A name dropper who was dropped, André Leon Talley’s latest memoir, The Chiffon Trenches, charts his life and career through the glittering war zone of fashion’s front row and his time at American Vogue. From his childhood in the southern states of America, raised by his grandmother, to New York, bouncing between there and Paris, depending on his roles at various magazines, it’s a who’s who (or who he knows) of fashion and society in one of the most exciting periods of 20th century fashion. Think the great 1970s period of Yves Saint Laurent.
Left - André Leon Talley - The Chiffon Trenches published by HarperCollins - £20
While I’ve never read Talley’s journalistic work, being pictured on the arm or by the side of American Vogue editor Anna Winter saw him enter fashion folklore. With his voluminous kaftans and capes he became a memorable fashion caricature alongside Wintour’s bob and dark sunglasses.
As a journalist, this is lite and while he thinks he’s describing things, throwing in a few French terms just feels a bit dated and doesn’t impress. Well, not this side of the pond anyway. It’s fluff.
The beef between YSL and Karl Lagerfeld is legendary and it’s interesting to hear about his dealings with John Galliano and Alexander McQueen, but apart from that there’s no great insight other than continually reminding you how he knows his fashion history and what a great dresser Lee Radziwill (Jackie O’s sister) was.
Clearly used to the golden years of magazines, when you could expense everything, had a car at your disposal and got put up in the Ritz, he glosses over his failings, like losing his job at Ebony, they couldn’t afford him, or so he says, and then messing up a huge opportunity writing YSL’s book because he took much on and didn’t have the time. Doesn’t look good, or sound professional.
Wintour and Lagerfeld dropped him a few years back, so the reason behind writing this book was probably the death of the latter. He knew that his friendship with Lagerfeld was the reason Wintour held him so close.
This, along with his documentary, The Gospel According To André, has a feeling of still trying to stay relevant and visible. But, what does he do exactly? He seems to mostly accompany rich women when they go shopping. He loves ‘a strictly private invitation funeral mass’ and has to drop in how he’s always frow or got a select invite to something or another.
He hates it when others don’t like his chosen gifts. It’s a lot of giving and receiving special stuff. All about the alligator. It has to be the best, most expensive and this attitude feels again dated. He moans about people treating him badly yet carries on doing things for them or going to their launches and dinners. He wants to feel important. Has to.
He compares Naomi Campbell to Elizabeth Taylor. Really? #eyeroll And addresses Edward Enninful as a Sir, which he’s not. He has an OBE, and, for a man who think he knows everything, this feels like a stupid thing not to know. I'm surprised the publisher didn't pick this up.
Sycophantic, he’s like one of those people who hears something new then acts like they invented it. It’s all Goyard luggage and blacked out cars. He’s sucked in by breeding and heritage and he's spoilt by a free and expensed lifestyle. Those days are over.
The book is quite repetitive; Met Gala, Anna Wintour Costume Center, Diana Vreeland, Lagerfeld, Chanel, Chanel, Chanel…
There’s a best dressed list at the end of the book and even a ‘picture section’.
Takeaway - He’s a self-professed ’elegant walker’ and, while bitter about his detachment from Wintour, Talley has kept all the receipts, literally, and they are all here to read. Burn.
While not a new book, this autobiography was originally published in 1954, it has been reproduced, this year, by the V&A Museum with a cover illustration by their Student Illustrator of the Year, 2017.
Elsa Schiaparelli is an illusive pillar of fashion. While we know the name - pronounced skap-ə-REL-ee - we don’t really have many images of her. She’s not a fashion character like her contemporary, Chanel. The image in my head is of a dark haired woman wearing a 1930s-type velvet dress with a sculptural hat, but, other than that, she’s fairly anonymous.
V&A - Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli - £8.99
Italian by birth, but French in her sartorial spirit, she’s a stylish rolling stone who gathers no moss, moving between countries like a migratory bird. She falls into fashion and runs with it. She talks about herself in the third person and, while not a stickler for dates, you get a rough idea of the time by events like the war and the Queen’s coronation.
The book is a whirlwind trip of her life journey up until 1954 when she closes her couture house. She lives until 1973.
Schiaparelli feels like a free spirit who has the confidence to design what she wants and follows her instinct, but she isn’t hung up on the idea of ‘fashion’. It just comes naturally to her. She was the first to use shoulder pads, animal prints and was the inventor of ‘shocking pink’, hence the name of the book. She collaborated with artists including Jean Cocteau, Alberto Giacometti and Salvador Dalí, producing windows and interesting pieces for her fashion label.
She resonates through fashion today. Her first perfume, Shocking by Schiaparelli, was in a bottle shaped like a female torso. Jean Paul Gaultier? She produced newspaper printed fabrics. John Galliano at Dior? And pioneered the idea of playfulness and unusual motifs. Martin Margiela?
She’s made me want to visit Hammamet in Tunisia, where she retires to, and she’s the kind of character you would watch and take note of whatever she does, wherever she goes or whatever she produces.
Schiaparelli, as a brand, has so many tropes it’s a shame it didn’t have a renaissance like Chanel. It would have made for far more interesting fashion. Can you imagine somebody like Galliano at Schiaparelli? So good.
The name was bought in 2007 by Diego Della Valle, who owns the Tod’s brand, but, it wasn't until September 2013 when Marco Zanini was appointed as the head designer. It hasn’t really made any impact and feels like something somebody should have done 40 years ago. It’s much harder to make any inroads, today, with fashion so saturated, regardless of the history or pedigree.
Schiaparelli isn’t too worried about the details and you get a feeling she knows she’ll always land on her feet. The book is an enjoyable look into French couture and how the Second World War affected it from the shocking pink lips of a woman who pioneered an adventurous and surreal way of dressing. Lobster, anybody?
Bill Cunningham’s first love was fashion, but the Big Apple came a close second. He left Boston for New York aged nineteen, losing his family’s support, but enjoying the infinite luxury of freedom. Living on a scoop of Ovaltine a day, he would run down to Fifth Avenue to feed on the spectacular sights of the window displays – then run back to his tiny studio to work all night.
Working as ‘William J’ - to spare his parents’ blushes - Bill became one of the most celebrated hat designers of the 1950s, his hats were featured in Vogue and Harper's Bazaar and worn by Marilyn Monroe and Jacqueline Kennedy. Bill’s mission was to bring happiness by making beautiful things – even if it meant pawning his bike to fund fancy-dress outfits for all his friends.
When women stopped wearing hats and his business was forced to close, Bill worked as a fashion journalist, touring the couture houses of Europe. But New York remained his home, and it was as a street photographer of the fashions of the city that he became well known, in a job that would last almost forty years.
Fashion Climbing is the enchanting memoir he left behind. Found after passing away in June 2016 aged 87, it captures the madcap times of his early career and the fashion scene of the mid-century. Written with the spark and wit of Holly Golightly, and brimming over with Bill’s infectious joy for life, it is a gift to all who seek beauty, whatever our style or status.
Left - Fashion Climbing - Bill Cunningham - £16.99
TheChicGeek says, “We don’t have the same affection for Bill on this side of the pond as the Americans, but we know him from the 2010 documentary ‘Bill Cunningham New York’, charting his life as a street style photographer for The New York Times. (I probably need to watch this again soon).
One thing to point out about this autobiography is, it doesn’t touch on his later life as a photographer. It focuses only on his early years, moving from a hat designer to fashion journalist and ends in the late 1960s.
Bill leaves his conservative Irish catholic family in Boston, who tried to curtail his creativity, via a job at department store Bonwit’s and on to New York. Bill finds himself making hats and using his imagination during the heyday of Dior’s ‘New Look’ and America’s obsession with following Paris’ lead.
Bill takes us back to a time when people applauded at fashion shows and not the one handed clap while social media-ing you get today. As delicate a bird as one of his favourite feathered creations, Cunningham projects himself as an outsider purely driven by the love of fashion. He’s exasperated by the social climbing and the following of fashion of women during this part of the 20th century.
This is America at the height of its power. Post war and the golden age of the American dream, this autobiography works through the decades when America peaked and was a powerhouse of fashion consumption and was its biggest patron. Bill must surely be the only man to combine time in the American army while sitting frow at Parisian couture houses.
This is a fun read, and, while it feels exaggerated, it is endearing and is an amusing look at America trying to find its fashion feet. Bill isn’t particularly modest though and wants to continually remind you how individual and original he is. At one point he proclaims he’s ten years ahead of fashion and how nobody gets him. Nobody wants to be ten years ahead of fashion, plus you’d think somebody would have moved into something other than hats faster if you were so ahead of your time.
The hat business dries up and he starts to use his expertise documenting the latest fashion shows and writing fashion articles for WWD. He certainly doesn't have many positive things to say about the fashion press and notes how badly dressed they mostly are.
The book charts his struggle, particularly financially, but you get a feeling his family have more money than he lets on and his uncle sounds very wealthy.
What’s interesting in the book is how things are so different, yet the same. His talk of fashion shows isn’t far off of the circus today. But, fashion has changed and that breathless wait for the next creation from a chosen designer doesn’t ring true anymore. We look, yes, but they no longer have the power with people following sheep-like.
For many, at this time, fashion is a vehicle for social standing, climbing and showing their wealth and his eyerolling at those who just use clothes for these purposes isn’t disguised. He wants them to just enjoy it for what it is, but, you can only do this if you understand fashion, and very few people truly do.
This is the Mad Men New York of parties in hotel ballrooms, social gatherings and peacocking. This is America at its most formal, yet still shows how conservative they are and yet with all the money. They would never buy anything that original or daring and that still rings true today.
This is a lite and inspiring read for anybody who gets excited about vintage fashion, women with cinched in waists and full skirts, Parisian fashion salons of the 1950s and bouji New York beach resorts."
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