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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During my only year in French higher education, my literature teacher imparted two pearls of wisdom to me: by the end of the curriculum, I would have enough reading to last a lifetime and there was no clever way to organise one’s bookshelves.

Bookshelf sorting has been a pastime of mine ever since I was a child. I’ve tried the by-author method, the by-collection method, the by-topic method, sometimes getting into quite anal Excel spreadsheet cross-referencing during the Summer holidays. On Sunday afternoon, I tried a new method of sorting: the books I have read vs. those I haven’t.

Book buying has been an ongoing budgetary issue. Books are heavy. Books take up a lot of space. Books are expensive. But books are also so easy to justify. I could be spending the money on less worthy pursuits, like drinking or smoking. On less lasting ones, like going out. On less educational things, like so many things available for purchase.

Books, on the other hand, are perfect. They teach me and they talk to me. They entertain me. They feed my writing. They help me fall asleep and busy the hours in between segmented sleep cycles. Books can be bought from charity shops and then it’s not just buying a book, it’s donating For The Greater Good (although not the good of the publishing industry).

Yet in 2014, I won’t buy another book until I have read all the unread and half-read ones on my bookshelf. This will be my new year’s resolution. No more book buying. My Sunday afternoon sorting was to see exactly how many unread books I have at my disposal. My estimate was around 40. I stopped counting after 52, when I realised that, unless I read one book a week, this new year’s resolution would have to carry on into 2015. Possibly long into 2015,  since quite a few  books are over 750-pages long. And we’re talking Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln here, not Harry Potter 750-pages long.

My decision not to buy anymore books had two catalysts. I feel quite shameful about sitting on this pile of books, which is essentially a pile of cash and knowledge, and not reading any of it. I might discover I hate some of them and that they should have been donated to the charity shop a while ago. I need to save money and my estimate is that I can save between £10 and £200 a month by not buying books. As I said, I am a big book buyer.

So how do I not buy a book? As stupid as this question might sound, and as obvious as the answer might be, I need a strategy. Even though I won’t be buying books, I will be reading them - and reading calls for more reading. The second I finished The Sense of an Ending, I had to find as much Julian Barnes as I could. Laura Jacob’s feature on The Group in the July issue of Vanity Fair prompted me to buy it. Hearing Lionel Shriver talk last September resulted in my buying two more novels of hers on eBay. After going to see the Yves Saint Laurent exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris in August 2010, I bought my first biography of the couturier. One thing led to another, and now there are five biographies about him on my bookshelf, not to mention one of Pierre Bergé. Just minutes ago, looking on the Oxfam Books site for the sole purpose of linking to it in this article, I got thoroughly tempted by some Ian McEwan and The Future Homemakers of America, and I don’t even know what this novel is about. Nothing deserves to be called a rabbit hole more than the world of books.

To not buy books, I will stay away from eBay, Amazon, the paved street next to work which has both an Oxfam bookshop and a normal bookshop, Waterstones…in fact, any place where books are sold. I will also refrain from the Amazon wish list or the Amazon basket, because not buying any book for 52 weeks and then bulk buying dozens on 1 January 2015, isn’t exactly the point of my new year’s resolution. I might sign up to my local library. I’ve registered on Read It Swap It, a website which enables users to swap books with others. My sister introduced me to the concept in October through Bibliotroc, its French equivalent. Except on Bibliotroc, you collect points for each book sent, which you can then spend on any book available. No need to wait for an alignment of book desires between you and another user, which makes the journey slightly better (though both sites have terrible UX). I might ask my friends more often if they have a book I am looking for. And lastly, I might just use this blog to ask some publishing houses if I can review books.

So here’s to 2014: a year of reading books, but not buying them.

Posted at 5:54pm and tagged with: book, reading list, first person, 2014,.

How do you translate a book which counts ‘Frenchness’ as one of its key charms? Louise Rogers LalaurieJane Aitken and Emily Boyce had the difficult task of co-translating Antoine Laurain’s 2012 best-seller Le Chapeau de Mitterrand (The President’s Hat), about five lives forever changed by François Mitterrand’s hat.

Gallic books, the Aitken-founded publisher that specialises in bringing French literature to English-speaking markets, picked three professionals because the tale relies on its switch from one character to the next to deploy its magic. Aitken, who did the overall editing, explains that the decision came after she noticed, “how even the best translators have difficulty make the speech of different characters sound distinctive”. 

The text was split based on each translator’s personal character affinities and previous work. Boyce and Aitken for instance respectively wrote Fanny and Pierre, who they were closest to in age. Lalaurie was tasked with translating Daniel, a continuation of the work she started for Fiction France, a magazine aimed at publishing professionals abroad interested in French literature.

To guarantee consistency, the co-translators were in regular contact to ensure they always chose the right word. According to Aitken, “there were a handful of areas where we had treated the same thing differently, but surprisingly few”. For instance, Lalaurie remembers discussing the best way to translate “what an oyster does when it’s squirted with lemon juice? Squirm, wince, retract? I chose ‘retract’ to start with but ultimately, we chose ‘squirm’: much more direct!” Daniel is the novel’s hook, the first character you meet, the one who steals the hat from Mitterrand at a brasserie dinner. Getting him right was therefore key to engrossing the reader in the story. 

Aside from their work with the particular characters they translated, each woman developed affinities with other figures from the book. For Lalaurie, it was Bernard because of a common interest in art. For Boyce, it was Pierre (a perfumer and the third owner of the hat) thanks to an interest for the profession developed while touring the Fragonard factory as a child. She had even gone as far as considering the career path but was put off by hearing that noses don’t drink alcohol - imagine her surprise when she read Pierre enjoyed bubbly! 

Knowing that Le Chapeau had recently been published in English, I kept wondering, while reading it, how it could work for a British or American audience (Laurain has just completed a tour of the US). My worries were twofold: how can the new audience relate to the feeling of nostalgia threaded through the book when they have never lived in France and how can they understand the French-focused references? 

Lalaurie acknowledged that “some British readers may be surprised by a feel-good book about personal empowerment in the Eighties” but all believe that the charm will equally operate. None of the translators lived in France until the latter part of Mitterrand’s 14-year-long presidency so in a way, they were faced with a challenge almost equal to their readers. 

As for the possible cultural barriers, Aitken explains that they got around the issue, “on a few occasions slipping in an explanatory word or two yet generally we steering clear of explanations that would have interrupted the flow of the writing”. For instance, to translate ”l’heure du journal télévisé d’Yves Mourousi”, which as a French person I know to mean 1pm, Aitken specified that it was the lunchtime TV news. 

I also asked Lalaurie, Aitken and Boyce what they thought a British version of The President’s Hat would be? The Prime Minister’s handbag? As Lalaurie pointed out, “Mrs. T. was unlikely to have left her handbag behind in a restaurant”. Boyce suggested a more current alternative with Boris Johnson:  ”perhaps someone might steal a Boris bike and end up with mad hair, but whether it would change their lives”. My favourite option though is her alternative proposal, Winston Churchill’s cigar – it probably encapsulates a nostalgia that’s akin to Mitterrand’s hat. How exactly a cigar would move from person to person is up to the author’s imagination (I’m thinking about a cigar box with each character smoking one before losing or forgetting the box).

Posted at 7:47am and tagged with: book, book review, translation,.

Warning: This book review contains spoilers on the book’s hardly existing plot. 

At some point between page 250 and page 300 of Lauren Weisberger’s Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, the follow-up to her best-selling roman à clef The Devil Wears Prada, I had to violently close the book and walk away. 

Christian Collinsworth, Andrea “Andy” Sachs’ former fuck buddy had just turned up at a party celebrating the third anniversary of The Plunge, the high-end wedding magazine founded by Andy and Emily Charlton. His arrival was the latest in a series of unbelievable and ridiculous events punctuating the book and quickly unravelled any appreciation I had held for Andy’s earlier adventures. 

After an entire year of hating and despising each other at Runway, former assistants Andy and Emily eventually bonded over a mutual hatred of Miranda Priestly, the fashion editrix Weisberger allegedly modelled on her old boss, Anna Wintour. Miranda’s career, since we left her in 2003, has moved in parallel to Wintour’s: she now oversees all Elias-Clark titles the way Wintour has been named artistic director of Condé Nast and she’s had a whole documentary dedicated to her, The High Priestess of Fashion: the Life and Time of Miranda Priestly, à la September Issue.

However, these tenuous mirrors of real life, carried through with the wedding of a Beyoncé -Jay-Z-inspired couple for instance, aren’t enough to keep the novel interesting. Revenge proves Janet Maslin, the New York Times literary critique, right; she predicted that Weisberger didn’t have what it took to “interestingly sustain a gossip-free narrative”.

Although the author tries to reproduce her earlier success by using the same characters and narrative devices, the tales of Miranda’s meanness feel forced, Emily’s eventual betrayal of Andy expected. Despite getting married, Andy’s longing over ex-boyfriend Alex Fineman is so signposted, the only surprise is that it takes him over 300 pages to appear.

To contrast with all these expected events, Weisberger litters her narration with long-winded passages that lead nowhere. There’s no Chekhov’s gun here: Weisberger might hint of the possibility that Emily’s husband is cheating in the early chapters, but you’ll never know whether it’s true or not. 

Weisberger’s fifth book is as unbelievable as her first rang true. Can you believe that Andy, a graduate with one years experience at Runway as an assistant, and two years blogging for a wedding blog would create and edit a high-end magazine, and make a good salary out of it within months? Or, that a publishing company and bankers would invest in an unclear concept, on the mere strength of Emily’s network and Andy’s beautiful eyes? Revenge is more a love story than a coming of age or roman à clef, but by disregarding the genre of her first novel and focusing on feelings over the behind-the-scenes of publishing, Weisberger has written a book which requires a suspension of disbelief, common sense and the reader’s intelligence. 

As does the character evolution decided by Weisberger. She makes a point to name-drop brands in most of Emily’s dialogue, particularly in the first half of the book, to show that even though Andy now holds a position akin to Miranda’s, she’s still got her heart and values in the right place. Except I can’t believe Devil Andy would put her own wedding on her magazine cover, or that she would use The Plunge to get the best fashion photographer to cover it. Devil Andy made painfully sure that the fashion world she so despised and misunderstood would be nothing more than a means to the end of her high-journalism career. 

There are also points in the books where it feels that the Devil Wears Prada movie has rubbed off on Weisberger as much as it has on her readership. Revenge Emily, for instance, feels closer to Emily Blunt’s characterisation than to her original personality. When she reproaches Andy for neither saying goodbye nor apologising after leaving unceremoniously, it feels like something out of the film, where everybody got some kind of redemption in the end, a pitfall Weisberger managed to avoid in her first novel. 

But that’s nothing in comparison with how weird the lack of actual revenge in this book is. I spent the entire story wondering whether Andy would get even with Miranda for mistreating her or if Miranda would get revenge on Andy for leaving in Paris with a flurry of expletives. The end however is win-win for both: Miranda gets The Plunge and Andy starts writing for New York Magazine which, although no The New Yorker, is closer to her initial journalistic aspirations than a wedding glossy.  

Since Devil, Weisberger’s books have received unfavourable critical reviews, echoed by poor sale numbers. She confused readers’ fascination with Anna Wintour for interest in her writing and story lines. Revenge is a clear attempt at getting some of her first hit success back. She might get it, money-wise, but she’s definitely convinced me never to buy another novel of hers, no matter how curious of Andy’s future I might be. I’d rather make up my own story.

Posted at 6:35pm and tagged with: book review, book, Anna Wintour,.

Lock the doors - it’s Style dot com.
Timmy, dear - you must obey!
I need aromatheraphy,
I had such vile reviews today.

Rip the mood boards off the wall
Throw the color charts away.
Burn the samples, trash them all
Look at what the papers say.

Yesterday I was divine!
When I commanded, they wore gray.
I cast my pearls before those swine
And now they say I’m so “passé.”

Tear the patterns of their hooks
Not a pincushion can stay.
Leave their name to history books
I’ll take the bonus severance pay.

Fashion Victims

Michael Roberts

Picture: Radley Scottie dogs at London Fashion Week, Debenhams Blog

Posted at 6:01am and tagged with: poem, book, London Fashion Week, magazine writing,.

Marie-Dominique Lelièvre’s biography of Yves Saint Laurent is full of unexpected, sometimes scandalous, often unverifiable allegations. The one which surprised me most doesn’t concern Saint Laurent but rather Gabrielle Chanel. In 12 words, hidden on page 197 of the paperback, Lelièvre explains that Mademoiselle owed her “tremendous energy” to coke:

La coke est le secret de la stupéfiante énergie de Coco Chanel qui, à soixante-seize ans, gigotait comme un ouistiti sous amphétamines

Coke was the secret behind Coco Chanel’s tremendous energy. Aged 76, she was still wriggling like a marmoset on speed

Lelièvre, Marie-Dominique Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Editions Flammarion, 2010), p. 197; Translation my own

In the end-of-book notes, Lelièvre quotes a 1959 video during which the designer does indeed fidget a lot. And that’s it. To justify this very serious allegation on Chanel, Lelièvre doesn’t use any contemporary account. This line is merely dropped in to show that Saint Laurent wasn’t the first designer addicted to cocaine.

Is it true? Saint Laurent is widely documented as having suffered from drug addiction during periods of his life. I can’t remember, however, reading anything about Chanel’s coke habit in Paul Morand, Edmonde Charles-Roux or Justine Picardie. Voluntary oversight by biographers enamored with their subject or incredible talent from the house of Chanel to hide one of their founder’s ugly traits? If you try Googling Chanel and Coke, most hits are about Lagerfeld designing for Coca Cola.

Posted at 7:50pm and tagged with: chanel, yves saint laurent, ysl, karl lagerfeld, book,.

Galliano, McQueen and co weren’t the first victims of the quickening pace of fashion. If Marie-Dominique Lelièvre is to believe, the very man who launched prêt-à-porter and the infernal four-collections-a-year-minimum rythm, Yves Saint Laurent himself, was its first victim:

"Up until the„ we’d lead a carefree life. After work, we met up to go to the cinema, the had dinner and, post-dinner, we went to clubs to see transvestites shows. Going to bed late was of no consequence. What eventually spoilt everything was prêt-à-porter. It was too much for Yves, all those collections. He was a victim of the Judy Garland syndrome", says his [Yves Saint Laurent’s] friend Philippe Collin.


"Instead of making him happier, prêt-à-porter killed him", confirms Anne-Marie Munoz.

[…] To stay on top, Yves, too, took too much speed. And therefore sedatives to fall asleep.

Lelièvre, Marie-Dominique Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon (Editions Flammarion, 2010), pp. 164-165; Translation my own

Picture from Nylon-Volupté.com

Posted at 8:49pm and tagged with: yves saint laurent, ysl, couturier maudit, book,.

Beyond the heartbreak, the shock, the disbelief and the anger, what marked me most in the Galliano controversy was how often articles casually mentioned, almost as an after-thought, the importance of Jews in the fashion business. 

In Outliers, The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell gives an historical explanation to the role Jews have been playing in fashion. His analysis focuses on how Jews in America quickly became key to the fashion business because they were the only immigrants with the required skills. It is quite easy to extrapolate from his explanation to better understand the situation in Europe too.

The Irish and the Italians were peasants, tenant farmers from the impoverished countryside of Europe. Not so the Jews. For centuries in Europe, they had been forbidden to own land, so they had clustered in cities and towns, taking up urban trades and professions. […] Overwhelmingly, their experience lay in the clothing trade.

Through the example of Louis Borgenicht a Polish immigrant who had the genius idea to start making and selling aprons, and who was lucky enough to have a wife who knew how to sew, Gladwell shows that the creation of the garment district is intimately linked with Jewish immigration in the 19th century.

"There is no doubt that those Jewish immigrant arrived at the perfect time, with the perfect skills," says the sociologist Stephen Steinberg. "To exploit that opportunity, you had to have certain virtues, and those immigrants worked hard. They sacrificed. They scrimped and saved and invested wisely. […] the garment industry in those years was growing by leaps and bounds. The economy was desperate for the skills that they possessed."

Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers the Story of Success (London, 2009) pp.139-151

Picture from The Global Herald

Posted at 8:19pm and tagged with: book, john galliano,.

It’s only August, but it’s already quite clear that 2010 is the year of Yves Saint Laurent. There has been a CD dedicated to him, Pierre Bergé’s Lettres à Yves, followed by the rétrospective exhibition at the Petit Palais, Laurence Benaïm’s Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent, Marie-Dominique Lelièvre’s scandalous biography Yves Saint Laurent Mauvais Garçon and, coming to a cinema near you on September 22nd, Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé L’Amour Fou. To top it all, I’ve just bought my first ever piece of vintage YSL Rive Gauche, a purple  pencil skirt which looks like the skirt in his 1988 “Hommage à Vincent Van Gogh” Haute Couture ensemble.

It’s quite easy to imagine that, like Chanel, the biopics will come next. His life, in Benaïm’s definitive biography Yves Saint Laurent Biographie, reads like a movie scenario between rehab, fashion spats and lovers.

Saint Laurent died over a year ago. None of those tributes will have any true meaning, besides making money, if his name is nothing more than a footnote of fashion history in 50 years’ time.

1) Yves Saint Laurent rétrospective

The exhibition is showing until August 29th, with tickets selling out every day. With 300 or so pieces on show, it gives an excellent overview of his work from his Dior days to his last Haute Couture collection in 2002. Garments are cross-organised by theme and chronological order, with a Cannes steps-like room at the end, allowing the visitor to understand both his inspiration and his style evolution. It ends on a pessimistic note, showing that Haute Couture doesn’t have a reason to exist anymore since places to wear it are few.

Most iconic Saint Laurent garments are on display, from a room dedicated to the Smoking to a row of Sahariennes. I was quite disappointed not to see the bikini-wedding dress Laeticia Casta wore at his spring/summer 1999 show. This was the dress which introduced Saint Laurent to the 12-year-old me. I still have the press cuttings from that particular défilé.

2) Requiem pour Yves Saint Laurent by Laurence Benaïm

Benaïm, editor and founder of Stiletto magazine, is probably one of the most authoritative Yves Saint Laurent writers. Her biography of the man, published in 1993 and updated in 2002 and 2010, is nothing short of a scholarly, though slightly biased, work. She  writes extremely well, in a broken stream of consciousness way. Her Requiem is about the last years of Saint Laurent, after he left his fashion house. It shows how fashion evolved from a creative-centred world to one dictated by business and marketing. The book is quite emotional, underlying how out-of-place Saint Laurent would have been if he were still creating nowadays. Benaïm doesn’t try to distance herself from her subject - she knew him and doesn’t pretend otherwise. Her expertise on the fashion sphere and emotional attachment to Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergé, whom she’s met many times, make her book all the more powerful and sad.

3) Yves Saint Laurent Pierre Bergé L’amour Fou

I haven’t seen it, and I doubt it will be out in the UK before some time, but I expect a documentary in the line of Valentino: The Last Emperor or Loïc Prigent’s work. Judging by the trailer, Pierre Thoretton has put together archival footage and contemporary interviews to tell the story of the Bergé-Saint Laurent professional and private partnership.

Yves Saint-Laurent-Pierre Bergé, l’amour fou sur Comme Au Cinema

Pics: Banner from Café Mode; Van Gogh from Fashion is my Muse; Petit Palais from Madeleine de Proust

Posted at 6:00pm and tagged with: ysl, yves saint laurent, pierre bergé, book, Paris, cinema,.

September, its shortening days, cold breeze, overcrowded public transports and wardrobe dilemmas. It’s not summer anymore, but winter isn’t there yet. We still have fresh memories of the most recent holidays, barely softening the fact that the next ones are months away.

September, “the January of fashion”, with its phone-book-size magazines, month-long waltz of catwalks is a good fashion month. Two books discussing the lives of two pivotal fashion personalities are to be published half-way through the month.

Isabella Blow, by her former assistant Martina Rink with a foreword by Philip Treacy, looks like a coffee-table book. Although I haven’t had a chance to see it yet (it is out on September 13th), I trust publishers Thames & Hudson to only get the best of the best on their catalogue. From their press release, the book looks like a collection of memories rather than a narrative:

Martina Rink has brought together all those who were moved, influenced, discovered, and inspired by Isabella, in a volume that celebrates not only her life but also her outrageous personality, which left an indelible mark on all who met her. Texts and personal letters written exclusively for this book have been collected from legendary names in the fashion world, from Mario Testino and Manolo Blahnik to Hussein Chalayan and Anna Wintour. There are photographs by some of fashion’s greatest photographers, including Rankin, Donald McPherson, and Richard Burbridge, and illustrations by Hilary Knight and Paul Smith, in a homage to Isabella that celebrates her astonishing life.

Despite not owing a single magazine in which Blow’s work is featured, I admire the instinct she demonstrated in discovering people like Alexander McQueen and Hussein Chalayan. Pictures of her (and of the Queen) convinced me that women in the 21st century should still wear hats, and I indirectly owe her my collection of headgear, all the feathery, felt and velvet numbers neatly piled up next to my shoes. I hope the book will convince me to finally wear them.

I haven’t read Justine Picardie’s Coco Chanel (out on September 16th) either but, again, I trust the author to write of very good biography of Mademoiselle.

Chanel has been written about a lot more than Blow. Coming up with a new, interesting angle on her life is probably difficult. Is a new biography life really necessary? Can Picardie do better than Edmonde Charles-Roux? Picardie’s books are generally well-researched, and I hope she got access to new material.

Picardie’s fashion writing has been on my radar for a while now. I think she’s one of Harper’s Bazaar best writers.  From Daphne to My Mother’s Wedding Dress, I have found her books easy to get into and more importantly, hard to put down.

Isabella Blow picture from The New York Times

Chanel and Dali picture from Mimifroufrou

Posted at 10:24am and tagged with: Justine Picardie, Chanel, Isabella Blow, book,.

In My Mother’s Wedding Dress, Justine Picardie tells a gingham dress-related memory which has change the way I see Christopher Kane's Spring 10 collection.

Ruth was already feeling left behind, when I put on my gingham uniform in the morning. Sometimes she dressed herself in it, and I had to persuade her out of it, though at weekends and holidays, she insisted she be allowed to keep the uniform on. “It’s not even a very nice dress,” I told her, trying not to get crossed.

"It is," she said. "It’s a lovely dress. I want it, it’s mine."

"It’s not yours," I said, but eventually, it was, and another one exactly like it, when she joined me at the junior school.

My sister did not eat her lunch that day, or the next, kept her mouth shut for a week , until the headmaster, a kindly man named Mr Appleton, called me into his study. “Is there anything wrong at home?” he said. “Anything the school should know about?”

"No," I said, smoothing the crease out of my cotton dress examining the squared lines of gingham, a if it were a cryptic code that might be broken after sufficient time.

Years later, when I was the same age my parents had been in that uncertain time, and suddenly feeling my own balance to be precarious, I went shopping, and without thinking bought myself a short blue cotton gingham dress. I wore it throughout a dangerous summer, and then gave it away. I did not want patterns to repeat themselves; feared I was somehow tempting fate.

Picardie’s book is very good at describing the passage of clothes through garments, at weaving together memories and clothes, the meaning of outfits and the meaning of life, the pattern of a dress and the recurrent patterns in life.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if Christopher Kane was in charge of designing school uniforms in the fashion of the outfit in the picture above? Of course, you would be unlikely to find it for £3.75 at Tesco

Quotes from My Mother’s Wedding Dress, Justine Picardie (Picador, 2006)pp.41-7

Pictures from

Posted at 10:51pm and tagged with: Christopher Kane, Justine Picardie, book, memory,.