If there is one book to which the saying “Don’t judge a book by its cover” applies to like a glove, then that would be The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, by Alicia Drake. It’s not only one of the best books about fashion I’ve read, it’s a good book altogether. You don’t have to be particularly interested in fashion to read it, as it is more of a portrait of two complex and tormented artists and a portrait of an era. It is about Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, their rise from the moment they both won prizes in the 1954 International Wool Secretariat Competition and, in the case of the first, fall in the Paris fashion world.
Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld started out as friends, but by the 1960s their relationship deteriorated and transformed into a great animosity, a high-stakes vendetta that changed the face of Parisian high-chic. Saint Laurent’s rise to fame was almost instantaneous, and his genius lay in the realm of pure design, while Lagerfeld had a more sinuous path and he’s always been more of a stylist than an innovative designer. It was the French designer though who experienced the definitive professional downfall, for Lagerfeld has taken the opposite direction since he started to design for Chanel in 1983, constantly reinventing himself and, by “finding the magic formula of exploiting the existing iconography of le look Chanel and combining that with elements of the moment”, inventing the blueprint for other designers to follow, like Tom Ford at Gucci, Marc Jacobs at Louis Vuitton, Nicolas Ghesquiere at Balenciaga.
The author, a former contributing editor for The International Herald Tribune, W magazine and British Vogue, does not limit herself to rising to praises the works of the two designers (which is about the only thing many fashion books do) – which unarguably did change fashion, by placing ready-to-wear at its forefront – and this is what makes the book so different and interesting. Drake goes much deeper (she did an impressive research for the book, conducting more than 150 interviews) into their lives (painting a human side to both, lifting a lid on their demons, lovers and egomaniac personalities) and entourages (a group of people who formed the beau monde, who were trapped in their own arrogant self-obsession, partaking recklessly of the “glorious excess”, alcohol, drugs and casual sex, that abounded in Paris in the 70’s), evoking the changing times in which they lived. It’s about the beauty and ugliness, fun and tragedy, seduction and stinginess of fashion, and its deep roots in and influence on everything surrounding it, from history and art, to politics.
photo by me