Passion in Fashion

What to read this month

If there's any justice, many of the emerging fashion designers featured in this sleekly gorgeous book will soon be forgotten. But some will be, and deserve to be, the next big thing. (Truth be told, although its publishers tout this volume as a collection of up-and-comers, not a few of the young designers here, including Christopher Bailey, of Burberry; Olivier Theyskens, of Rochas; the Paris-based, Morocco-born, Israel-raised Alber Elbaz, of Lanvin; Nicolas Ghesquière, of Balenciaga; and Phoebe Philo, of Chloe, have already most definitely arrived.) Bronwyn Cosgrave, formerly of the British Vogue, assembled ten doyens of the fashion scene (a team of established stylists, schmatte scribes, and designers of high reputation and widely varying taste and talent) and asked each to pick the ten most promising budding designers from around the globe. Unbelievably, it appears that no two curators picked the same designer. So, printed on the jagged hand-cut pages, and bound between the artfully pleated white covers, are 1,000 illustrations (including previously unpublished sketches and other archival material) displaying the work of 100 often very obscure, often very gifted, usually astonishingly young designers. The rag trade is a famously cosmopolitan industry, and this being the era of globalized everything, the selections strain for the international (Dakar, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Osaka, Auckland, Antwerp, Vienna, Stockholm, and Silverlake are all represented). But, no surprise, designers based in the traditional fashion capitals of Paris, London, New York, and Milan have generated the most assured creations. (Even the sharply tailored 1940s-inspired clothes of the Chicago-born, Guanajuato-raised, Los Angeles—based Louis Verdad, who has inventively transformed tweed into an almost clingy fabric with lots of sex appeal, too often veer with insecure swagger toward costumey camp rather than artful reinterpretation.) At the risk of gross geographical and cultural stereotyping, I can't help noting that the Northern Europeans' clothes are (with such exceptions as those of the skillfully graceful Bruno Pieters and the "knitting genius" Christian Wijnants) over-intellectualized and antiseptic; the Parisians reign with aplomb far beyond their years; the brilliant but often unrestrained Londoners continue to lurch between self-consciously daring, unwearable high concepts and creations of great whimsy married to exquisite workmanship (such as in the work of Alice Temperley, Emma Cook, and the shoe designer Rupert Sanderson); and the Japanese are jejune—either stupidly so or, in their all-too-frequent predilection for tarting up young women as prepubescent sex objects, yuckily so.

By its very nature this compilation accentuates the avant-garde and the over-the-top; there's a lot of energy and creativity on these pages, but the cumulative effect is like being in a room full of yapping puppies. The seductiveness of great fashion lies not simply in the passion amply displayed in Sample but in the refinement of passion—a proposition demonstrated here by the ways in which the edginess of the young chief designers of the august Parisian houses has both invigorated and been tempered by the poise and cool finesse of those houses. But the innate sense of elegant restraint that has always marked the work of today's two best youngish designers—Narciso Rodriguez and Martin Grant—hasn't needed a great house's nurturance. The unconscionable neglect of Rodriguez, to my mind the best designer on the scene today, is the book's greatest flaw. (To be sure, this master of clean silhouettes is hardly a novice, but neither is he yet a household name, and he's no older than several of the designers prominently featured.) Sample, though, entirely appropriately lauds the work of Grant, a Paris-based Aussie, whose finely cut, highly restrained, almost stripped-down designs evince his preternatural sense of structure and shape. (Unlike nearly all the other designers in this book, Grant never formally studied fashion design; rather, he learned sewing from his dressmaker grandmother, studied sculpture in art school, and apprenticed as a tailor.) Of all the nascent geniuses in this compilation, Grant, who works out of his Marais boutique and also designs the in-house collection for Barneys New York, is, I'll bet, the one with the most enduring future. (Also, for a less developed but promising talent, keep an eye on Grant's fellow Australian Toni Maticevski, who works out of his parents' house in Melbourne, and whose floaty yet urbane dresses here display a winning combination of exuberance and composure.)

Whereas Sample aims merely (!) to forecast the coming designer elite, the three-volume, 1,600-plus-page Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion (Gale/Thompson) encompasses everything from Albanian folk dress to the ultra-luxury designer Zoran. Although it's edited by Valerie Steele, the author of the smart and stylish The Corset: A Cultural History (a hot seller and the university-press version of soft porn), I dreaded reading this compendium, written largely by scholars (in its dogged attempts at hipness academe has for more than a decade been plumbing the theoretical and sociological significance of such topics as "Elsa Schiaparelli and the decentered subject"). But the mostly crisp, authoritative entries—on matters ranging from buttons to foot binding, from the burqa to the thong (undergarment, not sandal), and from Brooks Brothers to the "King of Cling" and master of precise construction Azzedine Alaïa—proved addictive and fascinating. Inevitably, one has quibbles: I could stand a bit less analysis of ethnic clothes (much of which can be found in the anthropological literature) and a lot more on the great fashion houses (exaggerations and lies litter the world of haute couture, so we're really in need of authoritative information). Some of the omissions, however, are criminal. Peter Russell, a designer of beautiful, jauntily sophisticated women's suits from the 1930s to the 1950s, goes unmentioned, as does Norman Parkinson, who more than any other fashion photographer captured the charm, intelligence, and humor of great feminine beauty. And Edward Molyneux—Christian Dior's favorite couturier, whose creations managed to be at once winsome and supremely elegant—rates one line: in the article devoted to zippers, for his use of them in his coats. (Digby Morton, among the greatest women's suit makers ever, gets a mere two mentions.) Clothes mavens and those interested primarily in the subject's ethnographic, sociological, or economic aspects must have this work, but for the rest the sumptuously illustrated and perceptively written if somewhat dated The Fashion Book (Phaidon) actually gives a more complete but far less detailed and definitive history of high fashion. (Phaidon: it's time for a new edition.)

Mao, by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf). This volume, the most complete and assiduously researched biography of its subject yet published, presents a detailed portrait of Mao as an opportunistic gangster and a sadist (not even a committed ideologue!) who was, the authors convincingly argue, responsible for "well over 70 million deaths in peacetime"—more than Hitler's and Stalin's tolls combined. Chang, the author of Wild Swans, a compelling account of her family's and her country's agony during the Cultural Revolution (it's the best-selling nonfiction paperback in publishing history), and her husband, Halliday, a historian of the Soviet Union, tenaciously chronicle the Great Helmsman's sanguinary purges and manmade famines. They reveal him as unrelievedly unsavory (he disliked bathing and toothbrushing and enjoyed witnessing torture) and, it seems, a man devoid of all human virtues. Even the heroics of the Long March, they carefully demonstrate, were wholly fabricated. An almost endless indictment (I'm sure Mao was as relentlessly unredeemed as the authors demonstrate, but it's fair to say that Mao lacks a certain nuance), this work is nevertheless as well researched as possible, given current restrictions. (Chang scoured the available Chinese documents; Halliday was particularly resourceful in his investigations in the archives of the former Soviet Union; and the authors together interviewed several hundred subjects—including scores of Mao's officials, agents, and hangers-on, including his valet.) The book's subtitle, "The Unknown Story," overlooks the fact that scholars such as Stuart Schram and Roderick MacFarquhar have documented many of the worst excesses of Mao's regime, and that the memoirs of Mao's doctor, The Private Life of Chairman Mao, copiously displayed the Chairman's personal unpleasantness. But no earlier work comes close to matching the density of detail here, and in many cases—such as their account of Mao's scheming with the Japanese during World War II—the authors have performed brilliant historical detective work. Better books on Mao will eventually be written, but probably not until the regime that still reveres him reforms itself a good deal more. At the very least this book should finally mortify those former campus radical chowderheads who sported the Little Red Book (unread and unreadable) in the pocket of their Army surplus jackets.

New Art City, by Jed Perl (Knopf). This almost impossibly rich book evokes, explores, illuminates, and analyzes the Manhattan art world of the 1940s through the early 1960s, a period that famously saw the "triumph of American painting" and New York's concomitant rise to supremacy as the world's artistic capital. Perl's scintillating panorama leads readers from creaky wooden-floored downtown lofts to the International Style buildings that transformed Park Avenue into a sleek canyon, and from the bohemian-utilitarian Cedar Tavern to the swank-modernist Grill Room of the Four Seasons. He takes in the art dealers, the curators, and the critics who oxygenated artistic life; developments in theater, dance, music, film, philosophy, and poetry that influenced and were influenced by the artists and their work; and the frenetic cultural and social whirl that MOMA incessantly stirred. And he interweaves astute pen portraits of artists both celebrated and neglected (Hans Hofmann, de Kooning, Pollock, and Rothko, but also Nell Blaine, Burgoyne Diller, and Earl Kerkam) with penetrating, clear-eyed, and jargon-free assessments of their creations (see especially his brilliant appraisal of the contrasting astringencies of Donald Judd and Fairfield Porter) and with keen and sympathetic analysis of the ideas that animated them. Perl, The New Republic's art critic, is unerringly alert throughout to the broad economic, commercial, social, intellectual, and cultural forces that engendered, channeled, impinged upon, and ultimately vitiated the Manhattan art scene. Dore Ashton's discerning and graceful 1973 book, The New York School, took a similarly sweeping and ambitious approach; Perl's work—the sort of grand marriage of criticism, history, and biography that Edmund Wilson achieved in his finest books—is in most ways an even greater accomplishment. The book can sometimes be hard going; Perl is a lucid and often witty writer, but he's frequently grappling with complex and dizzying ideas. The effort is worth it. New Art City is a thrilling achievement.

Recent books by Atlantic authors:

Public Philosophy: Essays on Morality in Politics, by Michael J. Sandel. Harvard University Press. Portions of this book first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.

By Jed Perl
By Jung Chang and Jon Halliday
By Valerie Steele, editor

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