By Ellen Warren
April 18, 2014
Here are three books for all of you fashionistas out there.
Fashionable Selby by Todd Selby, Abrams, 348 pages, $35
Are you the nosy type? Someone who loves to see how other people live? Can't get enough of the photos of celebrities' closets and powder rooms?
This book was designed for you.
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And "design" is an apt word here, because Selby is giving us a look into the homes and workplaces of a wild crowd of unique — and sometimes bizarre — designers. Also crafters, artisans, uninhibited creative misfits and some who defy definition. Most of them you've never heard of, and that's part of their charm.
You'll meet "progressive regressive fiber entrepreneur" Ambika Conroy, who raises her own bunnies, shaves them and turns their fuzz into knitted fashion. She calls it the "from bunny to hat concept." You might freak out at Parisian Marisol Suarez's oeuvre. Her wearable art is made from human hair. And step inside the workroom of designer Lara Jensen, who incorporates sculpted gold maggots into her creepy accessories.
We're also introduced to more traditional creatives, like the women who fashion the signature fabric and leather camellias for Chanel at Maison Lemarié or the talented hands at work at the venerable haute couture embroidery atelier Maison Lesage.
Selby's photos pop; they're total eye candy. And his naive, whimsical drawings of each of his subjects (and sometimes their pets) are a hoot. But the real showpieces of the book (the third in a series) are the inventive hand-written questionnaires — each different — that Selby asks the 42 featured talents to complete. The Q's are often more entertaining than the A's.
"Could you design an outfit for a snake?" Selby asks Yoshikazu Yamagata, whose runway fashions include traditional tatami mats embellished with plastic doll faces, toys and even a little girl's frilly dress. One of his creations is on the book's cover. The designer obliges with a drawing of a snake wearing a toy- and flower-encrusted ensemble.
"What have witches taught you?" is a Selby question posed to art director Simon Costin, whose home decor includes a giant Humpty Dumpty perched precariously on his couch. Costin's reply: "Love, respect for each other and the planet and to be careful what we wish for."
"What is the best thing about working with hair?" Selby asks Suarez. "Because it is free and living!" she replies in French. (An appendix translates French and Japanese responses into English.)
Responding to Selby's simple query, "What goes into your design work?" designer Nicola Formichetti writes: "It's easy. Just get some hooker shoes & sexy underwear & some masks."
I've covered New York fashion week for the Chicago Tribune and come away from that experience convinced that fashion-world types are snooty, judgmental, self-absorbed, petty and focused on the trivial. Selby seems to have found the ones who are none of these.
Selby's artists produce exquisite leather tassels (Kimberly and Nancy Wu), shoes with giant fangs doubling as heels that look like they'd eat you alive (Iris van Herpen), and clothes dyed in squid ink in a Brooklyn backyard (Audrey Louise Reynolds). There's even a photo of the squid — and the pot of ink.
The book's introduction by author and Barneys creative director Simon Doonan got me thinking again about the days I spent at the runway shows and my disappointment with the people I met in the industry. His Barneys mentor, he writes, taught him that fashion without "craft and skill and artisan magic" is "soulless and pointless and had no enduring value."
Todd Selby shows you the enduring value.
Pageants, Parlors, & Pretty Women: Race and Beauty in the Twentieth-Century South by Blain Roberts, The University of North Carolina Press, 363 pages, $39.95
You might think that a book about beautiful women, especially beautiful Southern women, would be larky and fun. But when you mix in the question of race and the issue of how beauty standards were applied to black and white women, you have the makings of a serious book. A very serious book.
Author Blain Roberts, an assistant professor of history at California State University, Fresno, began writing on this topic as an undergraduate at Princeton University, and the book that has resulted from her ongoing research is much more scholarly, dense and footnoted than you'd imagine from the appealing retro cover photos of two crowned beauty queens, one white, one black.
"Female beauty in the American South was, more so than in the rest of the country, deeply racialized," Roberts writes. "White southerners continued to herald white women for their beauty and, more often than not, mock black women for their African features long after slavery was gone." The standards of beauty for both races — lighter skin and "good" (straight) hair — were based on the idealized white Southern belle.
Whites-only beauty contests became high-profile events, and some of the book's most intriguing passages describe how, beginning in the 1930s, crop beauty pageants were used as marketing tools for the region's agriculture products, such as tobacco. Historic photos from the time show women in scanty clothes fashioned of tobacco leaves being evaluated by men at a simulated tobacco auction.
Yes, there were African-American crop queens too, but their images weren't used to sell the product. "When images of African-Americans were used at all in promoting products, in and out of the South, the preferred genre was racial caricature, which trucked in the denigration of black figures. One of the most popular advertising icons of the century was, after all, Aunt Jemima, the mammy figure extraordinaire, hardly famous for her beauty."
It wasn't until 1970, well after the civil rights protests of the '50s and '60s, that a black woman (Miss Iowa, Cheryl Brown) walked the runway in the crown jewel of pageants, the Miss America competition. The first black Miss America wasn't crowned until 1983, and it was 10 more years before a black woman from a Southern state won the title.
Beauty and civil rights surprisingly often intersected in the black beauty parlors of the South. "Beauticians nurtured talk in their shops that could lead to action that would have proven dangerous, if not impossible, to carry out in other spaces in black communities."
For instance, Bernice Robinson's beauty parlor in Charleston, S.C., "emerged as a vital center of civil rights activities in the city in the 1950s. ... Robinson began taking customers to the (voter) registration office in the early 1950s, leaving wet-haired women behind, under the dryer."
"The work of southern black beauticians in the early to mid-twentieth century demonstrates that the pursuit of beauty is more complicated than we might initially think," Roberts writes.
The Pursuit of Style: Advice & Musings From America's Top Designers by The Council of Fashion Designers of America, Abrams, 224 pages, $19.95
This book is perfect if you need to kill a couple of minutes. And I do mean a couple. The chapter headings tell you what you're in for: Members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America offering us their observations on "Style," "Career," "Love" and "Life." You could argue they're experts on the first two. But love and life?
Too bad it isn't a coffee-table, large-format book, because Bil Donovan's watercolor illustrations are captivating. But the little book's weird size (roughly the same as an iPad mini) doesn't give the artwork the space it deserves.
Actress Jessica Alba, who writes the intro, promises that the book is filled with "touching personal stories and funny quips," but I have to say that's a stretch.
Asked to describe their style in five words, the experts offer such insight as "very Virgo" and "minimal gangster." Because I write a column that often touches on style, I have a stronger interest than most in the thoughts of respected designers on, say, the question of what is "classic style." But on a single page in the book four of the designers answer in the same not-helpful way: "effortless."
Jenna Lyons, J.Crew's president and creative director, is more down-to-earth than most of the hundreds of fashion people interviewed. Every woman should own "a really new toothbrush," she says. As for a man: "a good nose-hair clipper." Amen.
There are many — way too many — pages devoted to designers offering up their thoughts on "always" and "never."
Always: "Have great make-up sex"; "wear sunglasses"; "send a thank-you note"; "give (away) most of your French fries"; "say yes"; "remember I am probably annoying sometimes too." And a half dozen say, "Be yourself."
Never: "Wear something itchy"; "drink too much of your own Kool-Aid"; wear crocs"; "leave the house without mascara"; "wear toe rings"; "leave the house without accessorizing"; "leave anything in writing"; "jaywalk."
Don't get me wrong. It's amusing to thumb through the book. Who knew Ralph Lauren had a sense of humor? Asked "The first thing people notice about me is," he replied, "How much I look like Cary Grant."
Wait, you don't think he was serious, do you?
Don't look for any great insight or imparted wisdom here.
"Design when you're inspired," suggests Erica Courtney. Gee, really? As for "My greatest indulgence," you will not be surprised that many respondents chose "chocolate."
Ellen Warren is a Tribune senior correspondent and columnist whose greatest indulgence is not chocolate.
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