Sunday, August 9, 2020

Weekend Review: The Beautiful Fall

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris / Alicia Drake
Back Bay Books, 2006.
448 p.

I wasn't sure what to expect of this book, an in-depth study of the fashion rivalry of Yves St Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld throughout the 70s and into the 80s. But that gorgeous cover sure sucked me in!

As it turns out, I found this book enthralling and engrossing. It's based in over 500 interviews with people connected to both designers, and is written with a flowing and fast paced style, which makes it easy to read despite its nearly 450 pages.

I think it is also so fascinating because both Lagerfeld and St Laurent are a bit mysterious with huge mythic stories built up around them. St Laurent was a recluse and Lagerfeld always embellished on his past, making both of them a bit chimeric; what is the truth? Even here, with all Drake's excellent research and investigation, they both still end up with a veil of glamour and mystery surrounding them.

The book investigates the lives of both designers, from their childhoods on, leading to their huge levels of success in the 70s and especially in the case of Lagerfeld, on into the 80s. Drake also outlines the rivalry between them, and the effect it had on the social circles that they both belonged to. The two men come off as quite different in character; while St Laurent was charming, mercurial, debauched, and eventually reclusive, Lagerfeld was a constant outsider whose entire focus was his work, and he never stopped working.

But the book is really about them as individuals, and about their place as key players in the glamorous world of fashion in 70s Paris. The people who surrounded them will be well known to anyone with a passing interest in fashion -- from their business partners and muses to fashion people like models Pat Cleveland or Donna Jordan, to celebrities like Mick Jagger and Paloma Picasso, Paris was the centre of the fashionable world, and these two designers were at the top of it. There's not a heavy focus on the actual work of creating fashion, besides mentions of various important collections, or who worked for whom, and the rising and falling stars of either man. It's much more of an in-depth look at the characters of these two and how their personalities and surroundings and ambitions shaped their lives, their work, and their rivalry.

And there is a lot of gossip -- the people in these circles were unbelievably louche -- they stayed up all night dancing, pairing off, fighting viciously, taking massive amounts of drugs, throwing parties, flitting about with the trendy people of the moment, switching partners or taking others' partners for the fun of it -- you name it, you'll find it here. The elements of sexuality and the free drug use are somehow innocent before the era of crack and AIDS, though -- it was the joy of freedom in the city, especially for gay men who were just starting to be able to openly live as they pleased.

Drake captures the spirit of the era, and really digs into the stories surrounding these two men. She doesn't shy away from outlining the mental health issues that caused a lot of St Laurent's more atrocious behaviour, or from refuting Lagerfeld's ever-changing stories about his birth date and the circumstances of his upbringing (each time he told it, it changed to a more elaborate and aristocratic youth). Lagerfeld even tried to have the publication of this book halted, and succeeded in having it briefly unavailable in France; but it has certainly surpassed that slight hitch by now.

I found this more than just gossipy, though; Drake, a journalist, is able to capture something special. There is a depth and a warmth to the telling that makes every character compelling, every lost soul a  tragedy; there is a melancholy that doesn't slide into sentimentalism, or stop her from revealing the ugly sides as well as the beauty and achievement.  It was a good read beyond just being a fashion bio -- it's a cultural history of this era and captures so much. The writing style suits the story and keeps the detail from being overwhelming, instead it is paced just right. I think that the level of primary research she did, via so many interviews, added to the complexity of her portrayals and the authority that comes through in her storytelling.

There is a centre insert of some black & white photos, a handful. When I think of Lagerfeld I think of his latest incarnation with white hair, sunglasses and high collars, but there are images of him throughout his career in his many guises. It's a nice collection of images of some of the most important and most frequently mentioned players in the story, and adds to the reading experience.

As far as designer bios go, this is one of the best I've read. I really enjoyed it, despite shaking my head at the lifestyles of their social circles and the kinds of things they got up to regularly. If you like fashion history that is also an investigation into the psyche of a designer and their milieu, I think you'd like this one a lot too.

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