Sunday, April 29, 2007

Book Review: The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris

I know, I've been a little quiet lately. Blame it on the fact that I'm employed again and haven't been roving around as much as I usually do, as I get used to early rising and being in an office. However, as part of LAist's tribute to the L.A. Times Book Prizes, I posted a review of this nominee in the Current Interest category. Alicia Drake's book didn't win (Ian Buruma's book about the death of Theo van Gogh did), but then what chance does fashion have against brutal reality? (Too bad we can't ask Karl Lagerfeld that question.)

I'll reprint the review here, as I can't seem to link to this piece on LAist.

In 1954, two fledgling fashion designers won awards from the International Wool Secretariat: Yves Saint Laurent, age 18; and Karl Lagerfeld, age 21. The tenuous friendship they developed – as exiles, prodigious talents, and gay men at ease with their sexuality – matured into a fierce rivalry, a competition for friends, clients, and in one instance, a lover.

Alicia Drake’s book tracks the parallel careers of Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld from 1954 through 1989 and beyond. She spends most of her time describing the over-the-top 1970s, when work and play in Paris were given over to a dérèglement des sens in which each designer realized his shadow self: Saint Laurent’s overindulgence in drugs and alcohol fueled his bipolar episodes; while Lagerfeld tended to be more of a spectator than a participant, his controlling coldness hardened into the faux aristocratic persona he still affects.

Drake’s book is fashion history and a compelling character study, with some excellent dish served up along the way (think of the film The Damned). Certainly many fashion designers concoct a mythic past (Coco Chanel, Ralph Lauren), but few as entertainingly – in Drake’s telling – as Lagerfeld, who tells a fellow party guest about a nineteenth-century painting his mother gave him when he was a child, neglecting to mention that she gave him a cheap reproduction. Along the way, Lagerfeld snips a few years from his age; although he is allegedly 3 years older than Saint Laurent, as recently as a March 19, 2007 profile in The New Yorker, he claimed an age that is 3 years younger.

Lagerfeld’s focused upward bound activities are balanced against the passionate life of Saint Laurent, from the start a design supernova who lapsed into emotional free fall with each collection, demanding great obedience from his friends and breaking with them when he perceived the slightest disloyalty. One might argue that Saint Laurent’s individual influence on fashion is more definitive (he set trousers in the center of a modern woman’s wardrobe), while Lagerfeld’s work did not achieve wide notice until 1982, when he began to design for Chanel, despite his fine earlier work for Chloé. Drake provides plenty of fodder to examine each of these arguments in detail.

What Drake did not do is interview either of the designers; both agreed to talk to her, but neither ultimately returned her calls. As her narrative is quite personal and specific, one wonders to what extent the reader can rely on the memories of friends and clients, as fabulous as sources like Paloma Picasso and Loulou de la Falaise may be. The book’s text is also full of errors: the director William Friedkin’s 1980 gay S&M film Cruising is inexplicably called Closing; and the ballet genius Nijinsky is twice called “Nijinksy.” Does Little, Brown’s staff lack access to the internets for quick fact-checking? Drake’s descriptions are awkward, at times, e.g. describing a ground floor apartment as having a view of the dome of Les Invalides (if you stick your head out the window and look straight up…).

Despite those drawbacks, Drake’s chronicle is an enjoyable read and a touching portrait of two of fashion’s most distinct and charismatic talents. How closely her tale approaches the truth is known only to Saint Laurent, who isn’t talking, and Lagerfeld, who took Drake to court for invasion of privacy (that age issue again) and lost.

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