If you are an avid student of fashion history or if you are simply a fashionista, the one book you must absolutely read is The Beautiful Fall (Fashion, Genius and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris) by Alicia Drake. Certainly, it is one of the most controversial books ever written on Yves St. Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. In fact, Lagerfeld tried to stop the publication of this book, and failing that, tried to prevent bookstores from carrying this book. Controversial beginning aside, this is one of the most fascinating books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in recent memory.
The book takes as its focal point the parallel lives of Lagerfeld and St. Laurent who are arguably two of the most influential designers in fashion. It paints in vivid and rich details their respective careers, from their auspicious beginnings, to their full blown unrelenting rivalry against the backdrop of 70s Paris and all the way until the emergence of Lagerfeld at the head of Chanel. In Drake’s hands, Paris, as it emerges from the restrained post war years to a more exuberant and reckless mood is the crucial third character to the duo of Lagerfeld and St. Laurent who certainly used the city as the staging ground of their artistic aspirations and their more personal undertakings. There is no shortage of controversial details in the book. But such controversial facts never distract from what is clearly a well researched portrait of two figures that couldn’t be more different from the other. Drake paints in careful brushstrokes the heady parties, the excessive relationships and the simmering jealousies that surrounded Lagerfeld and St. Laurent and you come away with a sense of being immersed in a completely different world, one that is normally off limits to mortals like you and I. More importantly we come away with a much greater understanding of these two gigantic personalities. Whatever else we might think of them, this book allows us to have a much greater appreciation of their enormous talent, their verve and yes, survival skills. Equally intriguing are the stories behind seemingly well known facts about various famous personages. Just one example would be what we learn about Pierre Bergé who emerges as a much more sympathetic figure. This book contains a veritable who’s who in the fashion world.
Lest you think that this book is all glitter and gossip, it must be pointed out that it is also an invaluable resource for appreciating in far greater detail the giant steps taken by fashion at the hand of these two masters. Women now take for granted the ease of the trouser suit but this was a highly daring and innovative move when St. Laurent first debuted the “le smoking” in the late 60s. Nor should we underestimate how much Lagerfeld changed the way people viewed fashion by nimbly adapting trends even before people knew what they wanted. More importantly, he was the first to realize the almost global impact that fashion could have. As a master of endless reinvention, Lagerfeld is the best and Madonna is not fit to holds candle to him.
So the next time you have the urge to read a good biography, a fashion book, or one set in Paris, I suggest you go with The Beautiful Fall. You won’t regret it.