Thursday, October 8, 2009

CAPPING THE LENS: Irving Penn Dies

Yesterday, Irving Penn died.

He was 92 years old, and had been working in fashion since the summer of 1937, when he began as an unpaid design assistant for Alexey Brodovitch at Harper’s Bazaar. Only three years later, Penn inherited Brodovitch’s position as director of advertising design for Saks Fifth Avenue.

Of course, we know Penn best through his work with Vogue – spanning some 66 years – as well as through the cumulative star power generated by his 42-year marriage to Lisa Fonssagrives, the Swedish-born model with whom he sculpted the world of fashion photography in the 1940s and 50s. Fonssagrives died in New York at age 80, in 1992.

About fifty years prior, in 1943, Penn met the man who would one day herald the young photographer as his protégé – then editorial director of Conde Nast Publications, Alexander Liberman.

Liberman helped cultivate the style for which Penn became famous. It was the starkly lit, glowingly austere prints and renowned technical skill that earned him recognition as one of the most artistic photographers of his time. Penn’s work “bridged the gap between commercial photography and fine art…he revolutionized the way fashion was presented to a mass audience,” writes Women’s Wear Daily.

Following the death of his longtime contemporary, Richard Avedon, in 2004, the death of Irving Penn is decidedly sad. It marks the end of an era, and pushes to the forefront a greater need for current photographers – think Annie Leibovitz, Mario Testino, Helmut Newton, Corinne Day and David LaChapelle – to mold their images for the world; not just for fashion, but for humanity, the way both Penn and Avedon sought to do. As the saying goes…a picture is worth 1,000 words.

Photo credit: Entitled "Café in Lima," Irving Penn photographs Jean Patchett for Vogue, February 15, 1949.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

COLD SHOULDER: Deciphering the Pad

If a rise in hemlines indicates the recession’s end, then how do we decode the return of the shoulder pad?

To the chagrin of some and the joy of many, our necks will be in good company this year if the blazers shown for spring 2009 get any play. It seems that, following the resurgence of strong shoulders last year and popularized by Christophe Decarnin for Balmain, this once-feared bastion of the 1980’s will be a seasonal mainstay once again.

Theorizing the sociological implication of strong shoulders (so what if I’m pretentious about fashion?), Ann Marie Hourihane of the Irish Times writes: “…sad to say, the shoulder pad has frequently been accessorized by the dole queue. The shoulder pad is a symptom of a culture’s willingness to work when work is scarce. The shoulder pad, when worn by women, signals fortitude in times of distress.”

Ms. Hourihane’s UK neighbor, Janice Turner of the London Times, takes it a step further: “Perhaps women clinging to their jobs are striving harder than ever to assert their power — shoulder pads too are back in town.”

So then, are reports calling an end to the recession completely moot? Skirts are getting shorter and shoulders are rising higher; but the translation of those observations into economic-speak presents a complete contradiction. Maybe the reemergence of shoulder pads is a mere indication that women are wising up to the fantastic contributions prominent shoulders can make to the female shape.

Betsey Johnson told Emili Vesilind of the LA Times that fashion's '80s redux makes perfect sense because "when times are threatening, they always inspire creativity." And in her estimation, "It's actually the first time anything creative [in fashion] has happened since the '80s. It feels the same now as it did then."

Betsey might be on to something. Let’s just hope creativity can pull us out of this slump and keep the pads, puffs and pagoda sleeves a comin’.

Photo credit: Harper's Bazaar UK, February 2009; Model Zuzana Gregorova.