Amy Odell is the sort of editor you want to sit next to at a runway show. She is funny. She is smart. And she likes fashion. So when some beautiful extravagance comes floating past, she will nod with understanding when you — only half joking — propose taking out a home equity loan in order to afford it. Or when a strange contraption is paraded down a catwalk under the guise of clothing, you can turn to her with eyebrows raised, and she will say something perceptive and droll that elicits a belly laugh.
In “Tales from the Back Row,” Odell delivers lively observations, wry commentary and several rip-roaringly funny anecdotes from her time in fashion, during which she climbed the ranks from party reporter to blogger at the Cut to her current position as editor of Cosmopolitan.com.
Odell is not exactly a rarity in fashion. Having spent most of my career writing about the industry, I’ve met a fair number of editors with whom I’ve shared blunt talk and lots of laughs. But Odell speaks from a particular vantage point: the back row, the rafters, the peanut gallery, to which she was relegated until recently. These aren’t the best seats in the house, but some might argue that they are the most comfortable.
Like most industries, fashion is hierarchical. But unlike most industries, that hierarchy is exposed during Fashion Week when show producers create their seating charts. The front row is deemed the power position. It offers the best sightlines for viewing a collection. And as Odell describes it, those who inhabit the front row are observed like rare birds. Fashion zips by, and the birds barely blink. Their facial expressions give nothing away. Wariness, diplomacy and stress take up a lot of space in the front row.
In the back row, you don’t see the shoes — sometimes, you can barely see anything below the neck — but it’s easier to see the whole wild forest and not just the individual, neatly pruned trees.
Any book that promises a behind-the-scenes look at the fashion industry and also serves up an Anna Wintour anecdote is sure to attract readers. And Odell had a prolonged and interesting encounter.
Wintour, the editor of Vogue, has been the subject of countless stories and exposés, a documentary and at least one feature film, “The Devil Wears Prada,” thinly disguised as Miranda Priestly and played as an ogre by Meryl Streep. Odell met Wintour while interviewing for a job at Vogue. Wintour the person is far less intimidating, demanding and bonkers than Wintour the pop-culture caricature. But the heart of the story is Odell’s elaborate pre-interview preparation, her insecurity and her imagination run amok.
Wintour “stood up from behind her desk,” Odell writes. “She was wearing a long-sleeved printed blue dress that looked more expensive than any single piece of furniture in my apartment, mattress included. She reached across the desk to shake my hand. I don’t remember what it felt like because I was too busy noticing my resume sitting on her desk all by itself. This woman was not only aware of my existence but had my resume in front of her and was going to read it in my presence. I felt my cheeks turn red as a hot flash settled over my body. . . . She leaned forward and extended her right hand. She grinned. We shook.”
And what did fashion’s own devil say to Odell? “Lovely to see you.”
Odell is charmingly relatable and honest here. And the payoff is that readers get to go where they are unlikely ever to be on their own, into the belly of the Condé Nast building and Wintour’s office.
When Odell reviews some of her own poorly considered purchases, notably a pair of Alexander Wang sweatpants, her story becomes one of human folly, revealing how fashion can exist as a separate world with its own language and rules. What seems perfectly reasonable and stylish in the fashion world can be wholly inappropriate — and vaguely insulting — in the larger culture, or at least on a dinner outing with Odell’s boyfriend’s family.
“It was gorgeous out — sunny but not hot — so I threw on the sweatpants, a white tank top, a silver-cuff bracelet, and black high-heeled sandals. I thought I looked completely fabulous — casual yet dressy, cool yet not try-hard, hipster yet not obnoxious,” Odell writes. She arrives at her boyfriend Rick’s apartment, where his father and stepmother await. “Rick’s brow furrowed in a way that can only suggest something was very, very awkward. ‘What are you wearing?’ he said.
“ ‘What? Alexander Wang?’
“ ‘Oh, they’re on-trend.’
“His dad and stepmom looked on with nervous smiles.”
Odell is not a muckraker. And “Tales from the Back Row” is not a tell-all book. It’s a high — though not impossible — hurdle to write a critical exploration of the fashion industry while one remains gainfully employed within it. This is not such a book. Nor, I think, was it intended to be. “Tales from the Back Row” reads like a light-hearted, cocktail-hour confession from someone who is at once part of the fashion industry but sober enough to recognize insanity for what it is.
Odell doesn’t always name names. Sometimes, it’s unnecessary. And sometimes the omission is distracting, as when she describes “a very famous designer who wanted everything he wore to look old, like it had been festering underwater on a sunken pirate ship since the 1800s” and who had his own socks dipped in coffee and his leather boots run over by a car. Any guesses on who that might be?
Today Odell is at a point where she is no longer seated in the back row. She has moved up. Way up. And while there is every indication that her good humor and clear-eyed view of fashion have remained intact, it’s also harder to look back and laugh with abandon when you know folks are watching.
Robin Givhan writes about fashion for The Washington Post.
By Amy Odell
Simon & Schuster. 231 pp. $25