Dai, "Dressing Down the Fashion Novel"

The contemporary fashion novel is its own small and murky genre of literature, though genre is likely too impressive a term for what is essentially the shallow end of chick lit’s puerile wading pool. In the early years of the last decade, several fashion novels, most with female authors and aspirational titles like Bergdorf Blondes and Fashion Babylon, entered the mainstream literary scene. What defines these books as fashion novels is their heavy engagement with an urban, high fashion world where clothes and beauty are held in high esteem, a world closely aligned in most of these books with the upper crust of American society. These novels cultivate an insider’s perspective to fashion. They try to demystify the daily lives of the stylish elite for lay people living outside such circles. As insider testimonials, they are distended with superficial details conflating fashion with wealth and feminine beauty and mostly devoid of the gritty, disillusioning doses of realism that make people want to read such literature. Indeed, Bergdorf Blondes, a loosely autobiographical novel by Vogue editor and New York ‘it’ girl Plum Sykes, might be considered a definitive work of the genre, as representative of the celluloid, post 2000 fashion novel as Lord of the Rings is of the 20th century fantasy novel.

Bergdorf Blondes is a gossipy, tell-all tale centered on the maudlin antics of New York City’s uber-wealthy elite. The unnamed narrator is a fashion writer who spends her days hunting for a PH (potential husband) and gallivanting about with various “Bergdorfs” and “Vandonbilts.” In the course of a few months, fiancés are found and promptly lost, Missoni dresses worn and callously discarded, and various betrayals revealed and breezily forgotten. The plot doesn’t go much further than that. Character development occurs in the divulgement of trivialities, things like the narrator’s mastery of French (she only knows très and moi), her tolerance for last season Manolo heels and her cocktail of choice (Bellinis, très chic). Despite the protagonist’s day job as a fashion writer, the clothes in Bergdorf Blondes are treated mostly as status symbols, with women jockeying fiercely for the most lavish Hermès Birkin bag. To read Syke’s book is to know at long last the beauty regimens, glitzy clothes and Cosmo-inflected sexual ramblings of the Manhattan socialite, a creature who lives for Vitamin C shots and trips to the “Fritz,” aka the “fucking Ritz.” It is to know—since we were all wondering after all—the ins and outs of a material world so exaggerated that it enters a new stratosphere of hyperbole.

There are a few positives to the book. A certain readership will find Bergdorf Blondes slickly done with its Sex and the City overtones, and some of the book’s bubbly musings on personal hygiene—an ode to Brazilian bikini waxes comes to mind—are not completely humorless. Some might even label the book a witty social satire of New York City’s elite. Its chatty tone and absurd one-liners (“You’ve got to recognize it when a day is a total waste of makeup”) certainly suggest something or someone is being lampooned. Yet the already rarefied lifestyle of Park Avenue princesses hardly needs more satire to illuminate its flaws, and as a card carrying member of the social circle she appears to be satirizing, Sykes comes off as more indulgent than critical of her characters’ excesses.   

While Bergdorf Blondes sets the standard for insider testimonials on the FABULOUS world of high fashion, a few fashion novels take the opposite tack, following fashion outsiders as they navigate their way through the industry. Two of these outside-in books are Shopgirl by Steve Martin and The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, both of which were made into highly successful, big-budget films starring major Hollywood talent in the mid Aughties.

Shopgirl is a quirky little novella by actor Steve Martin set in modern day Los Angeles. Writing in the third person, Martin introduces the reader to Mirabelle Buttersfield, the titular shop girl, who works in the glove department at Neiman Marcus. Mirabelle spends most of her days at work bored, elbows propped up on the glass glove box that is her sole charge. She is depressed and takes medication for it, and in her free time, likes to draw images of nude bodies floating in empty, black space. Mirabelle’s dreary trajectory is disrupted by the arrival of two men: Jeremy, a callow, young lay about whom she meets at the laundromat and promptly goes to bed with, and Ray Porter, an older man with money who takes her out to nice restaurants and buys her expensive things.

Though set in a glossy, plasticized vision of L.A., Shopgirl is mostly about the relationships, romantic and otherwise, that people form and how these relationships play off each other. The fashion world is seen only as a kitschy foil to the deeper, emotionally fraught world Mirabelle discovers via the men in her life. Shopgirl sets up Neiman Marcus as a microcosm for L.A.’s manufactured celebrity culture. The women who shop at the store are described as “The Wives of Important Men.” These “tribal” women are physically identical, slim and busty, with noses “bobbed into a shape nature never knew,” and faces “pulled into death masks.” The workers at Neiman’s are similarly one-dimensional, tittering over celebrity sightings and the latest dieting craze. Their shining queen is Lisa, a cosmetics counter girl, who is renowned among her coworkers for her incredible body and insatiable appetite for fellatio. Mirabelle, who is ambivalent both to her body and oral sex, is the outcast of the bunch, tucked away in the store’s anachronistic glove department, which is a relic of that fashion era when well-heeled women had need of such accessories for nights at the opera. Though she is described as a “sharp” dresser, Mirabelle has no passion for fashion—and why should she? The fashion world Mirabelle observes at Neiman Marcus is one of pure economy, driven by the efficient buying and selling of luxury clothes. Those who buy into the scene are revealed to be as shallow as their interests; they are women like Lisa, defined by their external beauty and hyper sexuality. To find the meaningful, heartfelt relationships Mirabelle is searching for, she must leave the fashion world, which she eventually does, quitting her job at Neimans to become a gallery girl in San Francisco and pursue her drawing. The implicit message is clear. Fashion is about commerce, not art. True art, not to mention love and personal fulfillment, exist beyond the dim ambient lighting of Neiman Marcus.

A similar point is buried in the text of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada. The novel tells the tale of Andrea “Andy” Sachs, a bookish, brown-haired girl from Long Island who after studying English at Brown, moves in with a college friend in Manhattan, hoping to land a writing gig at The New Yorker. After stumbling by chance into an interview at the fashion magazine Runway, meek, unstylish Andy ends up as the personal assistant to Miranda Priestley, Runway’s impossibly chic editor-in-chief.  The rest of the novel focuses on Andy’s daily duties as Miranda’s bitch-of-all-trades. For several months, she performs all manner of absurd and demeaning tasks for her boss, from tracking down the manuscript of an unpublished Harry Potter book to fetching endless rounds of coffee, all in hopes that following her year of service, a grateful Miranda will make a few calls to get Andy that coveted place at The New Yorker. Needless to say, Andy quits before her year is up, broken by the realization that she might be becoming as soulless as the despised Miranda. Her departure from fashion predictably catalyzes a creative rebound as Andy rediscovers her passion for literary journalism.

As a fast-paced, New York City tale of horrible bosses and dangerous ambition, The Devil Wears Prada is believable, even winning. Young readers can easily identify with the brutal push and pull Andy feels between her burgeoning professional and private lives. Ms. Sachs is like any one of the thousands of twenty-somethings who, armed with a superfluous degree and youthful good looks, head to the Big Apple to follow their largely unrealistic career dreams. Like many of her peers, Andy endures low pay, dates with older men and the occasional, intense bout of homesickness, all in the name of professional advancement. In one poignant passage, Andy attempts to explain her job to her parents, only to realize that they simply don’t get it, and what’s more can’t ever get it, for the fashion world is far beyond the suburban bubble her parents live in. Weisberger identifies this apparent rift between the fashion world and real life, but then fails to convey the actual complexity of the world she creates in Runway’s offices. What occurs instead is a flattening of fashion, a reduction to commonly held stereotypes. Runway’s staff is stuffed full of “flamboyantly gay” men and impossibly thin, milky skinned women who stalk about in four inch heels and leather hotpants. Clothes are play things for the Runway girls, whom Andy refers to as “Clackers.” They frequently dip into the magazine’s exhaustive fashion closets to “borrow” the latest couture by Prada and Gucci. It’s a thoroughly unflattering picture of fashion magazine culture that Weisberger paints, a culture lacking completely in human warmth, or a respect for clothes as anything more than expensive thrills. It’s also a portrayal that her readers expect, an extended stereotype of the fashion world that ultimately fails to move. After a brief stay, Andy packs up her desk at Runway, bound for brighter days at an artsy, literary journal a few floors down, where real life can start anew.   

 Though undoubtedly a commercial success, The Devil Wears Prada received a chillier reception from fashion industry professionals. Katie Betts, the former editor of Harper’s Bazaar, called it a “thinly veiled roman à clef” of Weisberger’s time as personal assistant to the real life Miranda Priestley, Vogue’s Editor-in-chief Anna Wintour. Ruth La Ferla, a fashion critic at the Times’s, wrote that everything about the story seemed contrived, especially the flashy, glamorous clothes of the Runway girls, which authentic fashion editors would never be caught dead in. Weisberger’s novel was lambasted in the fashion press as a farce, a poorly written diatribe against an already misunderstood industry.

Though Weisberger’s critics make valid points about how fashion is portrayed in The Devil Wears Prada, they seem to miss the book’s more serious subtext. Yes, the clothes are off and the people stereotyped. The indoctrinated know that real fashion editors prefer a studied mix of high and low fashion—J.crew sweaters with their Marni pants--to vulgar, head-to-toe designer ensembles by Fendi and Armani, and real fashion offices are far from a homogenous sea of size zero glamazons and sassy gay sidekicks. And yet in their zealous fact checking of Weisberger’s work, the critics overlook the larger message of The Devil Wears Prada, Shopgirl and contemporary fashion novels in general, which is that there is no place for art in the world of fashion. The fact that all these novels imply essentially the same thing about fashion is evidence of a deeper cultural instinct in our modern society, which has labeled fashion as superficial, elite, a corporate economy based on clothes. Perhaps fashion’s defenders are turning away then from the scary possibility that the future of fashion is not so different, at least in ethos, from the world Sykes, Weisberger and Martin depict in their books.


Fashion critic Suzy Menkes recently wrote in the International Herald Tribune of a “new, commodified attitude in the once genteel world of high fashion.” The “genteel world” she is referring to is fashion during the last century, when houses such as Dior and Yves Saint Laurent were synonymous with the artistry and genius of their eponymous founders. Fashion in the 20th century was driven by a cohort of design demigods, from Coco Chanel to Ralph Lauren. These were designers known not only for their clothes, but also for their outsize personalities, their social coupes and enduring aesthetics. In other words, these were men and women known as artists, creators and drivers of modern fashion. Today, Menkes and other fashion journalists herald a bleaker scene; salability is 21st century fashion’s all-powerful paradigm and most definitive metric, with the designers themselves as transient as the fashion trends they work incessantly to generate.. In today’s fashion industry, profits are the clearest indicator of a designer’s longevity at a house, that and the potential to take a brand into emergent markets, especially China. Even today’s elite designers are subject to termination if their designs, often too outré for mainstream audiences, don’t fly off the shelves. The recent, unceremonious departure of design mavens Raf Simons and Nicholas Ghesquiere from Jil Sander and Balenciaga, two highly respected labels owned by multinational luxury magnates, is a clear sign that fashion companies today are more in the business of selling “it” bags than pushing a new zeitgeist. Mr. Simons, who pioneered the slim-fit suit in the early 90’s, almost singlehandedly revolutionizing the way modern men dress, has gone on to a plum posting at Christian Dior. Yet his tenure there may be tragically brief if sales numbers are not in his favor.

Within this context of fashion’s commercial expansion and creative contraction, it is easy to read the hyper-commercial fashion novel as a reflection of the industry’s new direction. Just as other creative industries—publishing, film, art, etc.—struggle with increased corporatization and the dilution of originality in a popular culture lost in Tumblr feeds and twitpics, fashion must struggle as well to assert itself, its artistry and personality, and ultimately too its relevancy, in the glittering, clotted Facebook world that is 2012 and beyond. Can we really blame fashion novels for their superficiality when they mirror a shallowness that is both pervasive and real? Or do Bergdorf Blondes and shopgirls alike have more to answer for than that?

Ultimately, the fashion novel, however fanciful, is based on a world which really does exist, and in people who really do spend their days working and living for the love of clothes. One abnormally hot summer not so long ago, I was one of those people, an intern at the lowest rungs of an international luxury retailer, commuting each morning from my $600/month room in non-gentrified Harlem to the towering, 5th Ave. office building where I worked. All summer, I entered the building at 8:30 am and all summer, at precisely 7:00 pm (later on Mondays), I would clock out, pack up my bag—a sleek, royal blue canvas Jack Spade messenger with toffee suede trim I scored at a sample sale—and make the same commute back uptown, where a dinner of cold kimchee and microwaved brown rice awaited. In the hours between, I worked mostly at my computer screen, scouring Google for any mention of the company, its merchandise or staff members. Whether it was the New York Times running a piece on our recent fashion show on the Highline, where I stood for five hours in the rain, checking names off a list, or a blogger in Kansas posting pictures of Givenchy T-shirts from our online shop, it would be screenshot, cropped, labeled and pasted into a “Daily Coverage” PowerPoint with taxonomic precision, to be compiled at the end of the day with the “International” and “UK” coverage. When finished, the whole kit would be sent off to the big wigs at the London office for review, and I could finally head home, feeling oddly listless despite a full day’s work.

The fashion world I experienced that summer was a fast-paced, nameless blur both monotonous and disorienting, and like Andy Sachs before me, I was on my way out soon enough. Near the end of my internship, I would often lay awake in my sticky, aircondition-less apartment, wondering to the useless toil of fan blades above what the hell I was doing. Was this what a lifelong love of fashion would amount to? A daily grind of repetitive tasks, all adding up or petering out to some nebulous cyberworld lump sum, the rote, almost life of a fashion industry cog? And more generally, was fashion, a world of heavily commodified beauty, a place I could imagine myself settling down in, finding a husband and kids, or at least a nicer apartment with an agreeable view? After just six weeks, my first trial run in fashion was done. Wasting no time, I decamped from Manhattan for the Canadian Rockies, to work on research for a potential senior thesis.

In leaving New York, I was thinking mostly about fashion as a business, and whether that business had any place left for artfulness. It is not a stretch to say that contemporary fashion novels, however poorly written, are grappling with this question as well behind their veils of nacreous nothing. What these books need dearly though is a voice, strong and thoughtful and yes, artistic in tone, to break through the glamour and engage honestly and tangibly with what is going on in fashion today. Just as Warhol and his fellow Pop artists made significant contributions to art by manipulating the tropes of a post-industrial, mass-market establishment, fashion novelists can and should make art out of the commercialization of fashion. Novelists should emulate in literature the work of young, streetwise designers like Proenza Schouler, who for their Spring 2013 show created mesmerizing, dystopian prints from images of protestors and swimming pools culled from online blogs, and collaged them together on silk slip dresses to represent the frenetic, fractured chaos of an internet aesthetic.  Designers like the boys behind Proenza are taking the commercial, digitized age we live in and making beautiful, wearable art from its random detritus. It’s a trend fashion novels could certainly gain from, in content and in style. 

A few months from now, in April 2013, Simon & Schuster will release Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns, a sequel to The Devil Wears Prada. One hopes that this time around, Ms. Weisberger will offer an authentic, elegant, and pitch perfect rendition of the fashion world that put her on the map, a world where commerce and art now lie in tangled repose. With that said, I won’t be holding my breath on this one.