By Ritchie Po
Where were you when we were getting high? – Oasis
That’s the question that was asked on pop radio in 1996, and that’s what people who came of age and in their 20s in the 90s ask today. It was the age when fashion and commerce didn’t just merge into a symbiotic whole – that happened in the 80s – but it was a time when couture and the fashion industry became cool again. It was no longer the territory of the rich, for it became accessible, relatable and fluid across class lines, gender, race and sexual orientation. Couture was informed by, and in turn informed and influenced, art and popular culture. And no three people best embodied the spirit of the age better than Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen and the ‘90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion, a dynamic new book by New York Post and Vanity Fair writer Maureen Callahan.
Ms. Callahan deftly alternates three biographies without resorting to sensationalism or contemporary Internet shorthand. Marc Jacobs is the one with a tragic past, but whose wealthy background and learned business savvy turned him from a fashion student of the Studio 54 era and the AIDS crisis into one of the most celebrated designer labels. There’s Kate Moss, the plain lower middle-class girl who was imperfect, yet embodied all her features so well that she radiated a preternatural beauty, making her the dream girl of two generations of women. And finally there’s Alexander McQueen, the troubled, brash bad boy who never felt he was good enough and also thought he was better than everyone (he was correct on the latter point), whose self-destructive streak pushed the boundaries of couture and led to his untimely demise. There’s a sharp contrast between the glittering parties and the hard living behind the scenes, and Callahan presents the dichotomy through a combination of hard-hitting journalism and elegantly fluid storytelling. Ms. Callahan is no stranger to exposing the grit behind the glamour: she wrote this searing portrait of high society’s dark underbelly following L’Wren Scott’s suicide.
Not merely a multi-subject biography, Champagne Supernovas also exists as a cultural record of the turbulent recession-era 90s, with an omniscient, wry commentary that recalls Edith Wharton’s narrator in The Age of Innocence. Callahan captures all the vigour and joie de vivre with clear-eyed verisimilitude that can only have come from someone who lived and breathed that time and place. Making cameo appearances in the book are Anna Wintour, Tom Ford, Chloe Sevigny, Sofia Coppola, Naomi Campbell, Isaac Mizrahi, Sonic Youth, Courtney Love and Johnny Depp, amongst others. The difference is that although Wharton’s words drew blood, Callahan records actual bloodletting, both in the decorative manner McQueen favoured in his most experimental collections and in episodes of self-mutilation and suicide.
This book isn’t just about a triumvirate of trailblazers. If these three reached cultural apotheosis or enlightenment like the Buddha, there’s always the bodhisattva who guided them along the way. Ms. Callahan gives due credit and respect to photographer Corinne Day, who snapped the cover of The Face that launched Moss’s career. She paints a vivid portrait of Day as a frustrated former model and photographer always seeking art so viciously, that its true presence often eluded her. As Moss’s fortunes rose and she became a cultural icon, Day faded into obscurity. There’s a bittersweet quality and dignity to her life’s work that Moss comes to honour until Day’s death in 2010.
But Ms. Callahan reserves the book’s greatest pathos for McQueen’s champion, the tragic aristocrat Isabella Blow. A former assistant to Anna Wintour, Blow was known for her iconoclast fashion sense. She was a perpetual fashion week staple whose self-destruction and volatile nature were known in London and New York high society. Never content with her looks, she often hid behind fascinators created by the legendary Philip Treacy (who she discovered and mentored along with McQueen). Blow used fashion and costume to disguise boundless self-loathing. In a way, she was a real-life spin on Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles, about a woman who was born with a connection to nobility, but whose life choices led to a harrowing demise. Callahan’s portrait of her poisonous but artistically fruitful friendship with McQueen burns with almost unbearable heartbreak. It is she whose ravaged soul one remembers long after finishing the book.
Champagne Supernovas is not without its moments of wit and joy. Callahan recalls McQueen’s boundary-pushing fashion shows with meticulous detail and unabated rapture, especially his infamous “Highland Rape” and “Voss” collections. The only thing one could do while reading was to look up all his runway shows on YouTube (yes, you can find them all there). Jacobs’s struggles and fierce competitiveness have made him the ultimate capitalist’s dream in the global luxury brand name game. And while words may never fully describe Moss’s incandescent glow and ineffable charm, Callahan comes awfully close without including an entire portfolio with her cover shots. Even Blow gets a witty send off: annoyed at not being recognized by the nurses in the hospital, she retorted loudly, “Google me!” (As Callahan writes, Blow’s sense of humour was the last to go.)
Callahan’s Champagne Supernovas is an unflinching, compulsively readable testimony of tormented and conflicted people who were born into varying circumstances, drawn into and united by a profession that alternately rewarded and punished ingenuity. This is a must-read for Gen X-ers and other cultural aficionados who came of age in the 90s. It is best read with a mix of 90s house music on a loop, chased by a run-through of Pulp’s Different Class album, and finished with the titular song.
Maybe I just want to fly
I want to live I don't want to die
Maybe I just want to breath
Maybe I just don't believe
Maybe you're the same as me
We see things they'll never see
You and I are gonna live forever
-Oasis, “Live Forever”
Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs and Alexander McQueen and the ‘90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion is out now.
Ritchie Po: Mr. Po is a lawyer and contributing editor to Retail Insider. He holds a Juris Doctor from the University of Alberta and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from UBC. He runs his own legal practice and is a legislative consultant.