Fashion books that offer more than good looks

December 18, 2017

Fashion books usually appeal to the eye with zippy photographs, playful illustrations, arresting typefaces. But the best of them will offer something for the head and heart — a surprising point of view, thoughtful essays, a distinctive style — that makes the experience memorable. Consider these three new books: "John Galliano Unseen" (Yale University Press, $60) by Robert Fairer; "Food in Vogue" (Abrams, $75), edited by Taylor Antrim; and "Items: Is Fashion Modern?" (The Museum of Modern Art, $45) by Paola Antonelli and Michelle Millar Fisher.

Visuals — big, bold, almost impossibly saturated with color and often witty as hell — bring a delicious bite to "Food in Vogue," a look at the fashion magazine’s approach to food over the decades. It’s an attitude best described as totemic rather than home ec/useful — and that’s the fun of it. I mean, who knew frozen vegetables could look so good? Well, Irving Penn did — and the proof is the very first photo, his, in the book.

Whether it’s "Chicken in Heels" from Helmut Newton in 2003 or a Eric Boman’s plush toy bunny climbing into a stewpot for 2014’s "Hop to It," these images speak to something more elegant, exotic, urgently elemental than the usual what’s-for-dinner ho-hum. The photos are arranged in an order clearly meant to surprise and, perhaps, shock. The emotional zing is compounded by the oversized (10-by-13.4-inch) format that allows the images to practically leap from the page.

Adding to the appeal is a collection of food-themed articles and essays, notably from Jeffrey Steingarten, Vogue’s much-lauded food columnist.

"John Galliano Unseen" captures the lush, romantic genius of an iconic couturier whose fall from grace in 2011 was sparked by what The New York Times later described as a "drunken anti-Semitic rant." The reference to that incident is oblique here. An introductory essay notes he "ceased designing" for Christian Dior and his own label in 2011, and "after a period of rehabilitation," became creative director of Maison Margiela in 2015. But then the audience for whom this book is intended knows full well the the arc of Galliano’s career.

I suspect that for many who pick it up, this season-by-season look at Galliano’s collections from 1996 to 2011 will spark nostalgic gasps of recognition of a favored silhouette, an innovative cut or a sensual drape of cloth. Robert Fairier, billed here as American Vogue’s "exclusive backstage photographer" for over a decade, captures the energy of Galliano’s shows through behind-the-scenes glimpses of models striking poses before hitting the runway.

Andre Leon Talley, the former editor-at-large for American Vogue, joins Claire Wilcox, senior curator of fashion at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, and Fairer himself in offering thoughtful reflections on Galliano’s life, work and enduring appeal.

"Items: Is Fashion Modern?" is the title of both an exhibition running at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and its companion volume. The book lists 111 pieces of clothing and accessories that, according to its back cover, "have influenced the world in the past 100 years." The list starts with 501 jeans from Levi Strauss & Co. and ends with YSL Touche Eclat, "a combination concealer and face highlighter in an all-in-one tube and brush" released in 1992 by Yves St. Laurent. In between you’ll find items ranging from aviator glasses to the Fitbit to the little black dress to the white T-shirt.

This book is loaded with photographs and illustrations, but there’s a lot of text, too, giving it a scholarly feel. That’s deliberate, I think, as the Museum of Modern Art has not hosted a clothing exhibition since 1944. An introductory essay titled "Who’s Afraid of Fashion?" by co-author Paola Antonelli, a senior curator in the museum’s department of architecture and design, captures the museum’s trepidation well. Antonelli makes a compelling case in her essay for the significance and cultural importance of fashion, a message one hopes her museum, and others, will heed. The book offers plenty of examples, many of them sparked by neat facts and telling details.



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