint Laurent’s partner in business and in life, explains that Lespert first described the story to him as inspired by Amadeaus. He wanted to “show the creative process through a couple, through a love story”.

Despite hints of Saint Laurent’s fashion process, including a scene showing him create his iconic Mondrian dress, and hints of Bergé’s business genius, the core of the film is the Saint Laurent-Bergé relationship.

Everything has been written, especially by French media, about both men. At the French Institute UK film première, most questions focused on the contemporary perception of Bergé, who’s renowned as being a bit of a bastard.

But this isn’t a film about the Bergé of the 2000s, the political man and the guardian of the YSL legend. This is a film about the Bergé from the 50s through to the 70s, a man who always walked one step behind his partner and who then barely figured in the YSL public story. Gallienne, whose father did business with Bergé and whose mother dressed in Saint Laurent, acknowledged that he was not fond of the character at first but developed a tenderness for him as production went on.

"This is a story about how you love - and live with - a genius. The guy [Saint Laurent] comes home and he’s just had sex with half the planet, he’s a manic depressive and he’s high on cocaine… but they loved each other, not for who they wanted the other to be, but for who they were", he explained to the Daily Telegraph fashion editor Lisa Armstrong, who was at the French Institute.

As well as characters, Lespert namechecks numerous iconic YSL moments: La Vilaine Lulu, the comic book about Saint Laurent’s devil alter ego; his erotic drawings; the launch of Rive Gauche, the first pret-a-porter brand; the Ballets Russes collection…Anybody can see the film and enjoy it, but some background knowledge will help understand how significant some of it is.

This is one of the reasons why I find Entertainment One’s decision to release a dialogue-less English trailer surprising. So far, coverage in the UK has been dominated by fashion publications, or for broadsheets, reviews written by fashion editors. Outside France, where Saint Laurent is a cultural must-know and the biopic reached nearly 1,000,000 tickets at the box office in two weeks, this is unlikely to be a film people go see because they happen to be at the cinema at the time it is showing. I doubt trying not to scare viewers away with subtitles will change that.  

Choosing to advertise the movie with a silent trailer means people will miss out on Pierre Niney’s absolute accuracy in reproducing Saint Laurent’s particular way of speaking. To nail it, Niney worked with a voice coach for five months.

He also trained with a physical coach, a necessity since over the course of the film, Saint Laurent goes from the good looking designer posing naked for the launch of his first fragrance, Pour Homme, to a man puffed up by drugs and struggling to walk.

Saint Laurent is seen sketching dresses a few times. Lespert was adamant Niney would have to be the one doing the drawing on screen. For five months the actor, who says he “sucked” at sketching, took lessons with a former Saint Laurent collaborator, a woman who worked with him in his last years as a couturier.

The film received full backing from Saint Laurent Paris and the Kering group (the brand’s current owner). Last October, Hedi Slimane, current YSL creative director, shot Niney for a feature in Le Figaro focused on Yves Saint Laurent. Niney was front row (next to Lespert and Bergé) at the Spring/Summer 2014 menswear show. The house dressed him at the Césars awards in February, and likely for most of the film promotion - although suit credits are hard to find.

Earlier this month, Niney released a three minutes short for Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, La Nuit de Pierre Niney (last picture). It highlights, in black and white, his vision of a Parisian night, from the Comédie Française to the bar Montana through the Tuileries. The short is part of a series of nine films broadcast on French TV in March. It is a nice attempt at marketing story telling around the men’s fragrance La Nuit de l’Homme.

Chanel, with both the face of Chanel No.5 Audrey Tautou and house muse Anna Mouglalis appearing in biopics about its founder, respectively in Coco avant Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, had a similar brand and cinema tie in in 2009.

Niney is the Jennifer Lawrence of French cinema: an actor in his early 20s, heralded as a genius by his more seasoned peers, who can do no wrong and who fashion houses would really like to partner with. As the luxury sector tries to redefine the celebrity game, making sure there is something beyond a contract and money tying a house to a name in the public eye, cinema seems to be a good way to ingrain affinities in the collective consciousness.

Not that it is anything new. Yves Saint Laurent himself took advantage of it. His collaboration with Catherine Deneuve was immortalised in the career-defining Belle de Jour, which he created the costumes for, ensuring the names Saint Laurent and Deneuve would forever appear together in almost every single fashion report about either.  

Posted at 11:21am and tagged with: Classy film, yves saint laurent, Brand communication,.

Classy Film: 20 Ans d’Ecart (It Boy)

It’s easy to be pleasantly surprised by a film you expect little of. Aside from Pierre Niney, the youngest French actor to join the Comédie Française, a state-funded theatre troupe created by Louis XIV, 20 Ans d’Ecart had no name attached to it which shouts “great film”. Not that it is one, but the script and the actors do add up to an enjoyable 92 minutes of DVD watching.

On a flight back from Brazil, 19-year-old Balthazar Apfel (Niney) and 38-year-old Alice Lantins (Virginie Efira), a glossy magazine editor coming back from a photoshoot, sit next to each other. Exiting the plane after an eventful flight, Alice drops her USB stick. Balthazar’s parting words: “nice nearly dying in your company”.

Alice’s boss Vincent Kahn (Gilles Cohen) is about to leave Rebelle. Shortlisted for his job: Lise Duchêne (Amélie Glenn), the in-house, young, fun-loving editor from Quebec, and Alice. Becoming editor-in-chief has little to do with ability and everything to do with personality. “I need somebody who makes me dream. If you don’t make me dream, how can you make the readers dream?” is how Kahn justifies his favouring Duchêne to Alice.

"Making the readers dream" comes to Alice when a brief second encounter with Balthazar, to collect her lost USB stick, is mistaken by co-workers for a fling. As a picture of them apparently kissing starts making the Twitter rounds, Kahn tells Alice that her new cougar persona is finally making him dream. Alice realises that to get the editorship, she should keep up the charade of dating a younger man.

Although Efira’s character is meant to be 38, the actress was a young 35 when the film was shot, Niney 23. As a result, the 20-year age difference doesn’t seem as big as the film title would have you believe.

Either as a consequence or by mistake, the script uses the age difference as little more than a plot device, called on and discarded at will. It attempts to broach the misogyny of how society judges women dating younger men vs. men dating younger women. Both Alice’s ex and Balthazar’s dad date women in their 20s. Yet when it surfaces, at her daughter’s school, that Alice might be seeing Balthazar, the girl becomes embroiled in a fight. “You can’t go against centuries of men dating younger women” is how her ex explains the brawl.

Because the film very much deals with issues on the surface, never exploring for instance how Alice feels about herself as she dates a teenager, it walks into a number of clichés. In a break-up scene echoing one in The Rebound (2009), Alice highlights to Balthazar all the things he will want to do as a 19-year-old which she just isn’t interested in.

Fashion is another of the film’s clichés. The photographers are divas. The hairdressers are gay. The models are up for threesomes. The editrix is an ice queen who doesn’t tolerate her ideas being questioned. I’ve seen the fashion industry portrayed in this way so many times I can’t figure out any more if it’s a parody, the truth, or if fashion people have seen it and decided to embrace it.

The biggest fashion cliché of them all is Alice’s transformation from bourgeoise coincée (stuck-up bourgeoise). The bourgeoise coincée is a recurrent French cinema character, perfected by actresses like Isabelle Huppert. She comes with 5-inch stilettos, little black dresses, buns and, courtesy of Catherine Deneuve’s Belle de Jour, a wardrobe of Yves Saint Laurent.

Lo and behold, Alice starts the movie in a classic wardrobe of Dior and Saint Laurent. Her silhouette is structured, all pencil skirts and tailored shirts, more business woman than fashion editor on a street-style blog.

One of the movie’s pivotal scenes sees Alice, who’s just figured out Balthazar is her key to editorship, go to his university to pick him up. In an interview with Direct Matin, the actress explained she partnered with Isabelle Pannetier, the costume designer who has worked with Audiard and more recently on Intouchables, to figure out exactly how Alice should dress. “I wasn’t sure if she should dress super sexy or very young, with jeans and trainers. Isabelle thought we should go for sexy, which changed the character a lot”.

Alice turns up in ankle boots, a white bodycon dress with a lot of cleavage and a leather jacket. Although there is no shopping scene, no clear penny-drop moment for Alice’s wardrobe, this is the beginning of a new style, for which Pannetier was inspired by French Vogue editor-in-chief Emanuelle Alt.

By the end of the movie, Alice is still in high-heel stilettos, but she’s swapped the pencil skirts for jeans and leather jeggings. Her chambray shirts are looser, her bags less structured and she’s become a layering genius. The implication is that she isn’t trying to act young, she’s finally acting her age; in finding her sartorial style she’s also found herself. Even though this film, or the way clothes narrate character evolution, isn’t about to revolutionise cinema, French or otherwise, I really want to know what happens to her, and Balthazar, once the lights go back up.

Posted at 2:54pm and tagged with: Classy film, Vogue,.

“You saw nothing in Hiroshima.”

Watching Alain Resnais’ 1959 Hiroshima Mon Amour in the Maison de la Culture in Nevers, a few metres away from where some of the film’s harrowing scenes were shot, was quite an experience for my 15-year-old self.

Elle: Hi-ro-shi-ma. Hiroshima. That is your name.

Lui: Yes, that is my name. Your name is Ne-vers. Nevers in France.

I was reminded of Hiroshima, one of the few Resnais films I have seen, when the French director died last week. What I remember best, aside from feeling proud that my small town was on the big screen, is disgust. As Nevers is liberated, the German officer Elle (Emmanuelle Riva) had an affair with, is shot. Like thousands of other women accused of collaboration horizontale, her head is shaved.

Marguerite Duras, the Prix Goncourt-winner and Académie Française member screenplay writer, chose to set the plot in Nevers because the town’s name resembles the English word “never”. At least that’s how my French literature teacher explained it at the time, in a class dedicated to the links between the film and the Nouveau Roman literary form. Never again as everybody said after World War I, never again as the world said after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. Hiroshima is about memories that wounded survivors and their attempts to forget and get on with their lives.

Resnais’ first feature-length movie takes place in Hiroshima a few years after 6 August 1945. Elle, in Japan to shoot a movie about peace, meets Lui (Eiji Okada), a local architect, and the two have a passionate, though brief, affair. The morning after their first night together, she scratches him, reminding her of her time with her German lover (Bernard Fresson).

Watching the film at 15, I was disgusted and shocked by the scenes of her being shaved, a feeling I didn’t find again in cinemas until I saw Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book in 2006, a movie focused on a Dutch resistance woman embedded in Nazi headquarters. At the end of the war, women are shown being shaved and showered in faeces.

Even George Clooney’s more recent The Monuments Men briefly deals with the topic of women’s treatment after the war. Matt Damon finds Cate Blanchett in a Parisian prison. In the worse French accent ever attempted by an Academy award-winner, she asks him - with more than a hint of sarcasm - if he hadn’t heard she slept with Germans, a false accusation based on her working for the German officer looking after the Parisian art collection. She was actually trying to save the art by informing her brother in the Résistance of convoy movements.

Fairness is one of the values I hold dearest, which is why the misogynistic treatment of women at the Libération disgusted me at 15 like it does today. British Historian Antony Beevor describes the ceremonies of public shaving as “a form of expiation for the frustrations and sense of impotence among males humiliated by their country’s occupation. One could almost say that it was the equivalent of rape by the victor.” (The Guardian, 5 June 2009)

An entire generation was born between August 1945 and my own birth, yet we’re still funny about who was on whose side, and even more weird about talking about it. My paternal grandmother, a young dressmaker in Le Mans throughout the war years, always spoke with the utmost contempt of her colleagues who had been “fraternising with the occupier”. I was quite young at the time so fraternising was probably an all-encompassing term, a euphemism for affairs and an exaggeration for conversations. As Beevor explains, the source of this kind of contempt was more likely jalousie than patriotism. “People envied the food and entertainment these women had received as a result of their conduct”, he says.

Uneasiness about wartime has unexpected consequences. For instance, after Edward Snowden leaked classified documents about global surveillance programs, French media tried to explain why whistleblowing just isn’t a thing in France. The most common explanation was that wartime denunciations, which affected everyone, Jews, résistants, or the neighbour who annoyed you, left such a collective trauma and shame that France, as a society, doesn’t like people who tell. Apathy and cowardice were other, more acceptable, reasons.

We all like to think we would have been brave during World War II, helping the Résistance, hiding Jews and so on. These behavioural fantasies align with what we see as right in retrospect, in the easiness of academic debate rather than survival conditions. France ended up with more claimed résistants at the Libération than it really counted between June 1940 and summer 1945. If any of the conversations I’ve had were to be believed, had today’s French population been alive during WWII, everyone would have resisted.

Yet it’s not that simple, which is exactly what those movies show us, and what we seem not to learn from them. For me, the real judge of character wouldn’t just be what you would have done during the war, but also what you would have done just after, to the people who hadn’t been on your side.

Posted at 8:19pm and tagged with: Classy film, france,.

Arthur Conan Doyles’ Sherlock Holmes series was one of the first pieces of literature I read directly in English. So it figures that these great detective stories, and all their contemporary iterations, are particularly dear to my heart.

Since summer 2010, re-reading Sherlock Holmes has had a new purpose beyond improving my language grasp: figuring out what Mark Gatiss and Stephen Moffat would include in their next BBC Sherlock series.

The Baker Street Babes podcast, blog and community of Holmesians has been a key part of my (often unsuccessful) attempts at forecasting spoilers.

I asked Kristina Manente, one of the founders and the main editor of the podcast, how she kept abreast of the latest news in the Holmesian world, how much work went into each show and her thoughts on the recurrent sexism charges levied against the Holmes stories.

As Series 3 of Sherlock was being broadcast in the UK, you recorded and published episode-centered podcasts really quickly. Run us through your process to do these?

It’s a little different based on the episode. I managed to see all the episodes before they aired through either screenings or being given access, but we’re a collaborative podcast, so we couldn’t record until everyone had seen it.

For The Empty Hearse and His Last Vow, we recorded the day after, as early as many of us were able to do it. This gave us enough time to digest the episode and possibly re-watch it a few times to get all the nuances and little tidbits that we wanted to talk about. As soon as we finished recording, I went into speed-editing mode and would immediately go through the recording, taking bits out that weren’t necessary and putting it all together. We managed to get The Empty Hearse episode out within twenty-four hours of it airing. His Last Vow took a little longer, but it was definitely out within a day and a half.

The Sign of Three was different because we were given access to the episode for review purposes a few days before it aired. So we were all able to watch and rewatch it a few times and then record the episode before it had even aired. That’s a luxury, but it was really useful as we could put up the written review and our podcast review right after it aired. People were amazed at how fast we were…I didn’t spoil the illusion for them!

Now run us through how you pick your topics and prepare your podcasts when there is no series being broadcast?

It’s based on what we’re interested in talking about or if there’s something happening in the Holmesian world. We’re in post-series interviews at the moment and we’ve got a few set up. It’s nice to talk to people involved in the production of the various adaptations when it’s off air because they usually have more time and can talk freely about it since everything has aired.

We keep trying to go back to the canon as much as we can and like to do character appreciation episodes. We had our followers vote on who they wanted us to talk about and Lestrade won the first round. Mrs. Hudson is up next.

We have a massive list of things to talk about, and a lot of the time they get pushed to the side because something else will happen, whether it’s a new book or a Kickstarter that’s relevant to our interests, etc.

The Baker Street Babes website also hosts a blog where you write about all things Sherlock Holmes. How do the writing and podcast complement each other, both for the reader and in terms of how you prepare them?

Our Tumblr blog is constantly pouring out content. It’s on a queue most of the time, though if certain episodes are airing or we’ve done a podcast about something in particular, we’ll manually blog in relation to that.

Our website blog is more tailored to complement the podcast itself. We do a lot of reviews on the website and if we’re having an author on the show we get the review of their book out before the episode airs, to drum up interest and give people the chance to read it if they haven’t already.

We haven’t written a huge amount of articles at the moment, but a few are planned, and we always take guest submissions.

There are quite a few of you on the team. How do you split the workload?

In general, I handle most of the social media and general PR. There’s a Tumblr team (Lyndsay, Maria, and Kafers). We have a dedicated review team who write all the reviews (Amy, Liz, Ardy, Sarah, and Maria). I’m the chief editor, but a few of the other girls are trained in audio editing. Kafers and Liz handle some of the graphic and video work, though we also have a selection of graphic artists we use who have volunteered from fandom. We’re good about sharing information and asking for help from others and pitching ideas and deciding things as a collective body. We operate in a very flexible manner, I think.

If it’s a piece of Sherlock Holmes news, you cover it in the podcast. There’s been podcast dedicated to Mastermind, Elementary, comic books, more recently the Finger Slip webseries Kickstarter campaign etc. How do you keep track of the news and what is your relationship with PRs?

We get sent things quite often actually, which is nice. There’s a joke amongst us that I sort of know everything that’s happening all the time. I think it’s because I’m so addicted to Twitter and everything seems to appear there first, so it’s a nice surprise when we’re sent something I haven’t heard of. Since I’m head of PR and responsible for setting up a large portion of our interviews, I do inquire after a lot of things. Also, a lot of tips come in from our followers and listeners who are like, “oh, have you heard about this?”, suggesting we do an episode or write about something. It’s really nice to have that input.

How has The Baker Street Babes evolved since its first podcast in May 2011?

We’ve gotten bigger! We started with seven and now are up to eleven. Some members have left and others were invited to join. I think we’ve all grown a lot in terms of presenting and especially interviewing. I cringe listening back to some of our earlier episodes. For the past few months I’ve been doing an MA in Radio and I have learned so much, so I’d like to think the actual audio quality and editing of the podcast has gone up quite a bit. We’re experimenting more too now, doing live reports from conventions, adding some music in… It’s constantly evolving, and it’s a giant learning experience as well as edging towards a professional one, which is lovely. I can’t believe it’ll be three years this May.

You’re incredibly active across social media platforms, Twitter, Tumblr etc. How does it fit in with your podcasts and what’s your strategy for them?

Interaction with followers is the big thing. We love that, and we keep Twitter and Tumblr particularly active in order to facilitate that relationship. Also, those platforms the best ways to spread information and share news because of how easy things are to spread. We obviously share our podcasts through these mediums, but we also ask for topic ideas, questions for interviews, feedback, etc. They’re very open channels, so it’s easy to get responses and I think it’s mutually beneficial.

Organising fan-aimed events seems to be an increasingly important part of The Baker Street Babes. What was the motivation behind starting and how are you planning to evolve it?

I always loved throwing parties, so it just seemed like the next logical step to throw fandom parties. We started with just meet-ups for fans and it quickly evolved to things like Sherlopolooza (Sherlock Series 2 screening in Leicester Square) and the Daintiest Thing Under A Charity Balls (raising money for the Wounded Warrior Project during the Baker Street Irregular Weekend).

SherlockeDCC was insane and it was so much bigger than I thought it would be. When we started planning, it was just going to be a little meet-up, and then it just kept… growing. I underestimated how massive SDCC was, and suddenly we were being listed in all these event guides for what to do at SDCC and I felt the pressure of just needing to deliver. I think we did. We sold out at 400 people and Steven Moffat, Sue Vertue, Mark Gatiss, and the PBS and BBC Worldwide teams showed up, as well as quite a few other big names in the geek world. It was an absolutely mad night, but we’re doing it again and want to make it even better. We have lots of ideas planned, but as ever, timing and how to raise the money are always the two big things to figure out!

There have been many accusations of sexism levied at Sherlock Holmes, whether the original short stories and novels or the BBC scripts. As the only women-only Sherlockian podcast what’s your reaction?

The original stories were written in a time when women were seen as sub-par, and as Sherlock Holmes was written as a contemporary hero, one can hardly blame him. He’s a product of his time. He didn’t wholly hate women though, he just distrusted a number of them. It’s because we’re so crafty and think differently to men on many levels. It was something that I don’t think Holmes could wholly understand.

As with the BBC series, I don’t personally see it. I know some of the other girls do on occasion. It’s all subjective and personal and it’s good that we have a chance to discuss these things. I’ve had conversations with some of the girls and we’ve debated and agreed to disagree or have changed each other’s minds. It happens. We’ve experienced sexism quite a lot, and we’ve risen against it, we’ve debated it and posted about it and we’ve come out stronger for it. I think the important thing is to not only to discuss it, if you think it necessary, but to come out stronger. It’s a fight we’ll all, as women, have to continue fighting, and fight we will.

Posted at 7:43am and tagged with: blogger adventure, TV series,.