Thursday, 25 February 2010

Mrs Harris goes to Bloomsbury

Here's the cover for the new edition of Mrs Harris; as always, Bloomsbury has done the author proud. I love both covers that Bloomsbury designed for Daphne -- paperback as well as hardback -- and I like to think that Mrs Harris herself would have been equally delighted with this latest incarnation.
On another matter entirely: last night I ate a packet of chocolate-covered edamame beans given to me by a friend from her local deli, Raoul's. They were unexpectedly delicious, and apparently very health-giving, so I felt duty-bound to share them with you.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Bella Freud and Susie Bick

I went to the Mayfair hotel today to have tea with Bella Freud and Susie Bick, who were there showing my favourite clothes by far from London Fashion Week. If anyone has read My Mother's Wedding Dress, you'll already know that I'm a huge fan of Bella's jumpers -- as I write, I'm wearing one now, in black and white stripes with her signature dog on the front. But as you'll see from these pictures, by Marley Lohr, there is more to the collection than sweaters. Susie Bick is clearly the sexiest girl in London (revealing,by the way, that you can still look damn hot over the age of 40), and Bella is entirely herself, as always. I think that's one of the reasons she's such a good designer: she never tries to look like anyone else, or make clothes that imitate others. Nor is she ever less than her own woman, which is rare in an industry dominated by male designers. Oh, and as is clearly evident in these photographs, Bella and Susie bring new meaning to how to wear woolly socks...

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Kinder Aggugini, Juliette Récamier and foxy ladies

Just come back from dipping into London Fashion Week, where I saw Kinder Aggugini's show, which was inspired by Juliette Récamier,an elegant icon of French neoclassicism who married a rich banker (he also happened to be her natural father, according to rumour) and entertained tout le Paris at her literary salon. She left a formidable reputation, and a legacy of lovely portraits.
Anyway, Kinder's show included a beautifully draped full length black Empire-line evening gown that looked suitably Napoleonic (although as it happens, Napoleon was said to have disapproved of Madame Recamier). I wasn't sitting close enough to see the shoes on the catwalk, but have discovered a picture (above) of her beautiful pale lavender coloured slippers... (Très chic, non?)
Elsewhere at London Fashion Week today: antlers and fox ears on the models' heads at Topshop Unique (wild women in sheepskins? Some sort of metaphor here?); also a great many woolly legwarmers, furry gilets and a squirrel jumper, but not much in the way of cocktail dresses, so if one subscribes to the view that fashion is an indicator of economic trends, then perhaps Topshop was suggesting that the chill winds of recession are still whipping at our necks. Meanwhile, the PM's wife Sarah Brown was wearing what I think was an M&S jumper, for which I commend her.
I've just come home, and it seems to me that the time has come for Horlicks and ginger biscuits, accessorised with my ancient pink paisley eiderdown (bliss...)

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Mrs Harris, Monsieur Dior, Mr Lagerfeld and Bonne Maman

I've written before about Flowers for Mrs Harris by Paul Gallico (also known as Mrs Harris Goes to Paris in an American edition), which is one of my favourite books; a kind of fairytale, but oddly true-to-life in the atmospheric details of a journey made by a London cleaning lady in search of a Dior dress. First published in 1958, it's been out of print for far too long -- despite my efforts, and those of others -- but hurrah, a new edition is coming out this summer from Bloomsbury. They're also reprinting the subsequent Mrs Harris novels (in which Mrs Harris goes to New York and Moscow); and I hope that other readers will enjoy them as much as I do. I've just re-read my battered paperback copy, on the train to Paris earlier this week, along with Christian Dior's memoir ('Dior on Dior), whilst eating a packet of Bonne Maman galettes -- the most delicious biscuits, although not to be recommended if you want to fit into any of those outfits (pictured above) from the Dior resort 2010 collection, inspired by Monsieur Dior's svelte muse in the 1950s, Mitzah Bricard.

But I like to think that Mrs Harris would have enjoyed the biscuits, as well as the Dior collection; and she was very much on my mind this week while I was waiting to interview Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel. Of course, Gallico has her going to Dior, rather than Chanel, but I could equally imagine Mrs H making her way to Rue Cambon, and up the mirrored staircase to the elegant couture salon on the first floor. The morning after I saw Mr Lagerfeld (who was clever, urbane and intriguing, as always), I woke up very early, to a beautiful blue sky and sunshine; a perfect Parisian dawn. I walked along Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, past the hôtel particuliers, the palatial mansions and embassies, and then to Avenue Montaigne, where Mrs Harris visits the House of Dior. The front door was still closed, but it looked just as Gallico described it in the 50s: 'The great grey building that is the House of Christian Dior occupies an entire corner of the spacious Avenue Montaigne leading off the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysees.'

Standing there, knowing that inside there would still be the scent of riches that Mrs Harris once smelt -- 'compounded of perfume and fur and satins, silks and leather, jewellery and face powder' -- I wondered if I had got it wrong when I wrote about the novel before. At the risk of repeating myself, here's what I've said, when I recommended it in October 2008, as a bibliotherapy on what to read when you're scrimping and saving. On second thoughts, I should have recommended reading it with a packet of Bonnes Maman biscuits on the side (only 99p; yet utterly luxurious).

Now that an age of austerity has returned, and spendthrift ways must be abandoned, I’ve been re-reading one of my favourite books, a dog-eared second-hand copy of ‘Flowers for Mrs Harris’ by Paul Gallico. It was written in 1957, at a time when post-war hardship was not yet distant history, and tells the story of a widow whose life has been one of endless drudgery.

Mrs Ada Harris lives in a basement flat in Battersea, earning three shillings an hour cleaning for clients in Belgravia: ‘She worked ten hours a day, six days a week, fifty-two weeks in the year.’ After her bills are paid, she hoards the leftover pennies for plants, lovingly tending a window box of geraniums, and occasionally ‘a single hyacinth or tulip, bought from a barrow for a hard-earned shilling.’

One day, in the course of her duties for the fashionable wife of a wealthy industrial baron, Mrs Harris sees two beautiful Dior gowns, and is seized by the desire to own a similar dress. The cost is astronomical -- £450 – and in order to save a sufficient amount from her meagre earnings, she embarks on a lengthy period of self-denial (walking to work instead of taking the bus, mending the holes in her shoes with newspaper), boosted by a modest win on the pools. Finally, after two years, seven months, three weeks and one day, Mrs Harris has scraped together the price of the dress and her airfare to Paris, and sets off for the House of Dior.

Her journey involves several adventures and misunderstandings, but Mrs Harris prevails, and at last takes possession of her heart’s desire: a Dior dress with the apt label of ‘Temptation’, a creation of ‘wondrous, frothy foam of seashell pink, sea-cream and pearl white’. Back in London, however, it is ruined on its first outing, after the kindly charlady lends it to one of her clients, a selfish young actress. Grief-stricken, Mrs Harris weeps for the loss of the dress and her dreams, but when her basement is filled with flowers sent by new-found comrades in Paris, she – like the reader – is reminded of the pleasure and treasure of friendship, humanity’s saving grace.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

McQueen is dead, long live McQueen

News travels faster than light today, and the emails and texts about Alexander McQueen's death have already traveled around the globe, swifter even than the winged creatures that flitted in and out of his collections. I didn't know him -- I was never one of those who could refer to him by his real name, Lee; but I knew the stories about him, and I was lucky enough to have seen some of his astonishing catwalk shows. They were sometimes terrifying, sometimes absurd; menacing, as well as beautiful; marvelously crafted, even when the models looked as if they had been unleashed from a gothic Bedlam. McQueen always made me think hard about what fashion might mean -- about its darkness and misogynies, as well as its flights of creativity and delight. His imagination was macabre as an Edgar Allen Poe tale; his shows punctuated by split-seconds straight out of a nightmare, stalked by figures whose faces had smeared red lips and hollowed black eyes, wearing clothes that could be cages, teetering on shoes that looked like instruments of torture or revenge.
And yet when I think of the occasions that I visited his studio in London, I remember a workroom filled with sunlight, where a wedding gown was being sewn for a laughing girl, and dresses were crafted out of feathers, light as angel wings. In those moments, he seemed to be possessed of an instinct for the truly light-hearted; a means to make good dreams come true.
Fashion is filled with tortured creatures -- designers and muses, models and customers -- yet every so often, it soars to new heights. Alexander McQueen was one of its great masters -- adept at its manipulation, dedicated to its artistry, leading it forward, yet also dragged down by it. In another age, his story would have found its place in the narratives of F.Scott Fitzgerald -- an artist who made his fortune in a roaring decade; a boy who danced all night amidst the ugly frenzy of parties where women fluttered like butterflies, and then fell lifeless to the ground, where other men were floored by greed or voracious ego, and too many people drank and took drugs until they were deadened to the pale sunlight of a rising dawn.
If McQueen was living in a place inhabited by ghosts and lost souls, some of them shrouded in veils of disappointment or ill-will, then perhaps choosing death seemed to be a kind of freedom; a journey away from the dark corners of dread, towards something unknowable, unimaginable, untainted and as yet untouched.
Who knows; not I... nor any of us; and out of this uncertainty, it is possible he has found (or fashioned) an escape, slipping away so that he can never fall from grace, eluding the grasp of the beautiful and the damned. That's how it might read in a story, anyway; although the truth -- the untold damage of a life undone -- will always be remade in its retelling.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Mio and me

I am coughing like a sick donkey, croaking like a frog, and sighing deeply about working on a Sunday while feeling under the weather (trying to finish a piece for Harper's Bazaar). My head is fuddled, my chest is wheezing but I have been fortified by a kind friend who has cooked me sausages, mushrooms and tomatoes, with lots of tea and toast -- so I'm clearly not that sick, given that I ate the lot -- but before I return to my task for Harper's, I just wanted to post today's illustration (above) from my Sunday Telegraph column. I always like Mio Matsumoto's work, and you can see more of it here; it's a privilege to be on the same page as her...

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Happy anniversary...

It's coming up to two years since the beginning of a blog, and a year since the end of a marriage. I've just been re-reading my incoherent diary from this time last year -- and have been thinking of all that has happened since then.
I've been to Paris and Venice and Shanghai, climbed the tower in St Mark's Square and a hillside in the Highlands; walked along a Cornish clifftop and wept in the rain; stood on the highest rock above a Greek island cove, and thought of Sappho's Leap; watched mountain hares, roe deer and lapwings; heard the crying foxes in my back garden; remembered to keep breathing...
I've been cradled by friendship and the kindness of strangers; I've seen dawn break over the Seine and a full moon rising above Place Vendome; I've risked my heart and opened my eyes and felt blessed to be alive; I've believed in magic, cursed the unlucky stars, held fast to a still point in the turning sky; I've grieved and gone under, then risen gulping for air again. I've never given up, because there is still so much to discover.
Thank you all for being here.