The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris
Author: Alicia Drake
In this country [USA], decadence means trashy, pornographic, dirty. Cadent comes from the Latin cadere which means to fall. Decadent is something very different, it’s the beautiful way to fall. It’s [a] very slow movement which has lots of beauty, you know. It can be a kind of self-killing in a beautiful way, a tragic way.
—Jacques de Bascher
The ingredients are talent, ambition, ego, and something in the personality that makes others want to believe, to follow. Both Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent had what it takes to be fashion superstars, and both have scaled the heights. The story in Alicia Drake’s The Beautiful Fall is in the differences between the two. Saint Laurent who will be remembered as much for his innovations including styles like Le Smoking and strategies like the synthesis of street into haute couture, for his eponymous house, as his addictions and mental illness. Lagerfeld will be remembered as the intellectual, the erudite designer who stayed relentlessly relevant, reinventing and reinventing again at houses that did not bear his name, (early those of Jean Patou, Balmain,) later Chloe, Fendi, and most particularly Chanel, where he for years has mined the dominant Chanel tropes in sexy and provocative ways.
The rival designers shared the stage as prizewinners of the 1954 International Wool Secretariat Competition. Many years later they shared a lover, Jacques De Bascher. Their lives intersected and overlapped but took very different paths. Lagerfeld is a workaholic, his discipline and boundless energy are legendary. Saint Laurent is often painted as a tortured genius, but this may or may not be the result of some of the best PR ever undertaken on behalf of a designer, and the fact that when Saint Laurent was rising, Paris was looking for a star. Drake traces both designers’ lives back to their earliest days, laying the foundation for their parallel paths. Then she focuses in on the decade of the 70s for the bulk of the book.
The Beautiful Fall is deliciously as much about the era as the men. The era in which glamour overtook money or talent or fame to be the ticket to the world of nightclubs like Le Sept, when hedonism and excess could be explored seemingly without consequence…that came much later in the form of AIDs and the wear and tear of addiction. Drake focuses on the 70s as an era during which the couture took a nose dive and ready-to-wear rose, a time when society began to overlap with the Jane Birkins and Andy Warhols, when Cristobal Balenciaga closed his couture house because there was “no one left to dress,” and Gabrielle Chanel passed away. So while she very thoroughly traces the designer’s lives before and after the 70s, Drake also spends time on their colorful compatriots during the time when their reputations were being made. Team Lagerfeld included Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos, Pat Cleveland and Donna Jordan, but the cast was always changing with new arrivals. Team Saint Laurent included stalwarts Betty Catroux, Loulou de la Falaise, and of course Pierre Berge with the occasional inclusion of a Paloma Picasso or a Bianca Jagger.
Read the book for the stories of two of our era’s greatest designers, but appreciate the book for the way the author both thoroughly researches (endnotes in a fashion biography? yes!) and gets out of the way of the story she has to tell. She makes literary references and analogies (comparing de Bascher to a character in a Henry James novel) that enrich the text without distracting from it. An astute biographer, Drake anticipates our questions and answers them in language that is evocative, elegant, and precise, making The Beautiful Fall the best fashion biography this writer has ever read.