Fashionable page-turners

Image of Vanessa Friedman

The fashionisation (if you will forgive the term) of life continues apace. After co-opting technology, homeware and pets, the latest everyday products to make the leap from objects to accessories are books. They aren’t just for reading any more. In fact, they are barely for reading at all. They are for looking at.

After all, it’s cheaper and more practical to get your novels and non-fiction on an ereader than as actual bound paper. In the same way you no longer need a watch to tell time, because your phone/computer/tablet performs that function, you no longer need a physical book to enjoy its contents. The reason to buy a book, just as a watch, is because you want it. And why would you want it? Because it looks so wonderful. Because it is a beautiful thing on its own. Because it says something to the rest of the world about your values and choices. Hey. That sounds an awful lot like – a handbag.

Of course, the story matters. But, increasingly, what this means is that the design of the jacket (can that word be an accident?) – how you clothe, or dress up, those contents – matters too. A lot.

I was talking to a literary agent a while ago, and she mentioned the rise in importance of the cover look. Publishers, she said, were spending significantly more time on aesthetics than before because, if you hit it right, it could boost sales. Coffee-table books, she said, were having a boom because they were so gorgeous. But the trend wasn’t limited to arty display books; it also applied to hardbacks of many kinds.

Steve Jobs, one of the first non-fashion people to understand the way fashion could be used to raise the value of technology, insisted on picking the black-and-white Svengali-like portrait of himself on the cover of Walter Isaacson’s biography: Jobs understood that books were going the way of the mobile phone, and if he could make his volume look attractive, it would boost its selling and staying power. It would look better on a bookstore’s display table, and it would be more likely to be left out on a coffee table at home.

In the past few weeks the following descriptions of printed matter have landed in my inbox: one book is “crafted by hand at a bindery in the heart of Italy, and stamped with a unique number”; others are “lavish”, “gorgeous”; another is “in a luxurious silk slipcase with ribbon closure”. The language of fashion is fast becoming the language of publishing. Even the trends are the same.

There is, for example, the minimal approach, as embodied by Phoebe Philo’s Céline and Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, both of which gave rise to a whole school of aesthetics in their fields: the first launching a thousand tailored coats and perfect plain trousers, the second inspiring a host of books with simple typefaces on a white background. See, for example, David Byrne’s recent How Music Works – three black words on a white background.

Then there is the luxe segment of the market, as in Dolce & Gabbana’s gold-embroidered collection and Jay-Z’s book, Decoded, with its gold Rorschach blot, not to mention Jon Meacham’s Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, with its gilt-bordered portrait. There is the limited edition approach, as seen in Louis Vuitton’s Yayoi Kusama collaboration and Taschen’s Fashion Designers A-Z, with 11,000 editions covered in fabric by one of six designers (Prada, Stella McCartney, Diane von Furstenberg, Akris, Etro and Missoni) and encased in a Plexiglas box. Or there’s Bottega Veneta’s intrecciato or woven leather sleeve-encased monograph (the same woven leather used on its signature handbags). And there is the suddenly hot high-tech school, as in Junya Watanabe’s what-you-see (silk) is not what you get (tech nylon) clothing and the Met’s book on Alexander McQueen, with its morphing hologram-like cover.

This makes sense. After all, no industry knows more about tapping into desire for beautiful things than fashion. Like watches and books, expensive clothes are unnecessary. They are indulgences – or, as the chief executives of brands like to say, they are “the dream”. Now books are in the same position, so why not borrow both strategy and vernacular?

In any case, it seems to be working. Personally, I’m finding it harder and harder to keep my books on shelves, where only the spines are visible. They pile up on our tables, and irk my husband. But accessories are meant to be seen. And held.

Which is the other thing: though fashionable (not, note, fashion) books are expensive, with the Taschen A-Z selling for $350, and even the Meacham a cool $35, they are still a whole lot cheaper than their equivalent in high-end clutches or stilettos; ditto sculpture or a silver tray or any of the other traditional tabletop objects. They don’t shed like potpourri, or get used up like scented candles. And they serve a purpose that ereaders, which reduce all subjects from comic books to Kant to equivalent grey type, cannot: they distinguish.

Or as the fashion world might put it, they brand.

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