TV: The Look of SyFy's "Alice"

Cathy Bates & Colm Meaney as The Queen & King of HeartsThis week the SyFy channel played a two-night mini series entitled Alice. In case you missed it, it's a modern version of the Alice in Wonderland story from director Nick Willing who had done a classic telling of the story just a few years ago. I thought that the program could and should have been stretched into a third segment to alleviate the rushed feeling of the conclusion, but overall it was great entertainment. And, while there were other flaws in the story and acting here and there, the aesthetics of the program were simply fantastic.

As with most stories in science-fiction genre, the bad guys are slick and polished while the good guys are organic, cluttered, and darkly lit to indicate the secretive nature of their resistance. As the director said, the Hearts in this version are like "posh gangsters", which is totally appropriate. Their sets are mod and gleaming, full of streamlined furniture and pops of red and black.

Alice meets Mad March and the 10 of Clubs

I also appreciated how the classic characters were given clever updates. For instance, The Duchess is a glam go-go girl, Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum are evil manipulators, and the March Hare has been made into a chiling assassin called "Mad March". Even the goofy Walrus and Carpenter have been reduxed into scientists at the center of the Hearts' evil plot to brainwash the world.

Dee and Dum torture Alice in the Truth RoomThe Suits in the Court of Hearts

The costumes were perfectly appropriate too; Alice's blue pinafore is updated to a trim blue sheath paired with tights and biker boots, while the Hearts' royal court is called "The Suits" and is approprately attired in black and white suits with card numbers screened onto the fabric. I especially loved how The Caterpillar was given a puffy corded smoking jacket and round spectacles; the look was perfectly caterpillar-esque while still being human.

Alice and Jack visit The Caterpillar

Filled with an exceptional cast and fun little references back to the original Lewis Carroll tale, Alice is definitely worth watching. I do wish there had been more Cheshire Cat and certainly some talking flowers, but I do think the result was a nice attempt at modernizing the original in a clever way. I always love a new take on a classic, especially when it looks like this!

Film: Jeunet Takes Five (Chanel No. 5)

A flash of red, Belle Epoque architecture, and a vintage SNCF train engine in deep green are the opening of Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s masterful min-film commercial for Chanel No. 5. The filmmaker sets his favored palette immediately (red, green, black, and amber), and washes it in his signature sepia-tint, making the film appear perfectly, romantically aged.

This is the look of Jeunet. Despite his place among modern French auteurs, his mise-en-scene always shows this specific palette and elements of times gone by; and if those elements no longer exist, he re-creates them to perfection. His stories are fantasy-based, even the more realistic such as Amélie and A Very Long Engagement, allowing him the freedom to create his own complete worlds. Of course, most filmmakers do this anyway, but very few except for Wes Anderson, actually do it to the extent of Jeunet. Even in the entirely fantastic films of Delicatessen, City of Lost Children and Alien: Resurrection, Jeunet’s aesthetic remains intact. His arsenal of technicians and actors rarely changes helping with this consistency, but each story is so wholly unique that it is clearly the director’s own vision driving the style.

It is to Chanel’s credit that the firm allowed Jeunet to create their latest marketing film within his own stylistic preferences while honoring the product it showcases so completely. (They did the same for Baz Luhrmann’s version a few years ago as well, but that work was such a flagrant rip-off of Moulin Rouge that it doesn’t stand on its own as well as Jeunet’s does.) In fact, Jeunet’s style is the perfect lens for the lore and romance surrounding Chanel No. 5. Invented in 1921 as the first perfume to feature synthetic aldehydes, the scent was a complete departure from the floridly sweet scents of the era. Another change was its packaging; most perfumes at the time were encased in wildly sculptural etched glass flacons, while Chanel No. 5 emerged in a clean-lined, geometric bottle. The difference was like a spotlight on the vanity table. In 1959, the Museum of Modern Art New York inducted the bottle into its packaging exhibit.

Since its creation, Chanel No. 5 has been among the most popular scents in the world, and is certainly the best-known. The Jeunet mini-film is pitch-perfect in its reserve: since everyone already knows the product, he understands that it doesn’t need to be given a heavy hand. One of the best moments of the film is when the light shines through the bottle of No. 5, casting a gorgeous, glimmering shadow across Audrey Tautou’s train berth. The moment is doubly witty as Toutou lies in her bed nude, recalling Marilyn Monroe’s famous quote about Chanel No. 5 being the only thing she wore to bed.

Apart from the actual look of the mini-film, there are also plot elements that are classically Jeunet: romance among strangers, missed encounters, voyeurism, and irony. Yet with all its stylistic beauty, Jeunet smartly brings home the product as a fragrance of eternal modernity. The girl (Tautou) is young, hip, casually dressed, and packed for easy travel, but she still chooses a scent that is over eighty years old. (The film was released on May 5th, or 5/5 – the eighty-eight years to the date from the fragrance’s release in 1921.) This is a gentle but genius stroke of the artist successfully communicating the product in an exciting, approachable way. This is similar to Sophia Coppola’s young ye ye girls in her recent commercial for Miss Dior Cherie – youthful, fun, vintage-inspired, but entirely modern.

When Billie Holiday’s “I’m a Fool to Want You” comes over the soundtrack, Jeunet’s stylish irony comes forward. The decades-old song is romantic and mysterious, the perfect accompaniment to Toutou, but is she singing of the romance between the boy and girl, or the romance between the girl and Chanel No. 5? Or, is it saying that we (the consumers) are all fools to love such beautiful, ephemeral things of indulgence and luxury? The inclusion of this song goes a lot further than simple soundtrack.

Overall, this is an excellent bit of marketing from Chanel that unites artistry and messaging in an entirely engaging way. It is lovely that the luxury houses still spend time and expense on these types of media. It is almost a new art form entirely, limited to a select few firms such as Dior, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel, but the cost is so well-spent. As art foundations continue to diminish and advertising gets less and less creative, the luxury brand commercials continue to excite and inspire. More please!

Visit the Chanel website devoted to Jeunet's film for a high-resolution playing. It is worth seeing this way! Special thanks to The Luxe Chronicles for suggesting that link.

Note: Personally, Chanel No. 5 is not one of my favorites, but I am especially fond of Coco... - Ms. P&C

The Miss Dior "Cherie" Campaign

I must say, the darling Miss Dior "Cherie" advertisements have been the highlight of my magazine flipping lately... A girl with beret on a bicycle with be-ribboned Dior boxes - because it's so charmant to shop the Avenue Montaigne on a bike. Or, the pastelled balloon bouquet lifting Maryna Linchuk high above Paris which puts the ending of Le Ballon Rouge in mind, but for chic, grown-up, fuschia-pink bubble dress-wearing big girls.

Sigh! Le irony, le insouciance, le charm, le tongue-in-cheek...

Then, tonight I was in the middle of Gossip Girl... wait, what's that? Why is Brigitte Bardot singing one of her ye ye songs on the television? Chestnut trees, a vintage magazine, a girl with bangs, white cyclamen, and balloons...either it's my favorite era of French style or... Ohmigosh! It's the Sophia Coppola ad for Miss Dior "Cherie"!!! I was so flustered with delight I didn't know what to think. But, my first notion was: "Damn, I should have gotten that DVR box forever ago! Please rewind!"

The perfume was launched in 2005 - as a commemorative for Christian Dior's 100th bithday by John Galliano. A review of the perfume is available on the Now Smell This blog, which cites Galliano's inspirations as Stevie Wonder's "My Cerie Amour" and a vintage Dior gown from the archives called "Cherie". However, while the scent may be reminiscent of the classic 1947 "Miss Dior" perfume, it is entirely modern. So, a modern ad campaign with the modern, simple glamour of Ms. Coppola is entirely appropriate.

Pink, pastel, soaring, and with a 1960s French girl-pop soundtrack - what's not to love? Also, as a film student, I love that this one little 30-second bit of film totally fits in with the greater body of Sophia Coppola's work. The look is very similar to the decadent pinkishness of Marie Antoinette, while the Diana-camera saturated cinematography is perfectly in tune with The Virgin Suicides. It shows a knowledge of Masculin Feminin and Un Homme et une Femme, with a little dose of Roman Coppola's CQ.  The chain of aesthetic influence makes me giggle with delight!

Overall, the whole campaign is pitch-perfect, full of ladylike optimism which is sorely needed right now. Unfortunately, there's no clip yet on YouTube, but visit Fashionologie (and its fabulous OnSugar capabilities) for a taste of delicious.

Influences: La Casati

I finished Scot D. Ryersson and Michael Orlando Yaccarino's book Infinite Variety - The Life and Legend of the Marchesa Casatilast evening and, true to form, I've spent this morning furiously questing for additional imagery and information on the fascinating Marchesa and all of her far-reaching influences. Luisa Casati Stampa di Soncino, Marchesa di Roma is truly a non-pareil that could hardly be summed up here, but I did want to celebrate her miasmic life in art and fashion.

I mentioned this book a few posts ago in the Lit Tag, but now that I've read the entire book I have to say that I'm really haunted. I cannot tell if I even like the Marchesa as a person, but I am completely enthralled by her ceaseless devotion to art and creativity - both in herself and others. So, the whole snakes and monkeys thing sort of creeped me out, but how shockingly fabulous would it be to wear a little coiled snake as a dramatic necklace at a dinner party? Or to walk a pet cheetah or alligator like they were the family Jack Russell? As the authors did state, the Marchesa's quest to always out-do herself got a bit stale over the years; her profligate lifestyle becoming almost insulting during political and economic crises, while her overbearing eccentricity hid an ever-growing personal insecurity. As a quote from Maurice Druon said in the book: "Eccentricity is tolerable only in its first freshness. Cherished until it has gone stale, it becomes unbearably pathetic and at the same time alarming."

Eccentricities aside, the Marchesa did accomplish exactly what she set out to do: become a living work of art. Her personal style of medusa-like curls dyed bright red, large black-rimmed eyes, sleek gowns, and hats swathed in veils have influenced many fashion designers, writers, and film directors. Even toward the end of the Marchesa's life when she was forced to live in poverty, her tattered elegance recalls everyone from Dickens' Miss Havisham through to Big and Little Edie from Grey Gardens. While one cannot help but feel sorry for one of Europe's former glitterati in her late-life squalor, looking at the reach of her influence you can see this is not how she is remembered.

In 1998, John Galliano for Christian Dior Haute Couture created a masterpiece of runway theatre when he presented an entire collection honoring the Marchesa Casati. Shown at the Paris Opera Garnier, the show was said to be surreal, haunting, and overwhelmingly elaborate. After trolling through the internet, I was able to find this news clip covering the show from so long ago...

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The Marchesa Casati by Augustus John

La Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Grehound by Giovanni BoldiniFollowing-up on some of Luisa Casati's portraits, I learnt more about Augustus John and Giovanni Boldini, both of whom painted significant images of the enigmatic woman. In 2003, London's Royal Academy of Arts held an exhibition Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, which included Boldini's 1908 portrait of the Marchesa with her Greyhound. Art historian Christopher Wood stated: "The staggering Boldini portrait of the legendary Marchesa Casati is surely the greatest portrait of the Belle Epoque." Augustus John's 1919 portrait is considered a twentieth-century masterpiece, and was purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1934, while the tripe-eye photograph of the Marchesa taken by Man Ray in her hotel suite at the Paris Ritz is considered the first and most important of Surrealist photographs. Even the Marchesa's famous ruin of a home in Venice, the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal, was purchased in 1949 by Peggy Guggenheim and now houses the prestigious Guggenheim Museum.

Thought to be lost, another major portrait by Romaine Brooks has recently been recovered and is in a private collection. Hopefully an image will become available sometime soon! Having never seen any of Brooks' work, (now impossible to believe) I have enjoyed looking at her paintings, finding them incredibly odd, yet beautiful, and certainly very modern for their time. Likewise, the work of Giovanni Boldini is now among my favorites for its romantic yet impressionistic style. I've learnt that a handful of Boldini's pieces even reside in San Francisco!

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Her influence is not limited to art and fashion, however. Vosges Haut Chocolat created a special collection of Marchesa Truffles which are available only in December. "Black sea salt caramel ensconced in 85% bittersweet dark chocolate and real freshwater pearl dust." A very fitting tribute.

My friend Michael Mattis wrote a piece about this book and La Casati on Dandyism.net a few years ago, wondering if the Marchesa could be considered "a dandy"; if she were a man then no doubt the term would apply, but as a woman? According to Mr. Mattis, even if the Marchesa were a dandy, being androgynous, masculine, and beautifully dressed as she was, she wasn't elegant enough for the term to apply. True, the Marchesa was heavy-handed with everything from eyeliner to pearls to gold lamé, but I would hold off on the dandy label anyway. To me, the Marchesa's androgyny and aggressive extravagances set off her distinct womanhood, I don't find her masculine at all. This, like Marlene Dietrich or an Yves Saint Laurent Smoking, make the true woman. The Marchesa's style was all about NOT being manly, but being every bit the independent, entitled woman that she was born to be in this world.

As another fashion designer, Elsa Schiaparelli, stated about La Casati: "Tall and gaunt with heavily made-up eyes, she represented a past age of splendor when a few beautiful and wealthy women adopted an almost brutally individualistic way of living and presenting themselves to the public."

The rest of us should be so brave... 

Portriat of Marchesa Casati, Man Ray 1922

The Marchesa Casati, Augustus John 1919, Art Gallery of Ontario

The Marchesa Luisa Casati with a Greyhound, Giovanni Boldini 1908, collection of Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber

Film: All About Anouk

In high school French class our teacher insisted on giving us “French” names for us to use during our fifty minutes under her care. The names were meant to be the French-ized version of your name, but since “Annie” is pretty distinctly Irish, I was given the name Anouk. I wasn’t very happy about this. It was like my name, but not much. Instead of the happy smile you get automatically from “Annie”, it ended in a weird “ooooh-Ka”. To me it sounded like a punch in the nose.

Years later I learnt about the incredible Anouk Aimée and changed my mind a bit. I saw her first as Marcello Mastroianni’s long-suffering wife in Fellini’s 8 ½, and while I didn’t think much of her at the time, I became completely obsessed with the film and the rest of Fellini’s work. (Fellini is sort of the “gateway drug” of arthouse films, don’t you think? He’s odd yet accessible, funny yet sophisticated, and while his themes are generally dark at the core, you end up feeling sort of light and entertained at the end. At any rate, his pictures started me on all the other auteurs in turn…) As I read up on Fellini and 8 ½, I learnt that Il Maestro purposely made the glamorous Anouk Aimée exceptionally plain for her role in the film – even to the point of forcing her to trim her famously long eyelashes.

Wow. To be known for one’s eyelashes...now that’s seriously chic.

The first time I saw a Claude Lelouch film was about five years ago. My boyfriend at the time insisted we go see it because “it’s supposed to be really romantic…” Huh. Beautiful, yes. But so slow that I felt completely stoned the entire time. Does this a romance make? Let’s just say that my boyfriend and I broke up a few weeks later, but no, I don’t blame Claude Lelouch. Thankfully, I recently learnt that his early films were the true gems.

This weekend I finally saw Un Homme et Une Femme and I’m beginning to understand what the Lelouch fuss is all about. That, and I’m now head over heels for Anouk Aimée – in fact, I might just have to start calling myself Anouk once again. At least Lelouch knew better than to humiliate a beautiful woman by making her ugly: The wide mouth, the dimples, the cheekbones, the thick clownish brows that arch just so, the gigantic brown eyes, the light dusting of freckles, the absolutely perfect hair… I have straight brown hair too, yet I’d have to sell my soul to get the effortless perfection of Anouk Aimée’s messy-but-polished coiff in this movie.

The whole thing is this incredibly simple and beautiful little French love story, as only a French film can create - the kind that sort of sets the sterotype for every romantic French film that's ever been made. If I were to explain it, I'd say that it's in black-and-white - no, it's in color, that there's these two people who meet because of their childrens' school, it's a freezing wet winter, there's a lot of driving and beautiful seascapes and sunrises, sexy jazzy music, a lot of melancholy, two cute kids, and Anouk Aimée in a really fabulous coat.

Sigh. It kills me. Let’s just drive to the beach at Deauville to chase seagulls and watch the old man walk his dog.

“Between art and life, I’d choose life.”

Seriously. Enough already. But no, let’s cue the da-ba-dabada-dabada of the cute samba music, drive back to Paris, smoke cigarettes, and tell each other stories of how we’ve loved and lost.

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Anouk Aimée in Un Homme et Une FemmeAimée’s simple chic is quintessentially French and is probably what created the whole French woman's mystique in the first place. Films like this show them to be an entirely different species of style. Her fur-trimmed coat, little Chanel 2-55 bag and kitten heels for Sunday pair perfectly with that insouciant smile hidden behind a shy little hand gesture. Aimée is also the master of the French woman’s shrug. Do I love him or do I not? I don’t know. But it’s so much easier to reflect upon the predicament when I can just sit on a bench in Paris and hide inside my fur collar to think it over.

Personally, love would indeed be simpler for me if I could be this perfectly groomed and well-dressed and untroubled and in Paris while I dealt with all of it. Perhaps I would have stayed with my boyfriend longer? Who is to say? It was a summer romance and according to Lelouch, winter is the key.

The filmmaker said that the winter’s bad weather was meant to be another character in the film. The loneliness of misty Deauville - a summer resort that is deserted in winter, the brisk winds off the North Sea, the white waves, the naked trees, the rains of Paris, the snow of the Alps… The cold was supposed to be so ever-present that you would feel the warmth of the love. Lelouch also said that this story could never have happened to him (although he wrote it,) because he’s “just not that loving…”

Or maybe he is the kind of man that chooses art instead of life?

Film: Queen Pinkie Marie!

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I have an Austrian princess on the brain. She’s in my head, singing me songs, diving through my closet and crawling out of my handbag. She’s everywhere, and I might as well get used to it. I’ve been immersed in Caroline Weber’s Queen of Fashion – What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution for weeks, and now I’ve seen what all the fuss is about: Sofia Coppola’s film Marie Antoinette.

Like that other sumptuous period drama of a few years ago about a big boat meeting an iceberg, we all know how this movie is going to end. Yet who knew it would be done with this exuberance, decadence, and style? For a brief few seconds in the opening credits, you’re treated to the ultimate summation shot: la reine, in dishabille, coiffured with an extravagant pouf, having her new pink shoes put on her feet as her fingers dive into a gigantic pink cake. Cakes, coiffures, shoes, and pink. The end.

While Caroline Weber’s book paints a more realistic portrait of the misunderstood queen, the confection on film is much more fun to endure. Barring a few slip-ups in casting and cut-aways, (do we really need the fantasy shot of Count Fersen on a rearing horse? I mean, he’s hot, but that’s a bit heavy-handed Mademoiselle Coppola…) the entire thing is a gluttonous delight of striped nosegay silks, little dogs, glittering gems, ruffles, ribbons, and feathers. A whole film of not a whole lot, but when it looks this good and is set to a soundtrack of punk rock, who cares?

The crowning achievement of this film is that it was filmed at Versailles. Once one visits that indulgent place, one sees exactly what the revolution was all about. The immediate impression is that someone simply went to town on the gilding of every surface, while the slow-to-apprehend reality of Versailles is that there is practically zero private space anywhere in the entire monstrosity. This is what Coppola captured: the wedding night and later childbirth in the queen’s bedroom absolutely packed to the rafters with people. Imagine that – two of the most intimate moments of your life, and there you are on display for people you don’t even want to talk to when you have your clothes on. The procedures, the protocols, the honors of the toilette – Marie Antoinette was said to have hated all of this pomp and formality of Versailles, preferring the casual informality of her native Hapsburg household wherein she could dress herself.

And boy, could the woman dress! The panniers, the robes a la françaises, the jewelry, the chapeaux… “Which do you like, the sleeve with the ruffles, or the plain?” she asks her advisor from Austria. Every girl dreams of wearing a dress like this, just once, because after five minutes you realize its pure torture. The queen herself preferred a loose-fitted gaulle dress of simple muslin for her days in the fields at the Petit Trianon, yet eventually this attire was deemed inappropriate for the queen. How very different from her earliest days as dauphine when upon her arrival at the French court, her beauty was noted by all with more than a little envy. It seems her natural complexion was so fine that she did not need the enhancements of the usual powders and rouges. Elisabeth Louise Vigée-LeBrun, who painted the queen more than twenty times described her thus in her memoirs of 1835:

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Marie Antoinette en Chemise, 1783 - E. Vigee-LeBrun“ But the most remarkable thing about her face was the splendour of her complexion. I never have seen one so brilliant, and brilliant is the word, for her skin was so transparent that it bore no umber in the painting. Neither could I render the real effect of it as I wished. I had no colours to paint such freshness, such delicate tints, which were hers alone, and which I had never seen in any other woman.”

This kind of youthful vitality is perfectly captured in Kirsten Dunst as the young queen, especially when presented in counterpoint to Asia Argento’s delightfully disgusting Madame du Barry. Yet, by the end of the film, the queen has barely aged, and seems overwhelmingly poised in the faced in inherent dangers and terrifying unknowns. The one time Dunst’s dauphine is allowed a well-deserved crying jag is only after the little ladies in fichus cast aspersions on her barrenness. This, on top of her mother’s complaints about her “waistline” takes her over the edge. Caroline Weber talks about Queen Maria Teresa’s harangues about this waistline issue as an ongoing one from years of correspondence between the mother and daughter. Too little a waistline shows the dauphine is still child-less, while too large a waistline is unbecoming a proper lady of the court. In other words: get yourself pregnant, but don’t stop wearing your grands corps - a highly-restrictive corset. (It is always refreshing to hear that the motherly badgering of “you’re too thin, you’re too fat” is one that’s gone on forever.)

Caroline Weber’s lengthy tome discloses all of the ins and outs of Marie Antoinette’s sartorial evolutions. Newly-invented styles turn into maddening fads among the aristocracy who ape the queen to their own financial ruin. A few years later, the queen’s fashion choices lead to her derision and downfall. It’s a familiar story to those of us who know the history of lady politicos. A later French queen (since the French can never decide if they want one or not,) Empress Eugenie, was nicknamed “Empress Crinoline” because of her clothes-horse ways, while years later women such as Eva Peron, Jackie Kennedy, Imelda Marcos, and even Nancy Regan were derided for their closets-full of excess. But Marie Antoinette is the woman whose indulgences taught everyone else how it’s done, the singular point brought home by Coppola’s film.

The film’s tagline of “The party that started a revolution,” is indeed true: much of the film is devoted the party Marie Antoinette is having while she spends years simply waiting for her husband to touch her. Once the Versailles party of the century begins to wane however, Coppola’s film accelerates and tends to overlook the ravages the queen faced late in life, not to mention the ravages of all-night parties. According to Caroline Weber, the fresh-faced girl that had arrived in France had gained a hardy amount of weight due to finally delivering three children, and had also lost the better-part of her hair. These physical manifestations of the stress of life at Versailles are glossed-over completely, and well they should be in order to keep pace with the film. However, the woman’s life was no fairy tale, so the ending pathos in the golden dawn is lost on most of the audience – we never really bought that it was all fun and games anyway.

Gentlemen be warned: this is one helluva girlie flick. Not a chick-flick per se, but girlier than girlie. The montage of Marie with her two best gal-pals the Princesse de Lamballe and the Duchesse de Polignac (viva Rose Byrne!) going shoe shopping to Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” is absolutely visceral in its brightly-colored indulgence. I’ll just say it, the sequence is girl-porn in the best way: shoes that Manolo Blahnik would weep for, diamonds, fluffy pink pastry, you and your best girlfriends downing magnums of champagne along the way. Sofia is no fool – she knows what girls want. (Is that why Marc Jacobs loves her so much?)

Despite its little fumbles, Marie Antoinette is my new favorite film, and I’m already pre-ordering the DVD from Amazon. I’m a sucker for a costume piece, and this is one of the most enjoyable I’ve seen in years. Perhaps because real life for la reine Marie *was* such a costume-drama, the frothy interpretation in film cannot rightly be classified as a guilty pleasure. A pleasure it is, but who is guilty of enjoying it? It brings a smile to your face, quickens your pulse, and makes you want to paint the chateau pink.

Great Gruau

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It is October, and bookstores are beginning to stock their collections of next year’s calendars. I try to change up my calendar each year to keep things new and get new images to ponder one month at a time. Some people swear by the travel calendars so they can get a dose of "tropical isles," or perhaps celebrate their allegiance to a particular dog breed. I typically choose something artistic, inviting, and something I can look at every day for a year and still find something new in the images. I typically mix different images between the wall and the desk, so that I don't get bored. For 2006, however, I actually broke my rules of variety, and purchased the same wall calendar and desk calendar, but with good reason: René Gruau. I have gazed wistfully at his heroines of chic fashion illustration for nearly a year, and I am thinking I may just have to re-buy the same calendar for 2007. What can I say? The images just make me happy.

I have always loved the media of poster art and graphic illustration. The simplicity and economy of design communicates so much with so little. It is the perfect example of designing effectively within constraints. Fashion illustration in particular is becoming a lost art form, with companies relying almost entirely on photography to communicate their branding. One of the last of the genre was Gruau, who illustrated well into his nineties, finally passing away in 2004, after creating iconic imagery for Dior, Balenciaga, Ortalion, Air France, and International Textiles. His later work for Moulin Rouge and the Lido de Paris helped to promote the classic Parisian cabarets to a new generation of tourists, yet with an old-world aesthetic. Gruau was the son of a French socialite (whose surname of Gruau he later adopted,) and an Italian Count. His real name & title?: Count Renato Zavagli Ricciardelli delle Camminate.

Miss October is this image for Ortalion stockings which I adore. I want her sexy ostrich chubby, and above all her legs that are ten miles long. (Truth be told, this is how you’re taught to illustrate fashion, as taught in fashion school. The average human proportions are “eight heads” high, but a fashion croqui is meant to be stretched to nine heads. The stretching most elegantly manifests in the legs. If only I could be proportioned to nine heads high!)

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Miss Dior Aside from their incredible height, Gruau women are flirtatious, sensuous, saucy, and innocently invite the voyeuristic gaze – that is, when they aren’t confronting the gaze directly. They are beautifully dressed, their smiles are knowing, and their limbs, like their eyelashes, are long and luxurious.

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Lingere Christian Dior 1966The lingerie advertisements for Christian Dior are particularly voyeuristic, but are frothy enough to remain adorably appealing, rather than tawdry and “through-a-keyhole.” Every so often, you can find original lithographs of these graphics being sold in some of the bouquinistes along the Seine. One summer my sister and I spotted some, but she prevented me from buying them due to their expense. Coulda shoulda woulda.

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Air France Cote D'Azur - 1963One of the more iconic images includes the “straw hat” girl for Air France’s ad for travel to the Côte D’Azur in 1963. This is the one my friend Emi loves the most. It instantly conveys the simple romance of a summer on the beaches of France.

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Other than Miss October, my other favorite Gruau images are from his cabaret advertisements. This sketch for a Lido poster from the early 1950s conveys the classic glamour of the can-cans, while it celebrates the traditional poster-art graphics of Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec, who created this form of illustration during the Belle Epoque. Yet this art derives its hard-line aesthetic from the influence of Japonisme, and it’s flattened, cartoon-ish forms. His use of diagonals and vertical compositions, as well as empty spaces to contrast with thick lines, create an illusion of movement and lightness rooted in Japanese wood-block prints. Gruau mixes both Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec’s images in this sketch, with the single black line delineating a crowd of onlookers, while the froth of the dancer’s feathers trails away like champagne foam.

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Chat BembergGruau also illustrated textile advertisements, and captured pattern and texture with a few strokes of the brush. Always, his same economy in bright colors and rhythms that are compelling and unforgettable.

With the exception of Michael Roberts, fashion illustration has hit an all-time low. Of course, The New Yorker still leads the way in classical illustration, with only a few periodicals reaching for creative graphics every now and again. Advertisements are hard, dark, and more often than not, a bit vulgar and difficult to look at for any length of time. Gruau created images that you wanted to hang on your wall - their sheer simple genious and elegant draughtsmanship served to transport you to other eras and other moods.  It is with a heavy heart that I will relinquish my Gruau calendars at the end of the year - what other images could I possibly find that will take me so far away from my daily grind with just a brief glance? Where to find the same freshness, the exuberance, the bubbly enthusiasm that carries me on an effervescent wave of chic? Who but Gruau offers this kind of happiness with just a paper calendar?

www.renegruau.com