SCENES FROM THE FASHIONABLE WORLD By Kennedy Fraser Knopf. 204 pp. $17.95
KENNEDY FRASER is simply the finest fashion writer alive. Bitchy, witty, insightful, her prose is as rich as an Oscar de la Renta, as fluid as a Mary McFadden, as kicky as a Kenzo. In this, her second collection of essays (all of which originally appeared in The New Yorker), she dissects the great and near-great with flawless precision. She must have bought one of those Ginsu knives, so deftly does she carve up her subjects into delicious, bite-sized morsels.
As a journalist, she has perfected the art of falling in love with her subjects, then getting a divorce at the word processor. But she's more than a journalist, and certainly more than a fashion writer. She approaches fashion the way Calvin Trillin approaches food: as a jumping-off point for larger, more complex observations on people and their obsessions. Anyone who thinks fashion isn't a cruel business hasn't read Fraser's previous collection, The Fashionable Mind: Reflections On Fashion 1970-81, published in 1981. In that, the author writes, "Fashion is a ceaseless pursuit of things that are about to look familiar and in uneasy flight from things that have just become a bore."
In Scenes From The Fashionable World, Fraser continues the pursuit, trailing models, designers and best-dressed divas from parties to openings to fashion shoots, winding up with The Happy Huckster, Este'e Lauder, launching her latest perfume on the floor of Neiman-Marcus and carping about the homely customers in line. " 'They all said they used my products,' she said. She gave a laugh. 'Some of 'em didn't look so hot.' "
The collection begins with the hilarious "A Normal Tuesday," in which the author spends a day with Social Moth Jerome Zipkin ("a shortish man with a barrel chest and a large egg-shaped head") whose mouth seems to be perpetually half-open, as if poised to blow another kiss to his female counterpart, Greek-born author Arianna Stassinopoulos. First there's lunch at Le Train Bleu, then cocktails at Derek Granger's, then the opening of a sculpture show for Princess Marina of Greece, followed by the Erte' opening, the Erte' dinner and the Bulgari dinner at the Knickerbocker Club." 'You forgot the Princess Marina supper at Regine's,' says Arianna Stassinopoulos."
This frenetic social climbing is astutely recorded by Fraser, who captures the sophomoric quality of Manhattan's night life (the furs, the limos, the scramble to upgrade place settings) with admirable impartiality. Just when you fear Fraser might be one of them, she takes a satin-slippered step back, leaving her subjects wickedly exposed. As one party-goer says, "I have always liked going to bed when the world gets up . . . At night, you get to see human beings for what they really are."
In "Looking For Their People," designer Karl Lagerfeld looks for the perfect man, while Diana Vreeland, Halston, Zandra Rhodes, Andy Warhol and Calvin Klein look for their reflections in the adoring faces of socialites attending a costume ball. "We could see the famous people talking," Fraser writes, in the New Yorker plural, "but somehow it seemed like an imitation of talk, as though they were extras onstage."
THE LONGEST piece in the collection and the least successful is "The Great Moment," a profile of Japanese designer Issey Miyake. Fraser rambles on rather aimlessly, from New York to Tokyo, as if she had to justify her expense account. It's not really a profile of Miyake at all; there is less about the designer than the colorful characters (store owners and buyers and fashion editors) that fluttered in the wings. Here Fraser could have benefited from some judicious editing.
The best piece is "The Light in The Eye," a study of British photographer Norman Parkinson, "a personage in his own right, seen striding through tropic greenery wearing a sort of Byronic cricketing outfit, a big snow-white last-days-of-Empire mustache, and what looked like a Victorian smoking cap." A lover of Royals and lesser Royals, a man who had "imported his individual Englishness (highly wrought, and somewhat under aspic, like the late David Niven's) successfully enough for years," the spry 68-year-old fashion photographer allowed Fraser to follow him for over a year, making all the requisite stops: lunch at Le Cirque, hotel rooms above Central Park, parties with Bianca Jaggar and Calvin Klein, on location in Palm Beach with models Jerry Hall ("Did you git it, Parks?") and Iman, the regal black beauty who says "ain't" and complains that her shoes are killing her.
Says Parkinson, "How could anyone possibly live with women like that?"
Fraser's boundless energy is also evident in the last piece, "As Gorgeous As It Gets," a catty, wickedly funny portrait of perfume queen Este'e Lauder as she launches her new product, "Beautiful."
What I love about Fraser is presence. She literally devours her subjects, so close does she observe their every foible. With less gifted writers, this proximity would be a hindrance. But Fraser maintains her distance, and her dignity, while delivering her subjects up on a designer platter.
And what a marvelous dish it is. :: Stephanie Mansfield is a reporter for the Style section of The Washington Post.