Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Last-Year Reads: The Fashion Makers by Barbra Walz and Bernadine Morris

The Fashion Makers is a great snapshot of the American fashion industry in the late 1970s. Subtitled 'An Inside Look at America's Leading Designers', Bernadine Morris provides the words and Barbra Walz provides the fantastic original black and white photographs for profiles of 50 different designers.

This book was published in 1978, that seemingly odd period of fashion discussed in Kennedy Fraser's 1982 The Fashionable Mind or the "confused state" described by Ernestine Carter at the end of her 1980 Magic Names of Fashion. Barbra touches on the shifts in this period in her introduction when she says that the public were reacting to designers "on a new level - they had become celebrities ... Designers were in magazines, on the radio and in television commercials and were making not only clothes but sunglasses, umbrella, luggage, shoes, jewellery and cosmetics."

But this confused state is more apparent in the selection of designers. Old timers, such as Edith Head and Lilly Daché (pictured doing her best for the glamour cause on her exercise bike), rub shoulders with the next bright young things like Donna Karan. Couturiers such as Arnold Scaasi and Charles James (shown looking louche outside the Chelsea Hotel) are next to those such as Betsey Johnson who are determined to keep fashion fun and prices down. She remarks, "this stuff at high prices would be wrong".

As the fashions themselves seem to be being pulled in all directions, there are some designers featured who perfectly capture the micro trends of the era. Take for example Joe Famolare's "Get There" shoes, made with a wavy platform sole, which - at the time of the book - were taking $100 million worth of sales a year. Or Aldo Cipullo who was launched off the back of his "Love Bracelet" for Cartier, basically selling the hippy philosophy to the masses back for thousands of dollars.

Bernadine Morris's text is succinct and business-like, whether talking about profits or parrots (in the case of Mr. John's profile). It outlines the designer's educational background and some of their style philosophies. There are also some interesting comments from designers responsible for shifting attitudes in the fashion industry, whether due to their ethnicity (Scott Barrie: "My mother told me 'It's hard to break into that field ... blacks don't make it there' ... We changed all that.") or their gender (Diane Von Furstenberg: "I know what I am, and what women can do. I know what women want. There's been a big change in women in the last few years. It's not a question of age or background ... Being liberated doesn't mean being ugly, looking like a truckdriver. It means being free to do what you want to do, to be productive, to be honest.").

While plenty of names profiled in the book may have fallen into relative obscurity over the last 35 years, it's striking how the image of those who remain household names remains fairly static: Calvin Klein is perfect American simplicity photographed in a plain white top against a bare wood building, Ralph Lauren is shown at home surrounded by his family, while there's a spread devoted to shots of Halston partying with the beautiful people. Is this, as Barbra suggested, the birth of the designer as their own 'brand': ready to transfer that brand to a perfume, a lipstick or a lifestyle? While, in the introduction, she says she sought to break through any stereotypes, in fact Barbra's photographs have ended up reinforcing each of these personal brands, and have help make our own image of the fashion makers. But, remarkably, somehow the profiles still manage to look authentic, unposed and - unthinkable today - unfiltered by any PR. Perhaps that's why they manage to still look so fresh.

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