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Five Fashion-Forward Novels for London Fashion Week

On September 15th the fashion world will descend on London for five days of catwalk shows and afterparties. Stars will be made, reputations will be burnished or tarnished and Anna Wintour might move one of her eyebrows.

London Fashion Week is a city within the city, a microcosm of London’s wealth, glamour and self-absorption. Although it shapes our lives, dictating outfits on Broadway and wages in Vietnam, the fashion industry, like politics, sometimes seems oblivious to the everyday reality unfolding beyond its borders. And when your version of ‘reality’ comprises superhumanly beautiful models, designers who cultivate eccentricity and ten-thousand-dollar outfits no sane person would wear—then things can get a little strange.

It’s small wonder, then, that novelists have been inspired by the world of fashion. Its improbable scenarios and larger-than-life characters make for gripping drama, while the indulgence and glamour of haute couture present a challenge to anybody’s prose style.

These five novels explore the world of fashion from top to bottom: from globetrotting supermodels to the hardpressed workers in Paris’s first department store; from the love lives of designers to the unromantic reality of the ‘Swinging’ epoch that made London a fashion capital.

Our Young Man

Edmund White is one of America’s major living novelists. He’s also a prominent literary critic, and for a decade he worked at Vogue magazine. He draws on all three careers for Our Young Man: it’s a satire of the hedonistic world of fashion in 1980s New York, a sensitive reworking of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, and at the same time a highly original meditation on aging and the meaninglessness of beauty.

Its protagonist, Guy, is an astonishingly beautiful young man whose thoughts are, in the kindly assessment of one lover, ‘not as profound as his appearance.’ Through the offices of his agent, Pierre-Georges, Guy transmutes his beauty into wealth, as an international model and as the lover of several mega-wealthy men. All Guy has to do is refrain from rigorous nipple stimulation—it might spoil his swimwear shots—and diet when ‘the heroin look’ is in. His spiritual life extends as far as ‘a variety of Buddhism,’ in which ‘you chanted for a Cadillac.’

As time goes by, Guy even manages to hang on to his looks: the only thing that changes for him is that his life has been going on longer. Yet White manages to reveal this change as something quietly profound.

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The Ladies' Paradise

The nineteenth-century French novelist Émile Zola was profoundly influenced by the rise of empirical science: he wanted fiction to study the world as impartially as biology or sociology. The result was an epic twenty-volume cycle of novels, Les Rougon-Macquart, following the fortunes of a single family in the mid-nineteenth century. The Ladies’ Paradise (in French, Au Bonheur des Dames) is the eleventh novel in the sequence, but you don’t have to read the first ten to enjoy it.

The Ladies’ Paradise of the title is a department store, based on Paris’s Le Bon Marché, which was the first store of its kind in the world. Zola is interested primarily in the lives of the women who worked in this brand new enterprise. During their thirteen-hour workdays, the employees of The Ladies’ Paradise are responsible for creating the store’s atmosphere of luxury and glamour, but their own lives are squalid and comfortless. Their employer, the store’s owner Octave Mouret, provides them with spartan lodgings and barely enough food to live on.

Zola draws an explicit parallel between Mouret’s exploitation of the women who work for him and the manipulative marketing tactics he uses to draw middle-class women into his establishment. The author’s attention to detail make The Ladies’ Paradise a fascinating historical account—but its depiction of the fashion industry’s hard edge is depressingly relevant today.

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The Last Nude

The paintings of Tamara de Lempicka embody the glamour of the Jazz Age. Working in the Paris of Fitzgerald and Hemingway, de Lempicka created some of the defining images of Art Deco style, beauty and femininity. The most famous of these are a sequences of paintings featuring a young Italian-American woman, a former prostitute named Rafaela Fano.

Ellis Avery skilfully imagines the relationship between Fano and de Lempicka which inspired the paintings. The real pleasure of this novel, however, lies in her recreation of 1920s Paris. Her Rafaela aspires to be a fashion designer, and through her eyes we witness a time and place that still defines what we mean by ‘style’ in the twenty-first century.

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Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky

Coco Chanel is probably the most influential fashion designer of all time. Her work in the wake of the First World War created a new blueprint for women’s fashion that in its essence remains unchallenged today. She even invented the Little Black Dress.

It’s a matter of documented fact that for a few months, in 1920, she conducted an affair with the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (the pair met at the notorious 1917 premiere of his ballet The Rite of Spring, by which the audience was so outraged that a riot broke out in the auditorium).

Greenhalgh takes as his starting point a ‘What if?’ What if Chanel and Stravinsky’s relationship endured longer than is supposed? He notes intriguing parallels in their respective professional developments: when Chanel broke new ground with the now iconic Chanel No.5 perfume, Stravinsky left behind the modernism of his earlier work in favour of a neo-classical style. Whether these parallels add up to a convincing case is beside the point: what matters is Greenhalgh’s storytelling. His Chanel is a powerful businesswoman and a creative visionary, and her affair with the less worldly but artistically explosive Stravinsky makes for a grand love story.

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Absolute Beginners

Just as the Jazz Age solidified Paris’s reputation as a global city of fashion, London came of age as a fashion capital in the ‘Swinging London’ era of the nineteen-fifties and sixties. The ‘mod’ style cemented London’s status as the home of popular fashion, of trends that appear first on the streets rather than on the catwalks.

Absolute Beginners is the defining novel of the period. Set in 1958 and published in ’59, it follows the adventures of a nameless young photographer who lives in Notting Hill. The world is changing fast. Our hero’s ex-girlfriend is about to marry a gay fashion designer, recent Caribbean arrivals to the neighbourhood are creating tensions (race riots broke out in Notting Hill in the summer of ’58), and there’s violence breaking out between the old Teddy Boys and the new kids on the scene, so new they’re not even called ‘Mods’ yet.

Like Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, MacInnes’ Absolute Beginners helped define the subculture it describes. The novel was adapted as a movie starring David Bowie, and the Jam’s Paul Weller has consistently cited it as a major influence on his own work. 

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.