Review: The Beautiful Fall by Alicia Drake

In the 1970s, Paris fashion exploded like a champagne bottle left out in the sun. Amid sequins and longing, celebrities and aspirants flocked to the heart of chic, and Paris became a hothouse of revelry, intrigue, and searing ambition. At the center of it all were fashion’s most beloved luminaries – Yves Saint Laurent, the reclusive enfant terrible, and Karl Lagerfeld, the flamboyant freelancer with a talent for reinvention – and they divided Paris into two fabulous halves. Their enduring rivalry is chronicled in this dazzling exposé of an era: of social ambitions, shared obsessions, and the mesmerizing quest for beauty.

Blurb from Barnes & Noble website. Order the book here:

This is a fairly old book (the paperback edition came out in 2007) but for some strange reason, I only just discovered it this year. If you love fashion, history, or both, and you haven’t yet read this incredible book, do it now. I love to read about history, and of course, if it involves rock and roll and/or fashion, then it’s the best possible scenario for me.

The three best books I’ve ever read are Life by Keith Richards (of course); The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth; and Just Kids by Patti Smith. If you haven’t read these, you haven’t yet lived. This book just may be my fourth; it’s definitely up there. Anyone who is into fashion or the lifestyle of the decadent 60s and 70s eras will want to dive into The Beautiful Fall. The reason why these books are my particular favorites is that reading them sucks you in….the prose is so descriptive and engrossing that you feel like you are really there as it’s all happening. And to me, this is just priceless, as I was not lucky enough to have actually lived it. But through these books, I feel like I have and that’s almost enough.

In The Beautiful Fall, Alicia Drake tells the story of the rivalry between the two godfathers of modern fashion, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. The book opens with their first meeting at the second annual International Wool Secretariat fashion competition in1954 (now the International Woolmark Prize). Yves, only 18 at the time, won two categories & Karl, 21, only one, which he never got over. From there the story backtracks a bit and follows their entire lives, from childhood through their internships at Paris couture houses, the growth of each one’s entourage of wacky characters, to their rise as fashion royalty and the sad passing of Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld’s present-day career. These two men changed the face of fashion forever, and it’s all wonderfully detailed here.

For history buffs, there is much more woven into the story than just fashion. The French political unrest of the era and the cast of accompanying players add so much to the story. I learned so much I never knew before about France, fascinating people like John and Talitha Getty, Anna Piaggi, Loulou de la Falaise and Jacques de Bascher, as well as, of course, phenomenal insight into YSL and Lagerfeld themselves. I particularly loved learning the connection between Saint Laurent and Thadée Klossowski, brother to Stones’ companion Stash Klossowski (both sons of the painter Balthus), which I was previously unaware of. IMO, the book could have used a bit more Mick and Keith, but that’s ok, since it’s really not about them.

I have long been fascinated by the beauty of Saint Laurent’s Moroccan retreat, and have even tried to model my own backyard patio decor in a similar style. I loved reading the descriptions of this magical place and how much it meant to him. 

Saint Laurent in Marrakesh, 1976

Some readers have criticized the book for being depressing. This is not a book for goody-two-shoes or those who want happy endings. Is there excessive drug use, mental illness, ridiculous excess, massive insecurity and jealousy? Of course, but that’s just the way it was, and the fact that none of it is glossed over for some shallow retrospective is why I love it so much. A large part of the book’s information comes from the controversial partner of Saint Laurent, Pierre Bergé. Predictably, Bergé does not have anything complimentary to say about Lagerfeld, and much of his descriptions of Saint Laurent are less than flattering, too. But again, I appreciate honesty, even if it may be a bit biased.

I have heard that Lagerfeld hated the portrayal of himself and had even threatened to sue the author. Again, I agree he didn’t always come off as the most likable character, but I doubt that he can deny his well-known eccentricities and that most of what is described did transpire. I actually liked and respected him more after reading it. I was fascinated to learn exactly how many different brands and lines he has created and designed for. The man is truly a powerhouse of creativity, imagination and incredible talent and work ethic. It is remarkable that he has been able to keep that going for over fifty years now. I doubt anyone else could have followed Coco Chanel and made a success of it.

The book did seem a little bit one-sided as to the insight into what’s inside the designers’ minds. I felt like I came out of it understanding what made Saint Laurent tick, but feeling Lagerfeld is still an enigma. But I think he wants it that way. Then again, I also wonder how much it could have portrayed the real Saint Laurent when he himself was not a source, either. Everything about these two comes secondhand, but it does come from their closest insiders, so it feels real, if a bit lacking compared to an autobiography.

This was a phenomenally well-researched and exquisitely written book. The notes and bibliography themselves are a nice long (and interesting) read and contain enough links to sources and articles to keep history buffs busy for a good long time. If you love fashion, it’s a must-read. The description of the iconic collections and how they came to be are enthralling. If you’re into sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (and who isn’t?) it’ll also be fun for you.

In short, loved it. Highly recommend. You won’t be disappointed, unless you have no taste or style. Or you’re Karl Lagerfeld, who, of course, has plenty of both.

PS: The photos of him are amazing. He was quite the hottie in his earlier years. Wow!

Karl Lagerfeld back in the day


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