You can’t judge a book by its cover. In this case, you can’t judge a book by its name. Champagne Supernovas by Maureen Callahan, a Brooklyn-based writer who has contributed to magazines such as Sassy, Vibe, Spin and Vanity Fair, will perhaps stick in my mind as the most unfortunately named book of 2014. That is kind of a shame, mostly because the book itself was surprisingly much better that I had expected.
The book chronicles the rise of three 1990s fashion icons — model Kate Moss and fashion designers Alexander McQueen and Marc Jacobs. While McQueen committed suicide in 2010, Jacobs still reigns supreme in the fashion world. Moss has reinvented herself as a fashion arbiter for Swedish fast fashion retailer, H&M.
I have an amateur’s interest in fashion and pop culture. I am fascinated by history and more importantly creation of history. I stumbled across Supernovas and was drawn to the premise of the book, because to me it was a book less about fashion and more about the nineties. Callahan argues that “just as movies were the driving cultural force in the 1970s and art was the force in the 1980s, in the 1990s it was fashion that become the prism through which the popular culture was refracted.”
As someone who believes that the emergence of the Internet was the pivotal socio-economic and cultural moment, I obviously don’t fully buy into her thesis, but I don’t reject it all together, either. Callahan’s thesis is that these three icons came to represent a “moment in popular culture, fashion and time” and upended all notions of what had come before. They were a 1990s reaction to the excesses of eighties. They were about rejecting the gauche and the greed of the decade before, where super models like Linda Evangelista could get away with making statements like “We don’t leave home for less than $10,000 a day.”
I started reading the book late evening after arriving in Sofia, Bulgaria for a conference. Severely jet-lagged, I didn’t want to fall asleep early and suffer for rest of the trip. It was almost mid-night before I put down the book, having read through nearly 150 pages of the total 230. I woke up early to start reading it again and finsihed it before heading over to the conference venue.
The author has done an immaculate job of reporting on her three subjects and in the process weaving a narrative of the 1990s, which despite being very narrow rings quite true. I was living in New York City during the time. While I didn’t live in the same world, I do remember reading some of the stories in the New York Post or one of the many city magazines.
The book is clearly not about fashion — I still don’t know what Jacobs and McQueen’s design philosophies are, even though the authors spent a lot of words writing about their work. I still don’t know Moss as a person. However, Moss’s emergence as a model and her subsequent choices were vivid. Jacobs’ personal life has more of a focus, while McQueen comes across more as a Dali painting than an actual person. Callahan has mastered the art of writing great non-fiction — it is hard to tell where the facts end and fiction starts. Her prose is simple and energetic, unaffected by the subjects of her book. So much so, I will automatically buy her next book. The “supernovas” didn’t make Jacobs, Moss and McQueen sympathetic characters — and instead they came across as who they are: slightly narcissistic, talented, and yet broken humans.
Bottom-line: Will I recommend this book? Answer is yes. As long as you are okay with the idea that this isn’t intellectual nourishment. Instead It is a book, about three people and a slice of time. The book reminded me of the old Jackie Collins novels — steamy, hedonistic, shocking, and yet delicious. Even the name has a Collinsque ring to it.