All Done Up

Photo of Elton John
Elton John in
The Naked and the Dressed:
20 Years of Versace
by Avedon

Fashion is in a sad state of affairs. We have too much freedom in deciding what to wear, and it's not a pretty picture. But let's not beat ourselves up over it too much ó it's not our fault. We've been given too much freedom, and like punch-drunk fighters, we careen from one fashion look to another. Gone are the days when designers dictated to the world what we would wear, but at least back then, they all wanted us to look pretty. Pretty is important in fashion, but statements and self-expression are not. The only message that our clothing should send is that we are attractive, well-bred individuals who understand whether or not slim-cut clothing is appropriate for our figure types. Men can be especially bad about this, but women can be worse. Just look at Monica Lewinsky (and just what was she doing at the Oscars?). If I looked as bad on TV as she does, I'd re-examine everything from my wardrobe to my self-esteem. But, again, it's not her fault, either. What has she got to go from? Fashion magazines? Have you looked at a fashion magazine lately? Pretty clothes are pretty hard to find. In fact, clothing of any sort can be hard to find.

Let's look at a figurative ad in a figurative fashion magazine and examine it. Let's say the ad features someone who is not at all like Kate Moss, and was shot by someone not unlike Steven Meisel for a company along the lines of Calvin Klein. Picture, if you will, the inarticulate model nude. Let's place her in a setting that looks like your uncle's rec room ó you know, the one that used to be the garage? She has been painstakingly painted and coiffed for hours, and this fashion shoot represents some of the finest talent in the world ó all top performers in their given fields. And yet, somehow, after all this preparation, the model, who has never even met Kate Moss, doesn't look considerably better than when she rolled in. In fact, you'd have to say that she looks pretty bad. In all honesty, at a day-rate of $5,000 apiece, it would appear that the makeup and hair people have not done their jobs properly at all ó one somehow expects dazzling beauty, and you wind up with this NotKate-type creature on the contoured-shag carpeting in a corner against some fake walnut paneling. The photographer whispers something in her ear, and she appears to understand. The music begins and the model writhes and moans on the floor to Skinny Puppy's Greatest Hits. This and other assorted (sordid?) psychodramas continue for several hours until it has been determined that perfection has been achieved.

Much behind-the-scenes haggling takes place, involving way too many people, and an ad layout is born. And then it appears in print. At $20,000 a page. All this tremendous effort and money has been spent, the brightest talents in the world have been utilized, and we wind up with an ad with what appears to be a heroin-addicted teenager curled up in a fetal position on the floor. And what exactly is being sold here? Jewelry? Appliances? Perfume? No, Lifestyle is what is being sold. It's out of the realm of understanding to pay hard money for such an intangible notion, but it's done every day, and by most people, in some way or another. That translates to huge dollars at the cash register, and tells the design houses that what they are doing is right, and it's those ads that are selling their Lifestyle. Those horrible ads that you just paid for.

Sometimes those ads aren't so horrible. In fact, sometimes the image on the page frees itself from its inherent trashy commercialism, transcending its purpose, and reflects back at us in a shimmering mirage of beauty. And this is the true gift that fashion bestows upon us. Especially in books about fashion. Books about fashion can be big, splashy cocktail-table affairs, or they can be more demure, scholarly tomes. But there are no bad fashion books. The prices can be astronomical for the best (hello, Rizzoli!), but you get a lot of bang for your buck. Along the way we are treated to the greats and near-greats, the sacred and the profane, and the good, bad, and really ugly (hello, Prada!).

Cover of Diane: A Signature LifeThe Naked and the Dressed: 20 Years of Versace by Avedon ($50, Random House) doesn't have any of those pictures in it, but it does have some close relatives. But very few. Richard Avedon has had one of the most spectacular careers of any photographer ever, and has outlasted most of them. He created images that were engraved in our consciousness and became part of our cultural memory bank. His work with couturier Gianni Versace (ver-SAH-chee, for anyone who hasn't seen Showgirls) throughout the Eighties and Nineties produced the most extraordinary tableaux that ever sold a product, however ambiguous that product may be. With a hilarious portrait of Elton John in a deluxe Versace metal-mesh evening gown on the cover, we get down to Kate Moss right off the bat ó lots and lots of Kate. A whole chapter on her, plus the endpages, plus appearances in all the other chapters. Dear God, hasn't she expired from malnutrition yet? But in all fairness to her, she was one of the original models that Avedon featured in his campaign to use nudity to sell clothes. And there are pages and pages of nudity in a book that is supposed to be about fashion. Lovely nudity it is, however, with towering amazons and sculptured gods. Even though it doesn't quite cover 20 years, as it claims ('81 to '98 is 18 years, I believe), we are lavishly treated to the delectable Jerry Hall, Janice Dickinson, Nadja, Cindy, as well as the Holy Trinity (or the Three-Headed Hydra) of Linda, Christy, and Naomi. Conspicuous in her absence is the real drug-addicted, but far from zombie-like Supermodel Gia, who modeled for Versace for three seasons.

Any book from the Rizzoli publishing empire is fabulous ó thoroughly researched, well-mounted, and opulently illustrated books are this Italian publisher's stock-in-trade. The London Fashion Book by Andrew Tucker ($45) is no exception. Following the book's clever, early-Warhol-ish map of London's fashion scene, we are whisked away on a whirlwind tour from Notting Hill Gate to Covent Garden; Pimlico to the East End (go ahead, say "Pimlico" aloud ó it's fun). London is steeped in fashion history, not to mention every other kind of history, but its current reign dates back to the Carnaby Street era of the mid-Sixties, when those wacky British designers held a patent on the kicky and kooky look of the day. No one else could do it like them ó still can't. Nothing has changed, as we see on our visit to no less than 75 fashion establishments ó all active, but not all well-known to the American public. The lavish photos and drawings are as diverse and edgy as the scene itself, with great coverage of London's two bad boys who have shattered the French couture's image of itself. Though it was an Englishman named Worth who created the first couture house in Paris in the 1860s, the French have co-opted it and owned it lock, stock, and thimble ever since. That is, until the venerable houses of Dior and Givenchy appointed Brits to their helm (without Paul Revere to warn the French of the British invasion, Paris has left open its gates only to be trampled by the Americans: Michael Kors at Celine, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, and Oscar de la Renta at Balmain). Bad boy #1 is John Galliano, unsteadily at the helm of Dior (is it true that Dior sold only one of Galliano's couture creations last season? Mon Dieu!). Sharing the spotlight is His Badness himself, Alexander McQueen, who, at the helm of Givenchy, is maturing magnificently ó morphing into a spectacular butterfly from an ugly grub (he once designed skirts so short that he accessorized them with tampon strings hanging out!). And behind it all? Those wacky Brits. It all happens there, and the London Fashion Book shows where to find it ó and does so with great style.

While on the subject of Dior, let's talk about the splendidly talented little Frenchman himself. Dior: The New Look Revolutionby Nigel Cawthorne ($39, Rizzoli) covers familiar territory ó the incredibly influential editor of Bazaar magazine, Carmel Snow, sees Dior's first couture show and exclaims, "My dear Christian, it's a whole new look," and a new era was born. Christian Dior had embarked upon his dazzling, sumptuous, and tragically short journey into history and the hearts of all romantics with a collection of dresses and suits that suddenly made the war-torn years evaporate in the twinkling of a handful of sequins. Clothing coupons, fabric restrictions, and twice-turned dresses had been the order of the day for so long, until February, 1947, when Dior's Corolle collection was unveiled to a hungry public. The concept wasn't entirely new ó Balenciaga presaged it, as did Fath, but Dior was the first to explore the limits of the style. With sloping, natural shoulders, tiny waists, and voluminous skirts with petticoats that swept the ankle, the New Look, as it came to be called, swept the world. Cawthorne places that revolution within the fascinating pantheon of that decade's fashion history and shows us that the revolution was not such a surprise after all. It also shows us some of the most beautiful dresses ever made, and that alone is worth the price of admittance.

Cover of BrioniThe Fashion Book ($34.95, Phaedon) is an oversized great new treat and a fab new resource ó an inclusive overview of designers, photographers, models, illustrators, etc., at a fabulous price for its size. It is a very large book and the format is perfect for those with a casual interest in fashion, as well as those of us who are snobs about such resources. Devoting one page per subject, we are given bare-bones specifics and a lavish photo illustrating their contribution to the fashion world. From the photographer Abbe to Zoran, the New York designer, the list is impressive, exhaustive, and thorough, covering the brilliant and the obscure, the stellar idols as well as the technicians. It's quite an accomplishment to try and determine a single image that is evocative of each subject's career, but the producers of this book succeed very well for the most part. The Fashion Book is chock-full of some of the most sublime creations ever put on paper, caught on film, or made for the body.

There are quite a few of those unspeakable ads that we spoke of earlier in Fashion Images De Mode No. 3, edited by Lisa Lovett-Smith ($34.95, Steidl). It loftily declares that it contains the best fashion photography of the year. What it doesn't say is that it is the year's best fashion photography that was free to them. Therefore, there are glaring omissions, but still, it contains tons of great work by some of the very best fashion photographers. It is the very broad use of the term "fashion" that comes into question here. Perhaps the photographer was already on assignment for some fashion house when the photos were taken, but they can only be loosely referred to as fashion photos. The quarrel is of little relevance, however, since the fashion magazines that publish them often cover real fashion in only the most abstract manner anyway. And it's not to say that these images are not startling, arresting, and beautiful; it's just hard to see where the fashion enters into them. There are to-die-for layouts from David LaChapelle (his photo of the woman snorting lines of diamonds up her nose is breathtaking) and Ellen Von Unwerth (she is a goddess), and, yes, model Kate Moss worms her way in here and there, turning up like, well, a bad penny. A fine collection, nonetheless, with back issues available.

The Chic Simple: What Should I Wear? Dressing for Occasions is by Kim Johnson Gross and Jeff Stone ($30, Knopf). What can I say? If you need a book to help you get dressed, this one's as good as any. They even quote Jacqueline Susann of Valley of the Dolls fame on the subject of beauty. Now there's a reliable source ó she's been dead for 25 years, and, to quote Truman Capote, she looked like "a truck driver in drag."

Paris designer Christian Lacroix is as charming as he is talented ó and that says a lot for his charm. Your World ... And Welcome to It: A Rogue's Gallery of Interior Design ($25, Simon & Schuster) is illustrated by Lacroix and written by Patrick Mauries. Like Lacroix's other books, this one is witty and whimsical, extolling his quirky viewpoint on many different interiors. He always comes off as being one of the nicest people in the fashion business, and that alone makes this book appealing, even if it is lacking the lavish photos of Lacroix's own work that appear in his other books.

Universe Vendome Books, a division of Rizzoli, puts out a line of little books about designers, The Universe of Fashion. Already covering all the designers one expects to see, the publisher breaks new ground with the Universe of Fashion: Brioni by Farid Chenoune ($18.95), the premier Italian purveyors of haute tailored menswear, and Universe of Fashion: Barbie by Frederick Beigbeder ($18.95). With 20 pages of text and 60 pages of pictures, it's a crash course in history (both Brioni's and Barbie's), as well as a very successful format. The series also includes the works of Valentino, Schiaparelli, Prada, Dior, Versace, Chanel, etc. All the big girls.

Photo of London Fashion BookFor those of you who think of Diane Von Furstenberg as being a part of the wave of Euro-trash that invaded New York in the Seventies, you're only partially correct. Diane: A Signature Life by Diane Von Furstenberg ($25 Simon & Schuster) is a pretty amazing little book. An integral participant in the Studio 54 hoopla, she and her husband Egon (a "real" prince who always seemed so gay) were seen everywhere ó so often that you felt that they should be arrested for it, to paraphrase their equally, uh, "enigmatic" friend Fran Lebowitz. Diane designed those dresses ó you know ó those Diane Von Furstenberg dresses that were as Seventies as the Pocket Fisherman. Then there was the fragrance, makeup, luggage, home decor, and pretty soon ... well, it was all very exciting for her, but tiresome for us.

She isn't as dreadful as she always seemed, but what is it with her and this affair with Mondo-Mogul Barry Diller? Let's dish, shall we? The media all seems to play it up like it was just any ol' love affair between two plain folks. But wait a minute! Barry Diller, along with uber-agent Sandy Gallin and Dreamworks partner David Geffen, are known collectively as Hollywood's Gay Mafia! You would hardly call that good husband material unless you were Rock Hudson. And there's the photo of her hanging out in the Bahamas with Barry ("Home Shopping Network") Diller, Sandy ("How do you like my new plastic surgery?") Gallin, David ("The Ex-Mr. Cher!") Geffen, and the perennial Calvin ("I guess you'd have to say I was gay") Klein. Guess you'd have to say they're all pretty gay, but all that really does is illustrate the allure of gay people to all poseurs in all areas. Or maybe she didn't want to be Diane Diller. All speculation aside, DVF comes off as a clever, savvy, and very well-connected woman with an enviable life who pretty much calls her own shots. Can't beat that.

Born within 24 hours of the death of Christian Dior, Austin expatriate Stephen McMillan Moser has a deep and abiding loathing of the fashion business and obtained his writing status through nepotism and fraud.

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