The Longform.org Guide to Haute Couture Genius
Five incredible reads about the eccentric men of high fashion.
High fashion produces a strange kind of genius, artistic perfection squeezed by the demands of a massive international marketplace. In this collection, we search for the strange alchemy that produces true fashion brilliance, beginning in postwar Europe and coming all the way to the present. Karl Lagerfeld, Boy Prince of Fashion Vanessa Grigoriadis • New York • February 2006 A profile of Karl Lagerfeld, old-world couturier and pop cartoon:
"His look is an extremely conscious metaphor for his philosophy of fashion and life: Here, watch as I bring together the old, in my tall eighteenth-century collar and bizarre powdered hair, with the new, as seen in my ponytail and $2,500 Agatha leather pants, 'the most expensive leather pants in the world,' he declares, with a laugh exactly like Count Chocula's in its length and ridiculousness."
The Only One Hilton Als • The New Yorker • November 1994 Vogue's creative director André Leon Talley, one of the few African-Americans in a top position in fashion, is held in both awe and mistrust:
"There Talley will sometimes perform a kind of boss-man theatre—throw papers about, slam telephones down, noisily expel the incompetent. 'This is too much. What story do we need to be working on, children? What story? Let's get cracking, darlings, on fur. Fuh, fuh, fuh. One must set the mood around the fuh and the heels, the hair, the skin, the nipples under the fuh, the hair around the nipples, the fuh clinging to the nipples, sweat, oysters, champagne, régence!' "
So Very Valentino Matt Tyrnauer • Vanity Fair • August 2004 A portrait of the affectionate yet prickly relationship between Valentino Garavani, the great Italian couturier, and Giancarlo Giammetti, the mastermind behind Valentino's fashion empire:
"There's a stir at the entrance of the terminal as a silver Mercedes-Benz pulls up, followed by a minivan. Valentino emerges from the car in a Prince of Wales–plaid suit under a shearling coat, with a flowered scarf around his neck, and enters the terminal, walking slightly ahead of his retinue. His tan is rich and close in color to his chestnut-brown hair, which is blown out to immobile perfection. He has a warm smile and bright, heavy-lidded eyes, which are partially hidden behind rose-colored aviators. After he and Giammetti greet each other with a kiss on each cheek, we proceed to the airplane. Three buses are needed, one to move Valentino, Giammetti, and staff, another for luggage, and a third to transport five of Valentino's six pugs—Milton, Maude, Monty, Margot, and Molly."
The Fantasist Michael Specter • The New Yorker • September 2003 A profile of John Galliano written a decade before his career imploded following a series of anti-Semitic rants:
"The morning of this summer's haute-couture show, Galliano put on a pair of carefully distressed bluejeans with perfectly frayed cuffs—which covered his sandals but not the toenails he had recently painted a glossy shade that he calls 'cosmic blue.' Galliano's personal hair-and-makeup team had been briefed in advance on the look he wanted to achieve, which was inspired by the evolution of dance. "I am feeling very Spanish tango dirty creepy with oily black hair," he said. His stylist got the message: he glued a stringy goatee onto Galliano's chin and trimmed it to a neat triangle; after that, he spent half an hour curling Galliano's hair and then applied a thick coat of mascara to the lashes beneath his dark-brown eyes."
Cut Against the Bias Paul Johnson • This Recording • January 2011 The intertwining histories of Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior:
"Balenciaga possibly thought that Dior got too much sheer pleasure out of high fashion, which in his own view was an art on a par with painting, sculpture, and architecture, to be taken with the utmost seriousness. It was not something in which you could faire le ponchinelle, 'do a Picasso' (in those days Picasso often called himself the 'clown of art'). But Balenciaga certainly did not regret the success of the new look. He was a businessman, and a very astute one, and he recognized that it had done wonders for the Parisian fashion industry and that everyone involved in it, himself perhaps most of all, had benefited from the publicity. He certainly did not see Dior as a rival, and he had no fear that his own claims to excellence would be overlooked. Dior dressed the rich, Balenciaga the very rich."
Anne Garrett is an editor of Longform.org.
Photograph of Paris Fashion Week by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.