The best biographies of fashion designers

Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell Author Of The Way We Wed: A Global History of Wedding Fashion
By Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

The Books I Picked & Why

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris

By Alicia Drake

The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris

Why this book?

The youthful bromance between Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent reads like an especially juicy novel. Friends turned fashion rivals, the two very different designers partied and peacocked their way through Paris in the decadent 60s and 70s, with all the drugs, love affairs, models, muses, and assorted Eurotrash that implies. In the wrong hands, The Beautiful Fall would read like mere gossip; Drake elevates it to a Shakespearean morality play, without losing any of the page-turning thrills.


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Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life

By Jane Mulvagh

Vivienne Westwood: An Unfashionable Life

Why this book?

This began as an authorized biography, but Westwood proved such a slippery subject that journalist Mulvagh wisely decided to proceed without the designer’s cooperation. The result is a warts-and-all portrait of the important, eccentric, and often infuriating designer, from her scrappy, sloppy punk roots to her current status as the kooky grande dame of British fashion. She’s surrounded by an equally chaotic and colorful cast of feckless boyfriends, gurus, and musicians; London in the 70s and 80s is a character in its own right. Westwood’s raw talent shines through a litany of bad decisions, controversies, and copycats.


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Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

By Anne De Courcy

Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence, and Survival in Peace and War, 1930-1944

Why this book?

There have been so many biographies of Coco Chanel, good and bad, that it must be hard to find anything new (or nice) to say about her. This capsule history offers fresh insights into her lifestyle, inspirations, and obsessions. At La Pausa—her entirely beige bolt-hole on the French Riviera—Chanel waited out World War II alongside the likes of Colette, Igor Stravinsky, Edith Wharton, Aldous Huxley, Jean Cocteau, Wallis Simpson, and Somerset Maugham, who famously called the Riviera “a sunny place for shady people.” That reputation is certainly borne out by de Courcy’s book, which paints Chanel and her circle as being blissfully, willfully ignorant of the stealth war between the Nazis and the French Resistance raging around them.


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Arsho Baghsarian: A Life in Shoes

By Helene Verin

Arsho Baghsarian: A Life in Shoes

Why this book?

The subject of this colorful miniature coffee table book has a resumé that stretches from Christian Dior in the 1960s to Stuart Weitzman in the 2020s. Baghsarian’s whimsical, sculptural shoes have a timeless charm; most of them could be worn today, with pleasure. But she remains largely unknown, even though her elastic and leather 5050 boot—created 30 years ago—is still a bestseller. Verin reminds us that long before Blahnik, Choo, and Louboutin, women like Baghsarian, Beth Levine, and Mabel Julianelli dominated the American footwear scene.


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Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art

By Michele Gerber Klein

Charles James: Portrait of an Unreasonable Man: Fame, Fashion, Art

Why this book?

Like any art form, fashion has its share of tortured geniuses. Perhaps none combined genius and torture with as much panache as Charles James, who dressed celebrities and socialites only to die in poverty. Vogue editor Bettina Ballard remembered that “he was constantly cutting and perfecting” his toiles, “which he turned, very occasionally, into actual dresses.” A personality as complex and demanding as his sculptural evening gowns, James knew everybody and got along with nobody—and you’ll understand why after reading Klein’s biography, which draws on recently discovered, unfiltered tapes James made for a planned autobiography that, like so many of his creations, he never he finished.


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