THIS MONTH SEES THE second instalment of former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld’s new biannual publication, CR Fashion Book. But what exactly is a ‘fashion book’? It’s a slightly heavy-handed concept, but one designed, it seems, to disassociate Roitfeld’s venture from the mere realm of the mass-produced, market-dictated, fashion magazine, exemplified by ex-employer Condé Nast’s multi-national, industry-defining platform.
Roitfeld left French Vogue in 2010, amidst frenzied, Schadenfreude-fuelled debates as to the nature of her unforeseen departure, which we won’t go into here. Suffice to say that Roitfeld’s second in command Emmanuelle Alt was swiftly, if somewhat anti-climactically, promoted to the top job, in what many saw as an obvious concession to continuity on Condé Nast’s part. Yet far from consolidating Roitfeld’s agenda, the magazine under Alt’s direction has consistently attempted to chart new ground. Mainly, it has replaced Roitfeld’s fiercely provocative and artistically uncompromising fashion manifesto with something altogether more accessible; breaking up the swathes of unannotated images with a more text-led, feature driven, beauty and lifestyle approach; enlisting popular blogger Garance Doré to write a “humours” column; putting mainstream celebrities, rather than industry mainstays, on the cover; and carefully cultivating digital content. The media, ever ready to lay the charge of catfights and of bitching at the feet of powerful women, might encourage us to see this aesthetic fallout between the two Vogues as a natural expression of Alt and Roitfeld’s widely reported personal difficulties, but the differences between their publications are no doubt symptomatic of the constant tug of war between high and low culture in fashion.
Profiles of Roitfeld – consistent with today’s cultish fawning around the figure of the editor – tend to stall at the appraisal of her distinctive and much-imitated ‘look’, typically comprised of clean lines, high heels, a passion for the colour black, and caustic combinations of leopard print, lived-in leather, and sometimes PVC. But for Roitfeld, starting as a stylist and consulting famously for Saint Laurent and Tom Ford, the look, indeed, is everything, with the title of her new venture (‘CR’ was how she used to sign her editor’s letter at Vogue) suggesting that her book will above all be a homage to a signature style; its pages first and foremost subject to the CR stamp of approval. In Issue 1, Roitfeld’s controversial sex and death aesthetic – quickly christened ‘porno chic’ by the press – still glowers in the margins, but the overriding theme is ‘Rebirth’, and the spirit of abundance, bounty and joy that this brings strikes the dominant note. Luscious, prelapsarian shots of women in nature, holding babies, abound, and the book is fertile in its collaborations, featuring contributions from Karl Lagerfeld, Amanda Harlech, Tom Ford and even written pieces by Anne Hathaway and Kirsten Dunst. That such features run without adjacent photo portraits of their starry authors is unusual for a fashion magazine, typically worshipping the cult of the ‘celebrity face’ as brand. In contrast, Roitfeld’s non-illustrative approach suggests that CR Fashion Book will be interested in celebrities as creative sources of inspiration rather than as static, one-dimensional images.
Overall, a beautiful, meticulously put together fashion publication that requires sitting down and immersing oneself in its pages is a clever antidote to the attention deficit, ruthlessly regenerating digital domains which define our times. It speaks shrewdly to the idea that in this late capitalist, market saturated age “luxury” might be less the acquisition of luxury goods than a dedicated space in which to dream.
But is it a ‘book’, though? Or is this moniker aimed at steering the publication away from the irreverent and impermanent impressions personified by the fashion magazine? And are books even the best place to showcase fashion? To my mind, a book is less irreverent than permanent. Fashion, by contrast, is ephemeral, non-committal, prone to changing its mind – perhaps better suited, then, to the fast-paced, capricious world of online blogging.
So Roitfeld is sending out mixed messages here – on the one hand, calling her new venture a ‘book’, with all the associations of immobility and cerebrality that books imply, but on the other, dedicating both issues so far to the carnal, changeable domain of the body, and allowing her publication to exist within the very traditional magazine format, with its seasonal publication dates, focus on trends and heavy reliance on advertisers.
If obligations to the body – namely, that clothes are first and foremost functional, and have to fit the lumpen human form – are what ultimately prevent fashion from truly taking off and becoming ‘high art’, then Issue 2’s stated, specific focus on ballet, a notoriously disciplined and refined art form, suggests that Roitfeld does want to be taken seriously, and for her readers to see her project on a footing with elite culture.
We might read the differences between these respective magazines as an allegory of the state of our current sartorial times, and of the relative freedom that fashion publications have to situate themselves between artistic and more pragmatically commercial impulses, between digital and print culture, between text and image, between fantasy and reality. Fashion after all is full of smoke and mirrors, signs and signifiers, and it’s up to us, the readers, to decode its so often mixed messages.
Alice Blackhurst is a writer and academic based in Cambridge, UK.