Fashion books reviewed: ‘City of Style,’ ‘By Invitation Only’

Los Angeles Times

Looking for a stylish read? Here are some very fashionable books out this spring.

“City of Style” (Harper Collins, $21.99) is an approachable field guide to L.A. style in all its incarnations, whether Laurel Canyon bohemians or Mexican American cholas, written by former Los Angeles Times Image section staff writer Melissa Magsaysay.

“L.A. style is ever-changing and moving in a direction not solely dictated by what’s happening on the runway. It blends the past with current trends and a lifestyle determined by the varied landscape, golden light and sense of freedom,” Magsaysay writes in the introduction. The breezy book is divided into sections about romantic bohemians, glamour, skaters and surfers, rockers, chola-style, indie eclectic and casual chic, with historical context for each.

In the course of describing the boho look, Magsaysay flashes back to the 1960s, talking to Trina Robbins, Laurel Canyon’s unofficial seamstress who designed folksy costumes for the likes of Joni Mitchell and Cass Elliott, and Bob Steinberg, purveyor of paisley and tie-dye at Melrose Avenue’s Fabric Emporium, which had a strict “no-polyester policy.”


For the rockers’ section, she speaks to a range of characters, from groupie extraordinaire Pamela Des Barres (who danced with the Flying Burrito Brothers, Three Dog Night and other bands) to hard-rock guitarist Slash ofGuns N’ Roses fame.

To bring the looks into focus for today, dozens of fashionable Angelenos are profiled, including stylists (Ilaria Urbinati), designers (Melissa Coker) and boutique owners (Desiree Kohan) who share their wardrobe signatures.

The book also contains handy styling suggestions and tips about where to shop the different looks — such as El Pachuco in Fullerton (chola style), Val Surf in Valley Village (skaters and surfers) and Hidden Treasure in Topanga (bohemians).

—Booth Moore

Online empire

In “By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop” (Portfolio, $27.95), Alexis Maybank and Alexandra Wilkis Wilson tell the story of how they launched Gilt Groupe in 2007, bringing the thrill of sample shopping online on their members-only site, where they offered designer merchandise at up to 70% off and created a new retail phenomenon.


Best friends first, the two met at Harvard Business School and bonded over a passion for shopping the rough-and-tumble world of designer sample sales. Using their cumulative experience at EBay, Merrill Lynch, Louis Vuitton and Bulgari, they persuaded luxury brands to get over the fear that online discounting would kill their prestige, bringing Zac Posen onboard for their first sale. The members-only concept created a sense of exclusivity, even if all one had to do was sign up and anyone could join.

“If shopping was traditionally a slow, leisurely activity that might consume an entire weekend (the exception being sample sales), it would now be competitive, addictive, urgent, thrilling — a rush delivered at the same time each day via the Internet,” they write. “It would be the appointment you couldn’t miss at a time we’d specified.”

From the first day, they drew a crowd, proving that luxury shoppers like a good bargain as much as anyone.

The book traces the rise of Gilt from its first days as a startup with five employees, including Maybank and Wilson. The company, valued at $1 billion, now sells a multitude of items, including cars, Judith Leiber clutches, chocolate truffles, as well as some non-luxury goods. Gilt ships to 90 countries and hosts more than 20 sales a day on several sites, including Gilt City, Gilt Taste and Jetsetter.

There is plenty for fashionistas and budding entrepreneurs alike to chew on, including anecdotes about Valentino, Madonna andJ. Crew Chief Executive Mickey Drexler; practical advice about how to find the right business partner; and tips on how to know if your business has the potential to go viral. There are also lots of behind-the-scenes stories about the origin of the Gilt name, how “The View” doubled membership overnight and why the two founders turned down an opportunity to buy acres of amazing European designer clothes and felt good about it.

—Booth Moore


Schiaparelli and Prada

Twins separated at birth, “most alike — indeed, virtually identical — in their sovereign ambition to be unique.” That’s how 1930s era fashion designer Elsa Schiaparelli and her modern-day counterpart Miuccia Prada are described in Judith Thurman’s introduction to “Schiaparelli and Prada: Impossible Conversations” (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Yale University Press, $45). The book is the catalog for the exhibition of the same name that opened Thursday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The book, by Andrew Bolton and Harold Koda, explores the similarities and differences between the two women born six decades apart, both of them native Italians with rebellious streaks who grew up in strict Catholic households. More than 200 photographs of Schiaparelli and Prada ensembles are featured, along with a series of “impossible conversations” between the two women, which curators Bolton and Koda orchestrated using quotes from Schiaparelli’s autobiography, “Shocking Life,” and interviews they conducted with Prada.

The two designers, both self-taught, “converse” about famous fans (Schiaparelli’s include Katharine Hepburn, Marlene Dietrich, Millicent Rogers and Daisy Fellowes; Prada says, “I don’t go out of my way to dress actresses....”). They “discuss” their affinity for uniforms (Schiaparelli was asked to design a costume for the typical Soviet woman in the 1930s, and Prada was heavily inspired in the 1990s by industrial materials and a kind of minimalist uniformity). They hold forth on their shared love of “ugly chic” and whether dress designing is an art (Schiaparelli says “yes,” Prada says “no”).

But mostly, the reader will be bowled over by the lush images of Schiaparelli’s 1930s goddess gowns, suit jackets with linebacker shoulders (later adopted by Hollywood costume designer Adrian), lamb chop- and shoe-shaped hats, as well as Prada’s chiffon dresses emblazoned with illustrations of whimsical fairies and school-girl skirts in lip prints or bearing nostalgic “tourist” designs of Rome and Venice.

—Booth Moore


Portrait of a gentleman

“The Gentry Man: A Guide for the Civilized Male” (Harper Design, $19.99) is a selection of articles Hal Rubenstein culled from Gentry magazine, which published just 22 quarterly issues from 1951 to 1957. Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle and founder-editor of Malcolm Forbes’ Egg magazine (to name just two publications) is more than qualified to pluck out and dust off the best gems from the U.S. men’s title.

Organized by subject (what every man should know; style; home, cars and travel; food and drink; sports; and art and culture), it’s a book crammed with all manner of helpful hints. Some are delightfully antiquated, such as the travel suggestion that has one pointing the Nash Rambler Cross Country Station Wagon toward Cooperstown, N.Y. (where double rooms with a bath at the Otesaga could be had for $2 to $30 daily), or pointers on what suitcase can help you stay within an 88-pound allowance for round-the-the-world flights.

But there are also a goodly number of timeless tips, such as “How You Can Checkmate in Seven Moves,” how to add a jaunty touch to your formal footwear (style your shoes with removable bows — “the white ones to be worn with a white dinner jacket, change to red when midnight-blue or black tuxedo is worn.”), rules for slalom ski racing and pointers on building your own golf course.

The question, of course, is why would any modern-day man want to browse half-century-old style and etiquette advice in the first place? Precisely because it’s been sitting on the shelf for five decades, and no one (besides, perhaps Rubenstein) has any skin in the game. Whether it’s style (“Serge Obolensky supports his deep rust linen slacks with [a] colorful necktie belt”), how to mix a Buckingham cocktail (recommended by one Salvatore Bertocci, the head barman at the Savoy Plaza, it consists of 2 ounces gin and a dash of Scotch) or fire up a New Year’s supper of broiled veal kidney with béarnaise sauce, it’s a lifestyle perfectly preserved not in amber but in the pages of a defunct magazine that would have been right at home on the coffee tables of “Mad Men’s” Cooper Sterling Draper Pryce crowd.

No matter that much of the information (or versions of it) could probably be found by a quick prowl of the vast savannah of the Internet. That the book’s contents have already been double-distilled — once by Gentry’s staff and its founder, editor and publisher William Segal, and a second time by Rubenstein — make for a cultural cocktail that today’s man will find a refreshing change from the status quo.


—Adam Tschorn