Because you can't have depths without surfaces.
Linda Grant, thinking about clothes, books and other matters.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The greatest travel writer you've never read

I have been pretty shocked in the past week or so to discover how many otherwise well-read people have never heard of Norman Lewis, who is without a doubt the greatest post-war travel writer.

His biography, Semi-Invisible Man, by Julian Evans, has just been published to mark Lewis' cententary. I first discovered him in the late Eighties and devoured his seminal work, Naples '44, about his time, during the war, as part of the Allied army of Occupation of Southern Italy following the collapse of the fascist regime in the south. It is achingly funny and rich in insights into that marvellous, untidy, erotic city.

Lewis' 1950 book on Indo-China, A Dragon Apparent, was in the suitcase of every educated journalist during the Vietnam war.

His elegyy for Spain just before the arrival of mass tourism in the Fifities, Voices of the Old Sea, and not published until 1984, is one of the five or six books I cherish.

I once had a brief correspondence with Lewis. I wish I could find the letters.

So just go and read him. And if you already have, then Julian Evans will be doing an event at Daunt's Books on Marylebone High Street on Wednesday. I'll be going.

And who buys couture?

asks the Sunday Times?

They are a new fashion type, these rich and pampered couture shoppers. Although their lifestyles are European (and specifically London), their cultures span the world — Korea, China, Venezuela. And what are they here for? Excess — in colour, proportion and, above all, decoration.

Yet there was little innovation. Like the husbands who pay the bills — anything from £50,000 to £150,000 for an elaborately jewelled creation — these women don’t give tuppence for the avant-garde. They want a waist where God intended; they don’t want flashes in embarrassing places and are bemused by garments with three sleeves. They want everything just as it always has been — at least, since the 1950s. And Paris couture survives by meeting their needs.

They have other demands, too, such as quality of the standard even the best ready-to-wear labels cannot provide. They also want exclusivity, so most couture houses have an unwritten policy of limiting sales of any £100,00-plus garment to one per continent, with first choice going to the most loyal customer. As one vendeuse told me: “There are no ceilings now — they have all been broken. These women have closets to die for. And they all pay cash.”

She sums up the market forces by confessing: “We can’t get enough crocodile bags, even though they sell for £20,000. Kurdistani millionaires’ wives buy them in every colour, which often means 10 identical bags.”

More or less

Unsuprisingly, the Sunday Times reports today that the fashion retail sector which is experiencing an upsurge is the middle market. Buyers are trading down from Harvey Nicks and trading up from M&S and Primart.

Many of the brands in this not-too-expensive, not-too-cheap niche are small compared with the retail giants. What sets them apart is a focus on quality, design and a commitment to producing fashion you might want to keep. In a tough economic climate, these values chime with the way we want to live now, and they are good for business. Jigsaw reported a substantial sales rise this year and is about to launch an e-commerce site. Banana Republic isn’t having a summer sale — because there is no left-over stock. Reiss and All Saints are expanding rapidly, and Jaeger posted a profit of £82m last year. One of the most exciting fashion relaunches will also be in the middle market. I’ve had a sneak peek at the first collection by the former Topshop guru Jane Shepherdson for Whistles, and it is full of grown-up, gorgeous, covetable clothes.

A black jacket I bought at Whistles two and a half years ago for £175 has several years more life in it, in terms of both quality and style. I was looking in L.K. Bennett the other day, and the small number of pieces they have started to get in for Autumn look very promising, as do the shoes.