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Garden Party

Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart (Harper, $35.00, 419 pages)

What interested Diana most, once again, was the philosophy detectable throughout her life:  her faith in the divine spark, the complete worlds of imaginative people whose distinctive tastes and determination turned fantasy into reality.

A bigger than life person often sparks the interest of the general public.   A biography can be engaging and illuminating, as was the story of the 20th Century designer Coco Chanel, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel by Karen Karbo.   However, let’s be realistic, the general public isn’t fascinated by the women’s fashion queen and king-makers, the wizards behind the screens.   It’s pretty much a niche market for biographers.   In this book, the wizard behind the glossy pages of Harper’s Bazaar and American Vogue magazines, Diana Dalziel Vreeland is the subject of this, the second biographical work by British writer Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.

As with most biographies, Empress of Fashion tracks Mrs. Vreeland’s life in chronological order, from her birth in Paris, France on July 29, 1903, to her death in New York City on August 22, 1989.   Given the vast number of cigarettes she inhaled during her lifetime – most photographs show her smoking, it’s amazing that she lived to the age of 85.   The early chapters are filled with references to many of Mrs. Vreeland’s well-known relatives, both living and deceased.   Author Stuart might have enhanced the reader’s experience by including a family tree illustration.   A perfect example can be found in the sumptuous biography, Sister: The Life of Legendary American Interior Decorator Mrs. Henry Parish II by Apple Parish Bartlett and Susan Bartlett Crater.

Mistakes that might previously have seemed nugatory now loomed larger.

The language used throughout the book is quite specific and not necessarily in common use.   Ms. Stuart describes the upper crust of society as “gratin.”   Yes, the meaning can be determined by its use in the sentence; however, “infra dig,” “nugatory” and “fete champetre” required a quick look-up.   If her reference to an outdoor party had been in Italian, as in una festa all’aperto, this reviewer would have understood.   Sadly, my eighth grade conversational French is lamentably rusty.

Happily, there are photographs to inform the reader just how beautiful Mrs. Vreeland’s younger sister Alexandra, her husband Reed and her two sons were in contrast to her own angular and hawkish face.   The point in made throughout the book with regard to Alexandra and Reed.   Perhaps the beauty she placed on the pages of the fashion magazines and the wonderful clothing lines she encouraged (Bill Blass, Halston, Oscar de la Renta) did compensate for her features.   It seems to have been a driving force that propelled her to fame and notoriety.

There was a noticeable shift in voice and cadence of the book as the telling of Mrs. Vreeland’s life drew to its conclusion.   It began in an almost prissy and pompous way but eased back and took on an infatuated, emotional and nearly-poetic tone at the end.

Recommended to the fashionista over forty.

Ruta Arellano

Note:  During the height of her fashion magazine career in the early 1970s, Mrs. Vreeland challenged her long-standing notion of presenting clothes and accessories as desirable purchases for ladies.   Her editorial features in Vogue were confrontational and highly suggestive of sexuality and aggressiveness.   This reviewer was newly-married and employed in San Francisco at the world headquarters of the Bank of America.   Vogue offered little or no help with suggestions for looking well-dressed and appropriate to my work environment.   At the time I was confused about why Vogue had ceased to provide helpful fashion guidance.   Ms. Stuart’s book has cleared up the mystery.   RA

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   Empress of Fashion is also available as either a Nook Book and Kindle Edition e-book.


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A review of Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland by Amanda Mackenzie Stuart.

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No Regrets

Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy by Judith Watt (Harper Design, $35.00, 288 pages)

“Alexander McQueen has been referred to as the fashion world’s darling, its rebel and pioneer.   He was all of these things…”   Daphne Guinness

“He likes to call his rivals ‘pretentious’…  (his arrogance is) his own worst flaw, second only to his ignorance.”   Daily Mail (London)

“Give me time and I’ll give you a revolution.”   Alexander McQueen

The fashion designer Alexander McQueen was a number of figures in one.   First, he was a fashion visionary – a man who saw the future of the industry and put his daring vision on stage years before the world was ready to see it.   Second, he was an infant terrible, a terribly antagonistic figure who loved challenging authority and upsetting others for seemingly no reason.   (In one instance, he began a fashion show exactly one hour late so that he could see the invited guests squirm.)   Third, he was literally a mama’s boy.   McQueen could so little handle the thought of living without his beloved mother that he committed suicide between the day of her death and her funeral service.

If it’s not already clear, McQueen was both a genius and a troubled figure.   This in itself would present problems for any biographer or tribute writer.   In Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy, Judith Watt does her best to present a calm portrait of a fashion designer most known for his “over the top runway shows,” and sometimes over the top personal life.   If a reader was to simply read the words of this generally complimentary account (clearly intended to present a positive spin on McQueen), he or she might feel the pro-McQueen case was aptly presented.   However, at least half of McQueen is filled with visual images of McQueen’s work and most of them are rather startling and uncompromising, if not unpleasant.   Strike that, they’re mostly unpleasant.

“You’ve got to know the rules to break them.   That’s what I’m here for, to demolish the rules…”   Alexander McQueen

“I want women to be afraid of the women I dress.”   Alexander McQueen

I began reading this account in the corner with the group that thinks of the late designer as a boat-rocking genius.   One might argue that he was a rock and roll designer, always seeking to rile up the establishment even when it was all for show (and for controversy resulting in P.R., resulting in becoming and being known for being controversial).   But the great majority of the images displayed in this self-proclaimed “in-depth look at the most controversial designer of a generation” are so often off-putting that it’s clear why McQueen had to issue this semi-apology for his work:  “I know I’m provocative.   You don’t have to like it…  you do have to acknowledge it.”

The release of this volume is unlikely to alienate existing fans of the late designer, but it is certainly not going to win him any converts.   It’s probable that some will pick up this book and rapidly set it down.   To give McQueen his due, he designed fashion that was – to use his own prophetic words, “ahead of its time.”   And he remained true to his vision first through failure and then success.

McQueen’s wild, unbridled form of genius sometimes led him to seem like a visitor from another planet – still he was a man, an artist of passion.   It will undoubtedly be many decades before his rightful place in fashion history will be determined.   But Alexander McQueen was fully correct when he told the world:  “If you don’t have passion for something, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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A review of Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy by Judith Watt.

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A review of Wear This Now: Your Style Solution For Every Season and Any Occasion by Michelle Madhok with Eileen Conlan.

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A review of The Secret Lives of Dresses: A Novel by Erin McKean.

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Fast Company

Breaking the Rules: A Novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford (St. Martin’s Paperbacks; $7.99)

“She is a top supermodel, one of the world’s most beautiful women.   Men love her.   Women adore her.   So why is someone trying to kill her?”

Who are these people?

Fortitude, commitment and romance are the main ingredients of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s Emma Harte series.   Breaking the Rules is the seventh and most recent book in the series.   Considering the squeaky clean virtuous heroine, M, readers will soon realize that she isn’t the one breaking the rules.   Yes, our spunky and independent English lass has some felonious thoughts; however, since M does not follow through with putting them into play, she is able to retain her image.

Author Bradford seems to abhor loose ends and she takes 488 pages to provide her reader with a neatly bundled story.   What this reviewer wants to know is who are these people populating the story?   Surely there is a family with extreme wealth and power headed by gorgeous women whose great loves are lurking just around the corner.   Maybe they exist in never, never land, but not in the real world.

Maybe that’s the draw of romance novels.   They are geared to transport the reader away from the mundane and, in recent times, painful reality of every-day-life.   What is the target audience?   Is there an age group that Bradford aims to please?   If so, perhaps happily married, grandmas-to-be aren’t  part of the group.   Too much fantasy, just like too many cooks, can spoil the story for a reader who takes pleasure in the small joys of life.

By the way, the costly pink champagne used throughout the story is a not-so-subtle indicator that Bradford’s characters are more than a cut above the average celebrant.   Too bad she had to hammer the reader over the head with the reference!   The Hermes Kelly handbags were proof enough that these people are not at all like you and me!

Recommended if you like that sort of book.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A copy of the book was purchased for her.   Barbara Taylor Bradford’s new novel is Playing the Game (St. Martin’s Press; $27.99; 400 pages).

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