fashion book review

Fashion Algebra. By Anna Piaggi. New York: Thames And Hudson, Inc., 1999; 128 pages.

Reviewed by Damion Matthews

"She is like an everyday work of art." -- Manolo Blahnik.

"Let us rise / And bow before the goddess." -- Palamon, "The Two Noble Kinsmen

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She wears a huge, colorful, multi-patterned Pocahontas coat by John Galliano, a checked-skirt over lace-trimmed culottes by Rifat Ozbek, and zebra-striped boots by Manolo Blahnik. A tiny, white, feather-trimmed hat by Stephen Jones rests improbably on her head. She has blue-grey, black-streaked hair, styled distinctively like no other's. Her hands and neck are decorated in black lace and beads. She holds a walking stick.

My description is of Anna Piaggi as she appears on the back jacket photo of her new book Fashion Algebra. Strange. Silly. Sublime. Her image looks like it belongs on a Tarot carot. Some would call her a clown. Others, a fashion victim. In my view, however, she is not a clown and she is not a victim. No. Anna Piaggi is a mistress of magic. And fashion, as I now regard it thanks to Piaggi, is a work of magic. Like astrology, palmistry, alchemy, it is a subset of the occult, a folk science thousands of years old.

I recently stumbled upon a book published in the 1930s on medical astrology (planetary influence over physical ailments.) Under the subject of "dress" H.C. Cornell writes, "Venus... rules strongly over dress, adornment, and the indiscretions of dress." In Shakespeare's "The Two Noble Kinsmen" Palamon calls Venus the "sovereign queen of secrets." Piaggi, as a fashion editor, an arbiter of taste and design, a leader of fashion, is then a priestess of Venus, an officiant at Venus' mystery court. Her work is an enchantment, the magic by which Venus exerts her power. That walking stick Piaggi holds is also a wand.

Then who, you may be asking, is Anna Piaggi, and what, precisely, does she do? In The Fashion Conspiracy, published 10 years ago, Nicholas Coleridge featured Piaggi in a chapter about fashion legends. "In Anna Piaggi", he wrote, "there is a puzzle." Very little was known about her. Then 55 years old, her appearance was described as "a cross between the Marchesa Casati and the maitresse of a Budapest bordello." Coleridge reported that Piaggi "is motivated, she says, by astrology."

Her job title now is "Creative Consultant" to Italian Vogue, for which she has been producing, since 1981, the "Double Pages", or "D.P." as they're also known. The "Double Pages", as described in "Fashion Algebra", are "a montage of fantasies, a collage of words, ideas, and images." Fashion. People. Places. Things.

This book is made up of a selection of Piaggi's "Double Pages" over the years. "The arrangement of the chapters", writes Piaggi, "has been governed by a visual order." She says that the book is not a retrospective of her work, but "a geometry." Numbers, arithmetic, and algebra are a constant theme throughout (think numerology!)

Piaggi writes that "Italian Vogue is a special theorem. Both a filter and a document of fashion, which, on its pages, becomes truly unique and inimitable." But I notice American fashion doesn't fit into the equation. Of all the designers represented in this 312 page book only three -- count them, three -- are based in New York: Ralph Lauren, Isaac Mizrahi and Byron Lars.

The fact that this legend of fashion, this woman who has mesmerized some of the most important figures of fashion in our time with her style and vision, finds practically nothing in American fashion worthy of inclusion in her work seems to me a blistering indictment of the creative disaster that has befallen many of New York's designers in the last 15 years or so. What is going on here? How did this come to be? And what can be done to fix it?

I'm reminded, again, of Palamon's hymn to Venus, the lengthy speech from which I quote above, where the young man celebrates the goddess's tremendous power, speaks of his absolute devotion to her, and ends by bowing to her in submission. This is the stance that a fashion designer should take, it's the stance of Galliano, Lagerfeld, McQueen, but it is not the stance taken by New York's leading designers today, who bow before mammon instead. An American designer could base his or her next collection on any one page out of Piaggi's book and end up with one of the best collections seen in New York in years.

Randomly opening Fashion Algebra I come to a page titled "World of Liberace." Pictured is Liberace in a piano suit standing with Cher in leopard print. Another photo shows his impressive "piano pool", a swimming pool in the shape of a piano, with black and white "keys" and "notes." Another photo shows a fantastic sculpture made in homage to Liberace by Peter Tully. The lesson here, to me, is that simple black and white doesn't have to be dull at all. Contrast Liberace's black and white to the black and white of Calvin Klein or Ralph Lauren, for instance. How dead Klein and Lauren's look compared to the splendind gitz of Liberace.

The next page. It's title is "La Boina" and the text reads: "The basque beret... is called 'boina' in Spanish (with the accent on the 'o') and 'traxpela' in Basque. The 'boina' has a long style pedigree: it was Chanel's favourite headgear at Biarritz, Hemingway's at Pamplona, and the Duke of Windsor's at San Sebastian. And for Christobal Balenciaga, born in Guetaria in the Basque region, it was the natural hat." Besides the illustrations by Gladys Perint Palmer which accompany this text, Piaggi includes a rare photo of Balenciaga in his youth wearing a basque beret. Here I would say one could design an amazing collection joining Chanel to Balenciaga, Hemingway to the Duke of Windsor. One would have beaded boleros, kilts, berets, little black dresses, white shirts printed with lines from A Moveable Feast. A feast of color, texture, design. How different compared to the famine on Seventh Avenue today, starving models and all.

One could go on discussing the riches to be found in this book. Fashion Algebra (or "Piaggi's Book of Spells", as I call it), if studied obssesively, may be just the thing to bring designers out of their creative slump. But they have to be willing to risk the mystery of creation. They must allow themselves to be forever stumped by the secrets of fashion, the constant change, the uknown. It means giving up the safe, formulaic, repetitive routine into which so many of them have fallen. Take chances! Risk defeat! That's the magic of fashion.

Fashion Algebra can be purchased online from through the Look On- Line's fashion bookstore. The Fashion Conspiracy (New York: Harper & Row, 1988) by Nicholas Coleridge is out of print.
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