Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Little Black Book of Style: Take Two Birkin Bags and Call Her In The Morning

Don't let my current look fool you. I didn't always walk around in sweatpants, a faded Gap t-shirt and shoes that look like they were run over by a truck. You think I went out of the house without lipstick in my twenties? Back in the day I actually got my hair cut more than three times a year, had neatly pedicured toes and my belt freqently matched my shoes. I've got an Azzedine Alaia dress in my closet, an old Fendi bag on my shelf and even a Gaultier suit I had altered to fit. By a real tailor.

So what happened? Somewhere between then and now, I had kids. Plain and simple. Some people may say that's no excuse, but I beg to differ. Show me a woman who's style hasn't faltered since she's had kids, and I'll show you a woman who's got a full-time nanny and an assistant who irons her socks, I always say.

One of those women would appear to be Nina Garcia, author of The Little Black Book of Style and judge on the popular TV show Project Runway. When I was asked by The Parent Blogger's Network to review Garcia's book, I was intrigued by the idea of a handbook that could possibly help me on the road back to fashion enlightenment, a primer on regaining my taste for well-fitting skirts and expensive shoes. Do I always have to pick up the kids wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt with a jam stain on it? I think not!

Okay, maybe Garcia's assistant doesn't iron her socks, but by the tone of this book you come to suspect that the author has just a little bit more time than the rest of us to devote to picking out the perfect outfit in the morning. I guess I was expecting the book to have a little bit more of a tongue-in-cheek approach to fashion; I've never taken clothes too seriously and I thought Garcia, who has an infant son, would have a more user-friendly approach. I had to keep reminding myself that maybe I'm not the target audience for the book, although there's a small section devoted to dressing during pregnancy so you'd think she was expecting at least a few of us moms to be reading. A few of us non-model, non-celebrity moms, that is.

The book is well-written and the illustrations by Ruben Toledo are beautiful, but for me the book felt impractical and slightly elitist. I would love to have seen a chapter on everyday dressing - not all of us shop at Prada and need to put on our Manolos to walk out the door. I'm sure even fashionistas need to leave the house in a hurry once in a while to run by the post office or pick up ingredients for a casserole, don't they? And while I don't expect Garcia to advise her readers to buy their purses at Target (me, often), I thought putting only wildly expensive designer bags - the Chanel 2.55, Louis Vuitton Speedy, Hermes Birkin - under the heading "[Bags] Every Woman Should Have" a little unrealistic. A Hermes Birkin can set you back $6,700 - that's 231 messenger bags from Target.

Not that the book doesn't have some solid, useful advice. I found the second chapter, "The Basics" to be helpful in recognizing which core pieces make up a cohesive wardrobe; a trench coat, ballet flats, a classic men's watch - pieces I wouldn't think of buying but am seriously considering. And the advice about buying a pair of black high-heeled pumps has convinced me that a visit to the shoe store tomorrow is imperative, groceries and utility bills be damned.

One of the last chapters in the book, "Insider Tips and Tricks" would have been the perfect vehicle to pull in some differing and unique points of view on fashion and style. Instead, I was disappointed to see that everyone interviewed was a heavyweight in the fashion field - from Donatella Versace to Heidi Klum - and had frustratingly similar answers to many of their questions. Variations on 'confidence and inner beauty' seemed to be everyone's response to what constitutes a unique sense of style - how great would it have been if she had queried the high-schooler shopping in Chelsea, or the rocker buying his wardrobe on Melrose? Or me, putting together an outfit from the sale rack at Macy's? Okay, maybe not me, but those other two would have definitely worked.

As a point of reference, I have to say that one of my favorite movies of last year was The Devil Wears Prada, a film that skewers the fashion industry and makes the salvation of the heroine possible only when she realizes the transparency and superficiality of the industry that she had embraced. I started reading The Little Black Book of Style with that movie in mind, and was expecting a little bit more self-parody or humor. But I quickly realized that Garcia takes fashion very seriously, which, being that it's her profession, she has every right to. I just think she missed an opportunity to make her book more lighthearted, and in the end, more accessible to those of us just trying to get out the door with a clean pair of pants in the morning.

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