The Henkin Brothers Archive: Rediscovered Treasure

In February, I submitted an assessed essay discussing the image of the Neue Frau as documented through various media formats in Weimar Germany (see previous blog post ‘In Her Image’). So when Rebecca introduced me to the Henkin Brothers Archive a couple of weeks ago, I was excited to see primary photographic material rendering 1930s Berlin with a warming, frank humility. 

Before discussing their photographs, I think it’s best to get to know the brothers and their posthumously formed foundation first. The photographs of brothers Evgeny (b.1900) and Yakov Henkin (b.1903) were freshly unearthed in 2012. For over 70 years, untouched boxed filled with rolls of film had sat in Yakov Henkin’s former home in Leningrad. The rediscovery of these photographic heirlooms set in motion the creation of a wonderful archival foundation, with Yakov’s descendants taking full advantage of new technologies and digitising the thousands of negatives they had uncovered. 

Fig 1. Evgeny Henkin, Self-portrait with a Leica camera, c.1936-1937, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

Despite growing up together in Rostov-on-Dov (situated in the European South of the Russian Empire), the brothers’ paths diverged in the wake of the October Revolution (1917) in Russia, with Evgeny travelling to Berlin and Yakov moving to Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg). This disruptive parting between the two siblings is documented in their separate photographic collections: Evgeny capturing the cityscape of interwar Berlin (1926-1936) and Yakov the distinctive streets of 1930s Leningrad; until his voluntary enlistment in 1941 (his subsequent death on the Leningrad Front shortly thereafter). 

Fig 2. Yakov Henkin, Self-Portrait in a mirror, c. mid-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

In accordance with this blog’s dress historical premise, I thought it would be on-theme to select two images—from Berlin and Leningrad respectively—to demonstrate the brothers’ natural photographic talents whilst simultaneously illustrating the contemporary fashions of their individual city-spaces (neither brother worked professionally as photographers: each chose to hone their natural talent as amateurs while undertaking alternative careers). The first (Fig.3) is the stuff of fashion-historian dreams. Evgeny provides us with the street-side setting of what I assume to be a hair-salon’s storefront. This is a remarkably kitschy-cool image: quaffed and glossed mannequin heads line the length of the windowpane, while two living models occupy the foreground, emulating the pose of their backdrop inspirations. The Bubikopf, modelled here in various incarnations, was a masculine-inspired haircut symbolic of the New Woman’s revolutionary personhood. Bubikopf translates directly to ‘boy’s head’, and this affluent grooming modification was reconfigured several times, such as the shortened and smoothed ‘Eton crop’, which featured defined, exaggerated waves (see central mannequin for main reference). I am desperate for this wool coat on the left also, truly desperate. 

Fig 3. Evgeny Henkin, Two women, c.1930s, Berlin (Germany). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

The second image (Fig.4), taken by Yakov, is a more traditionally composed portrait that shows two women standing on one of Leningrad’s many riverfronts (c. late-1930s). In this image, we are treated to a fantastic display of jazzy pullovers that set the overall, fabulous fashion tone: matching ‘v’ neck-lines, each woman sporting a fun and unique woven motif (a dot pattern vs. a form of waved, rib knit) that is offset by equally distinguished collars (neat, petite bow vs. oversized Peter Pan collar). I could discuss at length the killer shoe-game on display here, but I am fully obsessed with the mirror-image diagonal poses each woman is striking (the soft, harmonious ‘v’ their bodies unintentionally create, repeating the motif of their corresponding necklines) and the headwear-cherries they have placed atop their ensemble-cakes: a structural cloche and the timeless beret (that always screams chic). Good show, ladies! 

Fig 4. Yakov Henkin, Two women, by the river, c. late-1930s, Leningrad (St. Petersburg, USSR/Russia). © Henkin Brothers Archive Association (HBAA)

These two corresponding images, from individual European cities, depicting two pairs of fashion-conscious female friends and the style aesthetic of two unique landscapes, perfectly demonstrate the important, historical and cultural reference the Henkin Brothers’ work represents. 

In recent years, the collection has been displayed at the @hermitage_museum (St. Petersburg) in the archive’s inaugural public exhibition, entitled: The Henkin Brothers: A Discovery. People of 1920s-30s Berlin and Leningrad (2017). And just this May (16-19 May), a selection of Henkin Brothers photography was shown at the 2019 @streetphotomilano festival. It’s safe to say that the Henkin Brothers are making a stellar, 21st century comeback! 

I would like to thank Denis Maslov, Yakov Henkin’s great-grandson for his assistance and helpful emails concerning the writing of this post. Denis works to preserve the archive and develop its social media presence with his mother Olga—the only living descendants of the Henkin Brothers. 

To learn more about the Henkin Brothers Archive Association, go to www.henkinbrothers.com  

And visit their Instagram ASAP—it’s full of photographic treasures: www.instagram.com/henkin.brothers 

Reflections on Gordon Parks and Anthony Hernandez

During a class in February, we discussed Gordon Parks’ 1956 series of photographs entitled Segregation Story. They were originally published in Life magazine as a visual documentation of the Jim Crow-era American South. His photographs highlight moments in the daily lives of African American subjects throughout Georgia and Alabama. At the time they were published, these photos were intended to foster empathy among white northern readers who were provided a powerful visual of how systemic racism permeated even the most basic activities: eating ice cream, going to school, or stopping at a drinking fountain.

Gordon Parks, Department Store, Mobile Alabama, 1956. Credit: High Museum of Art, Atlanta

Though I had seen many of these images before, one stood out to me in particular. Department Store, Mobile, Alabama depicts a woman and her young daughter standing outside of a door marked ‘Colored Entrance’. They wear their Sunday best, mother in a stylish pale blue dress, and daughter adorned in white frills, yet the neon sign above them reminds the viewer that systemic racism has relegated them to the position of second-class citizens. This image contrasts the fashionably dressed subjects in an otherwise serene moment with the glaring reminder of the segregation, hatred, and violence that impact every aspect of life. In this scene, notions of fashion and shopping are implicated into fraught negotiations of race and power in the American South.

Anthony Hernandez, Rodeo Drive #68, 1984. Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago

When I considered this image again in class, I was reminded of another photograph, taken nearly thirty years later which shares similar iconographic elements, and perhaps likewise raising questions about how constructs of race and power are played out through fashion, shopping, and consumer culture. Anthony Hernandez’s Rodeo Drive #68, part of his 1984 series, shows an African American family posing for a photograph in front of the Gucci store on the prominent shopping street in Los Angeles. This series of candid photographs of anonymous subjects documents those who were out to see and be seen. Most of the subjects in this series are dressed in bold styles of the power dressing era, acting out a narrative of the decade’s fashion on a street filled with its vendors. The majority of these subjects are white and captured in action as they move down the street. For this reason, the family in Rodeo Drive #68 stands out, particularly because we see them stopping to be captured in front of the shop. The Gucci storefront connotes a particular association with luxury fashion and commodity culture, and perhaps posing with the curling gold text of the brand name serves as a memento of the visit. As Rebecca notes in her post, it is unknown if they went inside. Both of these photos, though taken in enormously different contexts, raise questions about how shopping can be simultaneously social, personal, and entertaining, and implicitly entwined in the nettles of race, class, and gender dynamics. Parks and Hernandez help viewers interrogate how we read constructs of race and identity in relation to fashion culture, and how elitist and exclusive spaces are imprinted with power.

‘Working Girls’ Photographed and Memorialised

While taken and kept in obscurity, snapshots revealing the lives of 19th century working girls have come to light in San Francisco. Believed to be the earliest known photographs taken within an American brothel, the collection of William Goldman photographs currently on display at the Sorokko Gallery are both rare and insightful.

The images date to the 1890s and depict prostitutes associated with a brothel in Reading, Pennsylvania. The snapshots are posed, with playful and individualised compositions. Some images are whole, while some have been cut or torn into cloud-like shapes, giving them a dreamy, surreal quality. All of the images offer a glimpse into the daily lives and minds of the traditionally mysterious brothel girls. 

25 of Goldman’s ethereal photographs are on display in the Sorokko Gallery. The exhibition, which runs from November 15th to December 9th, coincides with the publishing of a book on the same collection by Robert Flynn Johnson, entitled Working Girls: An American Brothel, Circa 1892. Johnson, art historian and curator emeritus for the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, discovered the collection nearly 15 years ago and is the reason gallery owners and collectors Serge and Tatiana Sorokko came into possession of the photographs. The book features essays from author and professor of history Ruth Rosen, as well as curator and fashion historian Denitta Sewell. It also features a foreword by burlesque star Dita Von Teese. 

Von Teese brings attention to dressing for seduction, giving mention to the striped or patterned stockings all the women pictured wear. She asserts that individuality, allure and confidence intersect within this garment. She also discusses the empowerment which this series of photographs may have offered those depicted, giving them the opportunity to be represented more or less as they wished. The women in these photographs smile and appear relaxed, offering an unusual sense of fun and agency to their tabooed lifestyle. 

The subversion of Victorian morals and cultural norms which these images represent makes them especially significant for historians of fashion and photography alike.

All images are William Goldman photographs from the Sorokko Gallery, made available by CNN Style.

Miwa Yanagi: Elevator Girl

 

Miwa Yanagi’s 1990s photography series, Elevator Girl, presents a fascinating look at how fashion and photography can come together for a cultural critique. Yanagi studied textile design at the Kyoto City University of Arts, and incorporated this knowledge with a newfound interest in photography and performance art into one project. Beginning in the early 20th century, Japanese department stores hired beautiful, young women to operate the elevators in their buildings. She was made to dress up in the same outfit every day, and sit in a box repeating the same motions over and over again. The elevator girl was clearly a sexual object that represented the traditional patriarchal oppression of women in society, yet she was also a modern woman of the world that had a paying job and dressed in a contemporary, sophisticated manner. Yanagi’s photographs explore the traditional pressure and oppression that women still face in modern society. Take Elevator Girl House 1F, which shows rows of uniformed elevator girls displayed in a glass case.

They are dressed in identical red uniforms consisting of a skirt and double-breasted jacket, complete with a matching red hat and white pumps. They are each posed in a stiff, mannequin-like fashion within the glass display cases. The photograph invites the viewer onto the moving walkway to observe the models as if they are commodities to be bought and sold. Uniforms are powerful tools, in that they invite an immediate response of recognition. When you see someone in an army uniform, you automatically assume they must be a soldier of some kind. The red uniforms in Yanagi’s photograph give the viewer that sense of recognition to the elevator girls, but puts them in a different context. There is a simultaneous familiarity and alienation – the girls are recognizable in their uniforms and remain in a display context; however, they are now overtly the commodities in an endless row. There is also a sense of alienation in their similarity. The reflections of the lights above on the glass cases obscures their facial features. This coupled with their identical outfits makes them almost indistinguishable from one another.

Miwa Yanagi’s work in the Elevator Girl series investigates Japanese popular culture and consumer culture by appropriating their themes and satirizing them. Her series takes the patriarchal image of the elevator girl and uses it to shed light on the pressure and inequality Japanese women face. The photographs themselves resemble glossy fashion advertisements, thus criticizing both the way in which women are thought of as commodities and the consumer culture that gripped Japan as well. The ritualized performance of the elevator girl, the repetitive motions she makes everyday, the identical outfit she wore to other women, and the pressure put on her to appear alluring and youthful, is representative of the standardized roles women of any profession or status are expected to play. Her photographs increase the viewer’s feeling that there is something problematic about the elevator girls through a heightened sense of unreality that she achieves by placing the girls in eerily familiar, yet surreal settings. While her photographs in the Elevator Girl series are glossy, beautiful, and eye catching, they leave the viewer feeling unsettled, which is precisely their job.

By Olivia Chuba

‘A Charming Consideration’: Edwardian Lingerie Dresses

The woman preparing food for this boat picnic wears a sheer lingerie dress, c. 1910. Courtesy SSPL/Science & Society Picture Library/Getty Images.

When the heat of June rolls in and spring layers give way to bright, flowing dresses, I cannot help but be reminded of the quintessential summer garment, and perhaps my favorite historical fashion trend, the Edwardian lingerie dress. Its name derived from the undergarment-like materials with which the dress was made: sheer cotton or linen inset with lace, all bleached vivid white, with a white or pastel silk slip underneath. Primarily worn from the early 1900s until 1914, these delicate gowns embodied docile and leisured Edwardian femininity.

Women’s Dress, 1908. Cotton organdy with machine-made Valenciennes lace and trim. Made in the United States. Philadelphia Museum of Art (accession number: 1966-163-2).

Despite its salacious name, the lingerie dress was a staple of a respectable woman’s wardrobe. The 1905 Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette, for example, suggested that women have a ‘white lingerie dress’ for luncheon or afternoon tea. It could also be worn as a wedding dress or a casual evening gown during the summer. Since it was appropriate attire for multiple occasions, the lingerie dress is commonly identified as a tea gown, an afternoon dress, a summer dress, or (when made with plain weave cotton or linen) a lawn dress. The lingerie dress eschewed the loose, comfortable fit of the late-nineteenth century tea gown, its predecessor, in favor of the fashionable silhouette. An American lingerie dress from the 1908, pictured above, demonstrates the silhouette of the first decade of the twentieth century, the thrust-forward bust and curved back indicative of the s-bend, or swan bill, corset. Later lingerie dresses exhibit the straight line introduced in Poiret’s Directoire revival gowns.

Actress Carol McComas in a lace gown, 1905. Courtesy London Stereoscopic Company/Getty Images.

Lingerie dresses were available at many price points, with some simple styles ready-made and more ornate designs offered by top couturiers. Doucet and Redfern, for instance, produced lavishly embellished gowns of hand-made lace and extensive embroidery. Such dresses were suitable for trips to the races and other society functions. White lingerie dresses, at least at first, represented the unhurried, tidy lifestyle of upper class women. Their delicate embellishments necessitated careful cleaning, an especially arduous task for white gowns which had to be washed at extremely high temperatures and repeatedly bleached. As its popularity increased, less elaborate gowns with machine-made lace were produced. These dresses, theoretically, could be machine washed; thus, women of the lower-middle class could wear lingerie dresses similar to those worn by society women without the laborious washing process of more delicate gowns. This proliferation of the lingerie dress across socio-economic boundaries indicates a society-wide aspiration to toward a pure, tranquil femininity of upper class leisure.

Suffragettes in ‘Votes for Women’ sashes and all white ensembles, c. 1910. Courtesy Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

The symbolism of the white lingerie dress was later co-opted by British suffragettes as they campaigned for women’s rights. Throughout the nineteenth century the women’s suffrage movement allied closely with dress reform, both aimed at increasing female liberation. Trouser-like garments such as the bifurcated skirt doomed those attempts to notoriety, since the adoption of masculine clothing was viewed as a challenge to patriarchal power. The suffragette uniform of white shirtwaists and tailor-made skirts capitalized on the reputation of the white lingerie dress. As Kimberly Wahl describes, white not only acknowledged accepted fashion, but also, ‘offered itself as a purified and visible marker of difference, conforming to gender binaries of the period, and was thus reassuringly feminine.’ Women’s liberation groups, then, manipulated the white lingerie dress, a symbol of traditional Edwardian femininity, to advance their cause. Though primarily a representation of traditional gender roles, the lingerie dress established sartorial conventions for the suffragettes and helped democratize dress across social boundaries.

Sources

Clare Rose, Art Nouveau Fashion (London: V&A Publishing, 2014)

Daniel James Cole and Nancy Deihl, ‘The 1900s,’ in The History of Modern Fashion (London: Laurence King Publishing, 2015), pp. 77-98

Kimberly Wahl, ‘Purity and Parity: The White Dress of the Suffrage Movement in Early Twentieth Century Britain,’ in Jonathan Faiers, Mary Westerman Bulgarella, ed., Colors in Fashion (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2016), pp. 21-33

Marion Harland and Virginia van de Water, Marion Harland’s Complete Etiquette (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1905)

Dissertation Discussion: Sophie

Photographs of Parkinson’s Wife, Wanda Rogerson in Robin Muir, ‘Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion’ (London, National Portrait Gallery 2004)

What is your title?

The title of my dissertation will probably still change. However at the moment I am going with How very British: National Identity in Norman Parkinson’s fashion photography for Vogue, 1950-1952. Parkinson produced some stunning images for different spreads, many of which lend themselves really well to a study of British national identity. Delving a little deeper into these specific images, Parkinson’s biography and the history of 1950s Britain has been great fun.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

The topic stemmed from a mixture of previous interests and pure chance. I had no pre-conceived idea of what I wanted to look at for this dissertation. However, I always studied World War II and the Cold War when I had the chance as an undergraduate, so I knew I wanted to stick within that time frame. Couple this with my love of 1950s fashion and elegance, and the random selection of a beautiful book on Norman Parkinson whilst browsing the stacks at the Courtauld and – ta dah! – the dissertation title was born. I had also wanted to be practical about my choice and choose a topic that would enable me to make the most of London based archives. Norman Parkinson has his own in south London (big shout out to the lovely and wonderful people that work there!), so it all came together beautifully.

Norman Parkinson Archive

Most interesting research find thus far?

I believe I read in Parkinson’s book that Irving Penn babysat Parkinson’s son. As you do. No big deal. On a more serious note, I am still continually blown away by how clever his images are. They seem so simple at first glance, and then, the more you look, the more you realise just how good he was in expressing a certain image, feel or identity to a wide range of readers. This was especially interesting with regards to the way in which his photographs for a 1951 South Africa spread differed, or were used in a different way, from the May edition in British Vogue to the July edition in American Vogue. On a side note I have become obsessed with an image that I’m not even using in my essay. It is just too stunning. Everyone- google “Carmen’s Armpit” and you will understand! Or not, in which case it is just my inner dress history nerd coming to the fore…

Favourite place to work?

I would love to say that it is The National Arts Library in the V&A. It surely wins the award for most aesthetically pleasing place to study- but I tend to be freezing cold in there, so sadly it loses out. I rather fluctuate between the Courtauld Book Library and my home. This arrangement provides the perfect balance between the comfort of home (sneaking a couple of biscuits and copious amounts of tea) and the beautiful comradeship between all Courtauld students during dissertation time in the library. We all really share the stress and joys of the process and that is unbelievably valuable as you are working. *Insert cheesy violin music here!*

Courtauld Library

Dissertation Discussion: Barbora

My three bibles for the past few months: D.V. by Diana Vreeland, Allure by Diana Vreeland and Memos: The Vogue Years edited by Alexander Vreeland

What is your title?

“Fake It!” Examining the myths and realities in the life and work of Diana Vreeland.

What prompted you to choose this subject?

Ever since I’ve watched The Eye Has To Travel for the first time, I was fascinated by Diana Vreeland and the way she shaped the industry almost singlehandedly. Her stories, too, are quite something: Vreeland, her sister and nanny were the last people to see the Mona Lisa before it was stolen in 1911; Charles Lindbergh flew over her garden on his first trans-Atlantic flight; she almost took down the British monarchy when Wallis Simpson came to her lingerie store to order some special garments for her first weekend away with the Duke of Windsor, Prince Edward; and she attended Hitler’s birthday party in the early ’30s, sending a postcard to her son afterwards with the note “Watch this man.” Apparently so, anyway. I wanted to find out more about what prompted her to create such an extreme background for herself, the reason behind all the myth and fantasy which surrounded her, the obsession with “faking it” and everything else about her, really. Actually, I think I fancied the role of a detective for a few months, attempting to untangle what really went on in her head and her life.

‘Vogue’ December 1, 1965 Cover | Wilhelmina Cooper by Irving Penn | Diamond cage deisgned by Harry Winston (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

‘Vogue’ July 1, 1969 | Veruschka by Irving Penn (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Most interesting research find thus far?

I was lucky enough to go to New York to visit the Diana Vreeland Papers Archive at the New York Public Library. Flicking through the original pages of her teenage diary, handling her passport and birth certificate (the date of her birth is no longer a mystery!) and finding out what she was up to on a day-to-day basis through the Smythson leather diaries she kept between 1950 and 1985 was quite amazing. There are some peculiar entries where Vreeland notes when she is due to start her pills – once green, then yellow, then pink. Very intriguing. Sadly, I only had two days in New York and so could only go through four boxes out of the sixty-something the library has. Might have to go on another trip soon! I think about a month should do it, mainly because Vreeland’s handwriting makes it quite a challenge to decode what she was actually trying to write down. Oh, and one more thing: the Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue online archives are very dangerous if you don’t have much time – they suck you in!

‘Vogue’ April 15, 1969 | Bert Stern (‘Memos: The Vogue Years’)

Favourite place to work?

I got into a very bad habit of working from my bed. So most of the time I can be found there, surrounded by mounds of paper, pastel-coloured highlighters and books. If I manage to persuade myself to face the outside world, I head to Starbucks (but only one that has comfortable armchairs or sofas!), and have a huge mug of soy matcha latte. I fear to look at my bank statement and find out how much I spent at Starbucks in the past couple of months. And there’s still time to go… Strangely, I find libraries quite distracting, but in Starbucks I get the work done.

Starbucks should probably have its mention in my acknowledgements as the place which provided constant fuel for all the writing.

What my bed looks like most of the time now. Also, pastel-coloured highlighters are a must, as is colour-coding!

Dissertation Discussion: Dana

Model Anne Saint-Marie wearing cinnamon brown wool tweed evening coat, lined in black satin over matching black satin dress. © Horst P Horst for Vogue Oct, 1959. Getty Images

What is your title?

I’m very bad at coming up with titles and I’m still working on mine, but the working title is ‘Relationships Between Body, Fashion and Furniture: The Modern Chair in Mid-Century Photography.’

Model Anne Saint-Marie wearing cartwheel pyjamas as pants, of printed silk shantung in flowers of orange and red. Shown with white sleeveless linen top and strap sandals. © Horst P Horst for Vogue June, 1957. Getty Images

What prompted you to choose this subject?

I’ve always had very broad interests, academically and personally, that range between ancient and medieval art to modern design and fashion, so I really wanted to do something different and wanted to explore further (although I was hesitant to do so at first). I also have a soft spot for furniture, especially Mid Century Modern chairs, sofas and daybeds, so it wasn’t a very difficult decision to make. But the moment I decided that I wanted to talk about furniture and fashion was during our class trip to New York. Not only was there an exhibition on Bauhaus interiors (another soft spot) at MoMA, but also, on our visit to the FIT archives, I realized that we were all sitting on 1975 Eames chairs for Herman Miller, which to the amusement of my classmates, got me very excited. That is when I thought I had to!

Anne Gunning-Parker wearing shantung pajamas with watermelon slice design reclining on couch with dog and unidentified man seated next to her. © Horst P Horst for Vogue May, 1954. Getty Images.

Most interesting research find thus far?

There has been so much! But the most interesting find was seeing how most of the 1950s images I’ve been looking at portrayed men and women sitting for a photo (more specifically husband and wife). Unless the shot portrays them working (as some portraits from Charles and Ray Eames), the man is usually positioned behind the woman (most likely standing), more pensive. The woman usually sits on a sofa (a tad reclined – but never too comfortably). This creates a dichotomy between the man and the woman portrayed, of vertical and horizontal lines.

Paul McCobb among his furniture, 1956. Photographer not stated. Getty Images.

Favourite place to work?

I’m not a library person anymore, so usually spend most of my time at home or in coffee shops (where coffee is allowed). But I’ve gone to my parent’s house in Madrid for a couple weeks and my favourite place to work here would be the library at the Costume Museum as it’s always quiet, cool, and has glass walls with views to their garden (which is pretty amazing).

Talking to Lucy Moore of Claire de Rouen

On London’s Charing Cross Road, an inconspicuous little black door at number 125 transports you into a world of the best art, photography and fashion books. Tucked away on the first floor of the building, the charming space of Claire de Rouen, a bookshop with an impeccably curated selection, instantly becomes everyone’s favourite place in the city. I visited the shop on one sunny afternoon to chat to its amazing director, Lucy Kumara Moore about the space, inspirations, culture and what the future holds for CdR.

Barbora Kozusnikova: Tell me about how the Claire de Rouen bookshop came about and how you started working here.

Lucy Moore: The shop was opened in 2005, by Claire de Rouen – a deeply-knowledgeable, beautiful and slightly mysterious woman born in Alexandria, Egypt, to Italian parents. She moved to London in her twenties to study art. She worked at the ICA bookshop, then at the Photographer’s Gallery and quickly established a reputation for being able to source books before anyone else, and for being so attuned to her clients taste that she knew how to put together the most incredible collections of books for them. After the Photographer’s Gallery, Claire got a job heading up the photo and fashion department at Zwemmer’s bookshop, which doesn’t exist anymore, but used to be just down the road from where my bookshop is now, on Charing Cross Road. She was friends with everyone – Bruce Weber would come and say hi when he was in town and David Bailey gave her a print of one of his portraits of Catherine Deneuve.

Soho used to be much more creatively-exciting… Central Saint Martins used to be on this street, and there were many more art and photo galleries and artist studios that have since closed or moved. The Astoria was an incredible music venue that was demolished to make way for Crossrail. Things have changed so much! Claire was a figurehead in that high-spirited world. Around 2005, Zwemmer’s was bought by another book dealer called Shipley – and Claire didn’t like the way things changed. At the suggestion of Bob Carlos Clarke (known for his sexy high gloss pictures that feel so of the 90s when you look at them now), Claire set up her own shop (and Bruce had connected her with the landlord of the beautiful little space that was to be its home). The opening of Claire de Rouen Books as it was known then (I’ve since dropped the ‘books’ part) was a party for Bruce Weber’s Blood, Sweat and Tears, on Bonfire Night – think of all the fireworks!

I met Claire through my boyfriend at the time, Ned Wilson, in 2009. I was just finishing art school then and loved coming to the shop for signings and launches. We always talked about me working with her but there wasn’t really a job available – she worked there every day except Saturday and had someone to do weekends already. In late 2010 I moved to Australia. I remember going in to the shop to tell Claire and she handed me a book called Bondi Style! After a few months of living in Sydney, we had a very sad phone call to say that Claire had been diagnosed with cancer. She was hoping I could go back to London to help her at the bookshop now that she was less able to work every day. But I didn’t make it back in time, tragically. After she died in 2012, it seemed as if the shop might close and so I decided to move back to London and buy it with some friends.

BK: Why do you think people are still publishing quite a lot of books and the shop continues to be so successful in the digital age?

LM: Well, publishing is much easier and much cheaper. I think if you’re a photographer or a fashion journalist or a stylist, if you publish something then it demonstrates a level of involvement with what you’re doing that goes way beyond putting images online. People understand the different qualities of printed matter and digital space – and select the best platform for saying what they want to say. The two are just different platforms for the exploration of ideas. It’s not one or the other.

People love looking at actual books! It’s so important to me that Claire de Rouen is public not appointment-only. It’s open 5 days a week and is there to welcome you into its paper arms when you have half an hour to kill before you go and meet your Tinder date or if you suddenly decide to do some research into the House of Beauty and Culture.

It’s also a place of idea exchange – lots of my clients make their own books – which I sell – as well as buying them from me, so it’s a two-way space in that sense. It’s part of the constellation of London’s culture. That’s what this shop is about.

BK: How do you select the books that you stock here? Is it really personal or driven by what customers are asking for?

LM: It’s both, because my customers mostly share my taste, so sometimes I buy things that they have suggested. But I never stock anything just because I know it will sell well. There is no Terry Richardson in the house! I have two buying rules that are totally antithetical to each other…! I like very serious, committed explorations of ideas through photography or writing or design – publications which contribute to a discourse. But I also love books that are just fun and pop and beautiful and sexy – I think pleasure and beauty are quite important in our dark political times.

BK: Are there any books that you’d like to see published that haven’t been yet?

LM: So many. I’m setting up a publishing house this year to start filling all the gaps. It will be called Claire de Rouen too, and will trace the history of the interplay between art, fashion and commerce from the ‘70s to now. News to follow!

BK: People can find fashion books next to art books on the shelves at Claire de Rouen. How do you think art and fashion relate?

LM: Unfortunately, because the art market grew so much in the early 2000s, many (although by no means all) of the commercial galleries adjusted themselves to cater for the super rich, with the consequence that they aren’t very welcoming spaces for a broad spectrum of people, necessarily. In contrast, the visual output of the fashion world is distributed in a very democratic way. A billboard on a street is going to be seen by everyone. And digital space doesn’t discriminate according to wealth or class – digital ‘societies’ are totally different to geographically-based ones. Ideas from high fashion filter into the high street, making fashion a very powerful medium to explore ideas relating to beauty, gender, identity, narrative, fantasy etc., because what you see in a Celine show you’ll see in Topshop in a slightly different form, very often before the Celine is even out. That’s very powerful. I find that really interesting. I don’t think it’s a bad thing, necessarily. It’s bad for Celine, but it’s very interesting that these ideas are expressed very quickly in a very mainstream way. And that doesn’t happen in art right now – not in London anyway.

BK: Do you collect anything? Or are the books your collection?

LM: Yes, in many ways, yes, totally – I stock Claire de Rouen like it’s my own library. But I also collect a few things, like Werk magazine, POP and Arena Homme+ – magazines are super important right now. Every time I do a signing, I ask the photographer or artist to sign a copy for me. I also collect books on Mark Steinmetz and Marc Camille Chaimowicz – all the Marks! Only joking. I love the Yohji catalogues from the 80s that Nick Knight, Peter Saville and Marc Ascoli did. I also really love functional printed matter, like annual reports and diaries.

Apart from books, I collect the little crystal Disney Swarovski sculptures, which are my total guilty pleasure. And shoes.

BK: Do you want to stay really small, and only here, in Charing Cross?

LM: No, the bookshop will move this year. I would like more space to show more artworks and prints and selected clothing and accessories. In theory, I would like more than one space, but I don’t know how I’d make it work because, really, the bookshop is about my presence there and my taste. So maybe if I had other bookshops, I would invite people who I really respect to set up their own, new, Claire de Rouen worlds, in the same way I do here.

BK: You stock books that inspire people and also the people that made the books were inspired by something. What inspires you?

LM: I am always beguiled by Araki’s approach to life – his voracious curiosity and obsession with sensual pleasure. Marc Camille Chaimowicz (who is a friend) has a carefully defined and beautiful approach to living. Wolfgang Tillmans’ work has a very lucid relationship to society that I find inspiring. There is also a constellation of women in my life who I adore working with – Lou Stoppard, Rei Nadal, Daisy Hoppen, Alice Neale, Lily Cole. I’m very interested in strong, successful, creative women!

Cléo de Mérode and the Seduction of Beauty

Léopold-Émile Reutlinger and Giovanni Boldini, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

What makes someone beautiful? Or maybe the question is, what makes someone photogenic? Or the perfect subject for representation in any media? Symmetry? Expressive eyes? The ability to pose, to present yourself just so? In Cléo de Mérode’s case she seemed to possess all the necessary qualities – from an early age she inspired image-makers and sparked styles. She had a quality – what a very vague term – that spoke of modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her dancer’s poise, long neck and tiny waist presented an apparently perfect silhouette – slim yet curved to express the contemporary line of beauty. For Boldini, she was coquettish, glancing over her shoulder, blouse slipping from milky shoulder … in Belle Époque photographs she is still usually in profile – she knew how best to display herself – Amazonian with puffed sleeved blouses, sculpted torso and perfect posture. Painted, sketched, photographed repeatedly, artists sought to capture her beauty and show how it expressed a transcendent modern ideal that still entices today.

Born in 1875 to an aristocratic, artistic family, she was dancing professionally from the age of 11. She soon existed both in reality – dancing at the Paris Opéra, for example, and brave enough to risk outrage by appearing with the risqué Folies Bergère – and in parallel – she lived as an image, a vision of a ideal that seduced and entrapped viewers. She was a cipher – a perfect neck, the smallest waist, the newest hairstyle – who seemed knowable through these depictions, and yet out of reach, a modern star to be consumed visually. She was famous internationally, desired by royalty – pursued by the Belgian king, and sculpted by Alexander Falguière, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and photographed by Nadar.

Mérode’s ability to transcend time is evidenced in Cecil Beaton’s interview with her for Vogue in 1964 – 2 years before she died. By then she was elderly, but no less elegant, and still astute in her approach to photographer and camera. In his photograph of her, she remains uniquely herself – true to her image, posing to present her herself and reflect her beauty towards the light, and to potential viewers. For Beaton she represented a key period of style and living – a lost age, filled with enigmatic women in trailing gowns and elongated corsetry, their hair piled up for extra height. His book The Glass of Fashion is a paean to these indomitable proto-modern women, able to live with a greater degree of independence because of their class, talent or refusal to adhere to contemporary morality.

Cecil Beaton, Cléo de Mérode (collage)

His interview with her, upstairs in her elegant Parisian apartment connects with themes that thread through his work – beauty, ageing and feeling out of synch with time. As he gains her confidence they walk through each room, seeking the best light for her to pose and reclaim her decades of modelling with gestures that resonate in hundreds of pictures. She denies the racier aspects of her reputation – no nights at Maxim’s she says, but she still knows how to perform, her body responds to artistic attention, and recreates the beauty of her youth. On his way out, Mérode became anxious – worried about the results of her sitting – and said ‘Remember, I am trés coquette. Now you’ve promised you’ll destroy all those pictures which are bad?’ As Beaton notes, she ‘knows how to protect her legend,’ perhaps the other key ingredient necessary to remain an eternal beauty.

 

Further Reading:

Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (1954)

Cecil Beaton, ‘Cléo de Mérode Today’, Vogue (Feb 15, 1964)