When Fashion Is More Than Clothes: Eight Must-Reads For Fashionistas

Coco Chanel once said, "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street; fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening." We are all influenced by the prevailing fashion not only in what we choose to wear, but also in how we interpret our world. To celebrate the release of my new novel Mademoiselle Chanel, about the iconic fashion designer, here are some of my favorite must-reads in fiction and non-fiction for fashionistas everywhere, regardless of whether you follow the seasonal runway shows. These books do more than pay homage to couture; they weave vibrant stories around personalities who define the essence of style.

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado The glamour of 1940s New York drapes Szado's deft, fashion-infused depiction of the wartime love triangle between a young designer on the verge of launching her career, the French expatriate writer and pilot, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, author of The Little Prince, and his estranged, unstable wife, whose determination to win back her husband gives this novel its tempestuous fuel. Szado knows her way around an atelier -- and the foibles of our human heart.
The Last Nude by Ellis Avery 1927 Paris and the worlds of art and fashion collide in Avery's razor-sharp, erotically charged rendition of the fanged affair between acclaimed Art Deco painter, Tamara Lempicka, and her American-born muse and aspiring designer, Rafaela. Though fashion is not the focus here, it's everywhere you turn -- in the linseed-scented studios and raucous after-hour parties, the exclusive Ritz Hotel and huddled districts where cloth is sold; and most importantly, in its searing focus on two women from opposing worlds, whose infatuation sets off an unforgettable chain of events.
The Book of Lost Fragrances by M.J Rose Fashion is inextricably linked to perfume. Scent is our most powerful aphrodisiac and often one of our most coveted possessions. In Rose's suspenseful tale of two siblings who find themselves embroiled in a conspiracy involving their fabled perfume house, a secret fragrance dating back to the pharaohs, and the mysteries of reincarnation, you can smell the ambergris and rose emanating off the pages. Perfume has never been more intoxicating -- or lethal.
The Time In Between by Maria Dueñas This epic novel depicting Franco's concessions to the Nazis is as much about fashion as it is about courage in adversity. A Madrid-born seamstress finds herself cast adrift in Morocco on the eve of the Spanish Civil War, forced to reinvent herself as an enigmatic couturiere while confronting old ghosts clad as new foes. While clothes may make the woman, fashion is only part of this rich brew in which love, when it arrives, cannot be fulfilled without personal freedom.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles Fashion, both physical and ideological, shimmers in this sophisticated novel about a young woman in late 1930s New York, whose encounter with a banker propels her into the entrenched bastions of upper-crust society. Shades of Capote and Fitzgerald add the bubbles to Towles's champagne-drenched portrayal of a way of life careening toward irrevocable change.
The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris by Alicia Drake Paris in the seventies was The Place to Be for fashionistas and their acolytes. In Drake's exuberant non-fiction chronicle of this pivotal era, dominated by the rivalry between fashion's enfant terrible, Yves St. Laurent, and the outrageous Karl Lagerfeld, who would stake his claim on the House of Chanel, we are given a front seat to the runway and sly insider view behind the scenes, as celebrities rush to take sides and frolic in cocaine-mirrored nightclubs catering to the chic.
D.V. by Diana Vreeland No editor in the history of fashion influenced so many designers' careers than the inimitable Diana Vreeland. One-time fashion editor of Harper's Bazaar and editor-in-chief of Vogue, her flair and superlative eye for excellence defined haute couture for half a century. And her autobiography is no less impressive or fun to read. She's a dynamo of repartee as she whisks us from stately castles to the fervor of Paris and New York, her raptorial persona and unquenchable energy enthralling royalty, movie stars, and established couturiers alike, including Coco Chanel herself.
I'll Drink to That: A Life in Style, With a Twist by Betty Halbreich Now in her eighties, Betty Halbreich made a career out of perseverance, working for nearly forty years as the renowned personal shopper at Bergdorf Goodman. Her memoir of the heyday in New York glamor, coupled with her personal trajectory from neglected wife to stylist for designers like Geoffrey Beene and elite arbiter of elegance at the ritziest emporium on the eastern seaboard is ripe with anecdotes, glimpses into the secretive world of image consultation, and as brassy as a Broadway musical. As Betty has said, "There are two things nobody wants to face: their closet and their mirror." She tackles both with aplomb.

C.W. Gortner new novel Mademoiselle Chanel (William-Morrow, HarperCollins) imagines the life of Coco Chanel--whose burning ambition revolutionized fashion, built an international empire, and made her one of the most influential and controversial figures of the twentieth century.