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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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

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,.

When, in February 2011, American Vogue came under fire for its laudatory portrayal of Asma al-Assad, first lady of Syria, by Joan Juliet Buck, the magazine was reproducing a glossy tradition of obsessing over the Westernised wives of Middle Eastern and Persian dictators.

Reading Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Shah of Shahs, his account of the fall of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi of Iran, I was reminded of how I first became aware of the dynasty’s existence: through a 1998 coffee-table book on legendary princesses, amongst which was the Shah’s third wife, Farah Pahlavi.

That book by French journalist Henry-Jean Servat, like most features on Iranian imperial life you could read in magazines such as Paris Match in the 1970s, couldn’t have been further from Kapuscinski’s account of fear, terror and torture.

Much like Buck's profile of al-Assad, it was all about fairy tale weddings and designer dresses, about a simple love story between a man and a woman and how good they were to their people and at modernising the country, about charity work and Western-educated women.

Western education is a key part of many dictators’ wives narrative, including for al-Assad and Pahlavi, who respectively studied in London and Paris. If they like our clothes and were educated in our universities, how can they not embrace our values and bring them back home? There is an underlying arrogance to these articles not dissimilar from the European empires determination to assimilate the world to their values over six centuries.

The Pahlavis might not have hired an American PR company to promote them in the West, but their oil money did the trick. Kapuscinski explains the frenzy governments got into the second they realised how much they could make of the Shah’s petrodollars. This focus on selling contracts to Iran might have been why foreign magazines chose to highlight the glossy, even though the state’s abuse of human right was already documented.

In her 2009 Sundance documentary The Queen and I, Nahid Persson Sarvestani touches upon the difficulty of remaining objective about her subject, something many biographers apparently struggle with. Sarvestani grew up in an impoverished Iranian family and, as part of a Communist group, took to the streets in 1979. Both her brothers were murdered by the Khomeini regime shortly after. Yet she waits until the last minute to ask Pahlavi about her husband’s regime abuse of human rights.

She acknowledges two reasons for this: a fear of her access to the Queen being cut short and her growing fondness for the Shahbanou.

When Sarvestani finally asks Pahlavi about human right abuses, the answer is a very nuanced acknowledgement

I’m not claiming that Iran was a democracy like in Europe. You have to take the conditions of the time into consideration. That was the period of the Soviet Union. It was the Cold War and it was the wish of the Soviet Union to make Iran communist and to have access to the Persian Gulf. So for the security of the country we needed a secret service. They did things that were wrong in comparison to the rest of the civilised world. If Savak was so powerful, how come they couldn’t identify the mullahs? All the leaders opposing the Shah in Iran and abroad are alive and well.

Knowing how much the wife of a tyrant is involved in his dealings can be difficult. Some, like Leila Trabelsi in Tunisia, are integral to their husbands’ reign of terror. Others, like al-Assad and Pahlavi, are seen as little more than arm candy focusing on charity and cultural work. How much can you ignore of what is going on in your own country and of what your spouse is doing? At what point does willing or self-imposed ignorance become tacit assent?


Posted at 5:32am and tagged with: magazine writing, Vogue, politics,.

"La Déca Danse", a Mario Testino-Carine Roitfeld collaboration in the May 2010 issue of Paris Vogue to celebrate the anniversary of the Serge Gainsbourg-Jane Birkin La Décadanse song, is one of my favourite fashion shoots.

Likely inspired by a 1978 Helmut Newton photo of the couple, the editorial features Daria Werbowy and Francesco Vezzoli. It earned me a massive dressing down in the Tube one afternoon by a woman who told me I should really be ashamed to read such literature in public transports. With Carine Roitfeld, you read Vogue and people thought it was Playboy.

Posted at 8:04am and tagged with: Vogue, carine roitfeld, photography, editorial,.

If Vogue is talking about it, it’s definitely a trend. In its August issue, the magazine is picking up on the growing size of the French community in London and its possible growth following François Hollande’s election.

This type of article comes back cyclically, supported by a combination of anti-European feeling, fascination for French ways and any French news affecting Britain in some way (unless you’re the Daily Mail, in which case the threat of a French invasion always sells).

As writer Kathleen Baird-Murray points out, the strength of the London French community is nothing knew. On my second day in London as a scared, 17 year-old coming to a big city and a big school, I was immediately told by the French lycée headmaster that South Kensington was dubbed  “the frog valley” because of the number of French citizens living there.

Hollande’s elections and his threat of higher taxes, is the first reason Baird-Murray gives for the number of French people living in the UK, followed by professional relocation (diplomats, French companies executives), appreciating London’s “more tolerant environment”, the British attitude to success and failure and the entrepreneurial opportunities.

Baird-Murray doesn’t mention the most recent advantage: with the current exchange rate, if you’re paid in pounds, your euros go further. With the Eurostar, and direct flights to most big French cities available at decent prices, the French go back often to stock up on food, pharmaceuticals and clothes, especially during the sales periods. Why wouldn’t they? A £160 Maje skirt costs £125 in Paris, a £69.50 Petit Bateau jumper £55. Even with bank charges, you win.

Posted at 10:12am and tagged with: france, politics, Vogue,.

This morning, I bought a terrier graphic cotton t-shirt because I had seen it on Emma Stone and liked it. I even liked the way she styled it so much I’m planning to pretty much reproduce her whole outfit. Considering the acknowledged influence of celebrity dressing, this isn’t exactly breaking behaviour, yet it is for me. The bright patent leather corset belt I used to accessorise every single navy and stripy dress with has been my drawer’s favourite every since Cheryl Cole wore it.

Yet for some reason, my reaction to what Emma Stone wears is different. Like most people, I first discovered her two years ago in Easy A, my top “film I wish I had seen as a teen”, and I have since watched every film she’s featured in. Not only does she sell me movie tickets, she also sells me magazines, UK Vogue, US Vogue and Teen Vogue this month which, considering the only publications I buy these days are Foreign Affairs, Monocle and the Harvard Business Review, is quite something. I find her a very talented actress, like the sense of humour and wit she displays during interviews and like her collaboration with stylist Petra Flannery. Although she’s 14 centimetres taller than me, I live under the delusion that what she wears would suit me too, a delusion strengthened by the fact her default outfit in street style pictures seems to be close to my favourite jacket-top-skinny jeans. So that’s how Emma Stone sold me a t-shirt, and got my eyes on a few more she wore during The Amazing Spider-Man promotional tour.

Posted at 3:21pm and tagged with: Brand communication, Classy film, Vogue, celebrity dressing,.

From Hillary Clinton to Michelle Obama, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing American First Ladies pose for US Vogue. No French President spouse however has ever graced the cover of the Paris edition of the magazine, while her husband held the job. Could Valérie Trierweiler, President-elect François Hollande’s partner, be the first to do so?

The First Lady/Partner/Girlfriend status in France is a grey area. The term doesn’t even exist in French, beyond the Première Dame translation coined from the American. Even though presidential spouses under the Fifth Republic have traditionally overseen charities and Elysée entertaining in a similar manner to their American counterparts, they don’t have any official standing à la East Wing. Nothing stops them from working, even though Trierweiler’s plan to keep her job as a journalist has already been questioned. Bernadette Chirac had an easier time with it, since she was a local elected official. Carla Bruni-Sarkozy released a single album while at the Elysée.

Until Nicolas Sarkozy’s election, French presidential spouses were women who, by their philosophy, age and fashion sense, didn’t often fit with the Vogue cover standards. Cécilia Attias could have been a strong contender, but she left too early, awarding her first interview and cover, post-divorce, to ELLE. Bruni-Sarkozy also bagged a few ELLE covers, mostly through stock pictures, and a Vanity Fair one. But no ParisVogue. ELLE France is perceived as a more intellectual, committed magazine than Vogue. Whether or not the offer was ever on the table, Bruni-Sarkozy was too aware of the luxury lifestyle raised against her husband to consider it.

The non-existant political stance of French Vogue could also explain its lack of First Lady coverdom. You couldn’t imagine Emmanuelle Alt, or Carine Roitfeld before her, fundraise for any candidate the way Anna Wintour did for Barack Obama. Whereas the American fashion industry has widely embraced the Democrat candidate, the French fashion industry is keeping mum on the subject, leaving fashion to fashion and politics to politics.

In The Obamas, a Mission, a Marriage, Jodi Kantor recounts White House staff worrying at how a Vogue cover, with its frivolity and luxury subtext, would be perceived by American Joe and Jane. Hollande campaigned on being a normal President, in contrast with Sarkozy’s perceived luxury lifestyle, and Trierweiler grounded him throughout her interviews with anecdotes of his shopping at the local supermarket. This doesn’t make her an ideal candidate for a Vogue cover. Yet her husband also campaigned on the importance of France factories and jobs and fashion represents a significant part of the country’s economy and heritage

So yes, Trierweiler should do a Vogue cover, but she should do it on her own terms. Just like Obama partly agreed to Vogue “because so few black women appeared on the covers of the major fashion magazines” (1) she should do it because we have been deprived of an ambitious career woman at the Elysee for a while, of a woman who succeeded because of her skills and craft and refused to live in the shadow of her husband. She should do it in her usual “trench-coat or blazer, simple shirt, ample trousers and small heels […] accessorized by a Gérard Darel handbag and a colorful silk scarf”, in high-street if she feels like it. Female role models are everywhere, if you can be bothered to look, but being on the cover of Vogue would make it that bit easier for girls everywhere to see, and to remember smarts can get you far.

(1) Kantor, Jodi The Obamas, a Mission, a Marriage (London, 2012) p.91

Posted at 5:50am and tagged with: france, politics, Vogue, Vogue Paris, Anna Wintour,.

This morning, I opened my inbox to emails from Vogue, Net-a-Porter, and Liberty. We’re in a recession, don’t you know it, and no one can afford to waste a sales opportunity. As the Pope (alongside every other newspaper columnist) reminded us last night, Christmas is, first and foremost, a commercial feast. It is also a family occasion, whether or not you believe some guy was born 2012 years ago, at midnight (in which time zone?) on a December day. Is sending an email, even one containing Christmas wishes today the ultimate form of festive opportunism and cynicism, or is it the best acknowledgment of what Christmas has become? Are customers more likely to shop later in the year if the brand sent a Christmas message? Should I even be blogging today?

Photo: White Fairy Tale Love ball, 2010 (photo : Paolo Roversi ; modèle : Natalia Vodianova ; robe Valentin Yudashkin)

Posted at 10:49am and tagged with: Brand communication, Vogue, net-a-porter,.

The first Fashion’s Night Out (FNO) edition, in 2009, was a bit of a surprise. Go shop to support fashion and our economy said Anna W., and so shopping we went.

It was a good night. We didn’t buy loads, but we did buy some. Everyone had champagne, and by the time we left Missoni half-way on Sloane Street, my friend and I were both slightly tipsy. Agent Provocateur had Ladurée macarons, Escada cupcakes, Selfridges black ice cream, Pucci small puffy pastry, Roger Vivier strawberries in chocolate, La Perla vodka cocktails… Dior was shooting its customers, mostly Asian families dressed to the nines. We hadn’t received the cocktail dress code memo…
Missoni had a stupidly cute waiter, a lot of staff on hand who, despite our clear determination to only buy their limited edition scarf, spent at least 30 minutes helping us choose the ones we’d take. The scarves were £8, limited edition for the night to benefit a charity which name I’ve forgotten. I’m pretty sure they were made in cuts from previous seasons and they aren’t that big, but who cares. They look really good, as belts and headbands.
At Harvey Nichols, we bought some bread and cheese which we ate on a bench on Oxford Street. At Longchamp, my friend bought a new pliage, the French sales assistant flirted with her, a jazz band was singing and playing the guitar, it was 10pm and all shops were out of champagne and offering sparkling water with elderflower cordial. The Longchamp guy explained the shop had been busy earlier on, with customers they’re not used to see (understand: trendy).

The 2010 edition was just a memorable. We followed the same path, Sloane Street, Oxford Street, Bond Street. There was champagne at Chloé, balloons at Marni, Poppy Delevingne in a Prada dress hopping on a cab on Bond Street. The shops were full, initially with a fashionable crowd which became younger and more North London as the night wore off. Alexandra Schulman was walking up Bond Street around 10pm and took the time to stop to be photographed with fans.

Although the FNO additions to my wardrobe were few, those two nights count amongst my best memories, above many Christmas or New Year celebrations. Even though it started off as a scheme to get people back in the shops and bring buying back in fashion, the night has turned into a general celebration of retail possibilities where, for one night, and one night only, stores understand that buying and fashion is also about the fun of the experience. I bought little on either of those nights but I went back to those shops later on to purchase items I had spotted at the time. I love them, not just because they fit me but because they constantly remind me of happy FNO memories. I missed this year’s edition, which apparently was the best and biggest so far (of course) but can’t wait for September 2012.

Posted at 9:29am and tagged with: first person, Vogue, Fashion's Night Out, Brand communication, retail,.

The Grimaldi/Casiraghi/Vogue story is a long-standing one. Grace Kelly who, long after she left Hollywood for the Mediterranean shores of her royaume d’opérette, still fascinated the Americans, graced the cover of Vogue both sides of the Atlantic a few times. Eldest daughter Caroline then took over, with a predilection for Paris Vogue and an Andy Warhol painting for Christmas 1983 which can only be described as iconic. It took longer to Stephanie to join the fold, but Carine Roitfeld did the honours with the Christmas 2008 magazine edited by the princess in the 1980s vibe raving on the catwalks at the time. Fast forward two years and it’s only fitting that, for her first Monaco cover, Emmanuelle Alt chose the new generation of Monaco royals with Charlotte and an editorial heavily accented by her partnership with Gucci.

So what does this family album tell us about the evolution of Vogue? Fourty years separate them, but Charlotte’s pictures are as sage as Grace’s. With the exception of Caroline’s Warhol cover and Stephanie’s leather-clad photos, there is no real reinvention of what being a princess means. Apparently, in the 1970s like nowadays, it’s all about beautiful dresses and expensive jewellery. Vogue, for all its sexual bravado, isn’t about to break the Cinderella myth.

Grace by Richard Avedon, US Vogue, Christmas 1971

Grace, UK Vogue, March 1972

Caroline by Norman Parkinson, feature by Roger Peyrefitte, Paris Vogue, October 1977

Caroline par Sir Cecil Beaton (?), Paris Vogue, March 1979

Caroline by Andy Warhol, Paris Vogue, Christmas 1983

Caroline, Paris Vogue, Summer 1988

Stéphanie by Mert & Marcus, Paris Vogue, Christmas 2008

Stéphanie by Mario Testino, Paris Vogue, Christmas 2008

Charlotte by Mario Testino, Paris Vogue, September 2011

Charlene by Patrick Demarchelier, US Vogue, July 2011

Posted at 10:00am and tagged with: Vogue, Vogue Paris, magazine history, photography, Monaco,.

American Vogue, July 2011 issue, page 108: Bold Type, by Jonathan Van Meter

British Tatler, September 2011 issues, page 186: Media Mogul, by Jonathan Van Meter

The publications, dates and even headlines might be different but both articles are about Tina Brown’s career, her switch from magazine to book writing to online publications and back. Both articles are the same word for word, the only noticeable differences being the focus of the introductory paragraph (on Newsweek and family life for Vogue; on her wide-ranging career for Tatler) and the lay out (Annie Leibovitz pictures only for Vogue; alongside social and personal photos for Tatler).

CondéNast publications the world round regularly publish editorials shot for one of their sister titles. This can be considered fair game, especially if the magazines are aimed at very different markets. US Vogue and UK Tatler however have a lot in common, including a love of high-fashion and en vue socialites.I haven’t been able to find any hard data to back this up, but I have a feeling that a lot of people reading Tatler would also read US Vogue. This means that, for the price of two magazines, those people got the same feature, twice. No matter how insightful or interesting it was, it’s a shocking lack of respect for the readers.

Picture: At home in New York with daughter Isabel, Photographed by Annie Leibovitz from Vogue’s website

Posted at 5:21pm and tagged with: Vogue, Tatler, Tina Brown, magazine writing,.