Mags: The New Yorker (Guest Review)

Guest Glossy Review

As the dust on Fashion's Night Out settles and
the Big Apple's fashion elite sit front-row at the spring/summer 2010 shows, prolific writer, flagrant foodie and avid consumer of culture Lee Tran Lam reflects on The New Yorker's annual style issue...

Everyone has a magazine they love so much that there’s a fire-hazard pile of back issues blocking some sizeable part of their house. For me, it’s The New Yorker. The publication is famous for taking the most unexpected subjects – from toupees to origami artists – and spinning page after lengthy page of fascinating copy. Readers first thumbed through embryonic forms of The Catcher In The Rye, In Cold Blood and Silent Spring when they were printed in the magazine. And The New Yorker’s journalistic bragging rights are monumentally well-earnt, having broken major stories such as the Abu Ghraib prison abuses in 2004.

It’s brainy and not afraid to devote inches of print to a topic. That said, I get all fluttery when the annual Style issue of the magazine comes out. For someone whose yearly clothing budget is only $12.50, I actually love it when a mag goes beyond the fashion racks and boutique windows to expose the ritzy and inaccessible world of high-end living. I can still recount parts of the excellent Valentino story that ran in 2005 (one memorable snippet: the perma-tanned designer throws a dinner at his French chateau – a home where 1 million roses, no exaggeration, bloom in the garden – and gets ticked off when his regular airdrop of mozzarella fresh from Naples is held up by the terrorist attacks in London).

The good bits

-‘Step Into Style’, the cover by Bruce McCall (some pun-freaks may call it ‘bootylicious’, but I think it’s just clever and stylish).

-Patricia Marx goes shopping in “greigey-beigey” Chicago, aka “the city that gets some sleep” or “the miniature golf version of New York, with Oprah standing in for the Statue of Liberty”. While not usually a fan of the stories Marx is assigned (which feel sometimes like ultra-lengthy shopping lists) this piece is actually an intriguing long exposure of a town that modestly describes its style as only “wearable”, despite having a mayor-appointed fashion tzar. “If Chicago had to fill out a questionnaire about itself, would it check male or female? It’s a guy’s town. But not a slobby guy,” says Marx.

In Chicago, you can track down Maria Pinto, one of Michelle Obama’s favourite designers, and the department store that gave Isaac Mizahri an important break – but there’s also a shop where you can buy Oprah hand-me-downs, a museum with soft toys in the shape of Athlete’s Foot fungal infections, and an emporium specialising in Swarovski crystal bags shaped like Jimi Hendrix’s head!

-I remember interviewing LA designer Kelly Wearstler for Australian Style (RIP) in 2002, so I was extra-curious about Dana Goodyear’s profile on the visually ostentatious decorator. Known for her “muchness”, her hyper-bright, pattern-crazed, full-volumed rooms are compared to an overstimulated child. “You just want to say ‘quiet, quiet. Settle down,’” says Wearstler. Simon Donovan, the creative director of Barneys, claims her decor for Maison 140 blends the style of a retired stripper with that of a Chinese opium den owner (which he’s a fan of). Insightful anecdotes are rife: The former waitress (who once modelled for Playboy) definitely is an original – “she once wore a vintage dress with sea-green polka dots, backward” to a party.

With bestselling books, TV fame to her name, and high-profile design clients (eg Gavin Rossdale and Gwen Stefani), Wearstler is an obvious success and her graphic overkill is a drawcard for many. My favourite part of the story sees her trying to sway some clients into “sassifying” their home. Wearstler suggests pairing 24k gold-leaf panelling with a metallic-splattered cowhide. The family are a little wary, however, of placing gold walls in their house. When she suggests an exquisite silk patterned carpet, the father asks if it’s hard to clean. “Well … you don’t want it in your mudroom,” she says with a winning smile. Eventually, the clients come around but even they have to turn down the green cheetah-print chintz she proposes for the guest room.

-Alexandra Jacobs’ profile on Zappos, the online shoe store being courted by Amazon, comes across like a high heel version of Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory (with dashes of Oprah-esque optimism and managerial-speak). For instance, CEO Tony Hsieh takes part in an impromptu office hula-hoop competition with an employee and also stages work parties with water guns. At company headquarters, there are rooms named after Elvis Presley; free hugs, popcorn and trail mix; Christmas light decorations during summer; greetings of “Hi pumpkin!” and a capella singers to congratulate trainees; and “the feeling that amphetamimes might be pumped through the central air conditioning”. But as anyone who has worked at an office that tries to be fun and kooky would know, reality delivers a mighty shin-kick at some point, and so it happens, as economic reality and the Amazon offer play out.

-While past fashion designer profiles in the New Yorker Style issue have been a giddy trip into unfathomable opulence (Lagerfield and his house crammed with countless iPods springs into mind), Lauren Collins’ ‘Check Mate’ on Burberry creative director Christopher Bailey is refreshing. The 38-year-old “anti-designer” has a working class background and is surprisingly human: “Do you want me to hold something?” he will inquire. “Are you cold? Would you like a biscuit?” The nastiest words he’s heard to use? “Not nice”, when talking of counterfeiters who rip off the famous Burberry trademark.

The $3 billion company, with a fascinating history dating back to 1856, has been tainted by associated negative publicity of late (like a tabloid scandal involving a Brit soapie star who, after having surgery for septum repair caused by cocaine intake, was snapped wearing Burberry everything, as was her daughter, pushed in a Burberry checked pram) resulting in the “checks for chavs” putdown. But despite this, Bailey comes across as anti-elitist as you can get: “I love the whole creative process, but not in a wanky way,” he says, and, at the end of the article, voluntarily and unprompted, mops up a beverage spill with paper towels. Incredible.

-Also, TV writer Nancy Franklin covers the shiny reincarnation of Melrose Place.

The not-so-good bits
-’Shouts and Murmurs’, usually the weakest link in the magazine, the humour column that often isn’t that hilarious.

-A surprisingly unfunny comic by the usually amazing Roz Chast; her take on Sex And The City, the batty pensioner years, just doesn’t have her typical punch

Pretty Pages
-The New Yorker prides text (and lots of it!) over pictures, but there is a colourful flamenco-inspired spread by Colombian photographer Ruven Afanador.

-There are also some great classic pics from Robert Frank’s famous photo series The Americans.

Glossy stats: September 14 2009; around $14 at newstand (I subscribe and it works out to be about $4 an issue, postage paid – total bargain); 116 pages.
Blosses: David Remnick, Conde Nast; published weekly
Glossy ads: Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Banana Republic, Prada, Rolex
Glossy rating: 4 1/2. The major profiles are excellent, never tediously overstaying their generous word counts and, in fact, justifying the long, unputdownable lengths. There are a few misfires (an okay piece by the otherwise incredible music critic Sasha Frere Jones), but, overall, a pretty fine Style issue. The only truly bad thing – having to wait another year until the next fix.

Yours truly,
Lee Tran @ Girl With a Satchel


Christopher John Stokes said...

I know you and I have been warring on The New Yorker for a long time LTL, but I have to do something kinda obnoxious here, and quote something by Eliot Weinberger, who I think is pretty much a genius, and who I think pin-pointed something that's been bugging me for some time:

"White's New York is very much The New Yorker's New York. For some eighty years the magazine has represented the zeitgeist of the upwardly mobile educated white Manhattanite. It is politically liberal (in the American sense of the word) but not leftist; it is occasionally alarmed by injustices elsewhere, but generally oblivious to injustice at home. (Its cinematic avatar is, of course, Woody Allen, who has made some thirty movies about New York where the only black or Hispanic people are prostitutes or servants.) IT is permanently fixed in an air of bemused detachment, which it expresses in a style whose sentences are pathologically rewritten by its editors, "polished" (as they call it) until every article, whether a report from Rwanda or a portrait of a professional dog-walker, sounds exactly alike, driven by domestic similes and clever turns of phrases that mix colloquial speech with unexpected synonyms. E.B. White was a master of the style, and it is a sign of the magazine's petrification - if it was ever not petrified - that his sentences from fifty years ago might have been published in last week's issue.

A telling passage is where White writes of his thrill as a young man living in the same city as so many literary "personal giants":

"I burned with a low steady fever just because I was on the same island with Don Marquis, Heywood Broun, Christopher Morley, Franklin P. Adams, Robert C. Benchley, Frank Sullivan, Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woolcott, Ring Lardner and Stephen Vincent Benet".

White's (and The New Yorker's New York circa 1925 was a landscape of humorists and light verse poets. It evidently did not include John Dos Passos, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill, e.e. cummings, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes, Nathanael West, Henry Miller, Djuana Barnes, W.E.B DuBois, Dashiell Hammett, Charles Reznikoff, Theodore Dreiser, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Zora Neale Hurston - all the varieties of American modernism that were not being produced at that moment in Paris. White's insularity was, and remains, typical of his milieu: Discounting late publications of the inescapably famous, it is safe to say that The New Yorker, in its hundreds of thousands of pages over the last eighty years, has managed to miss almost the entirety of world literature.

This was because The New Yorker always viewed the world through the screen of its cleverness, and never could bear those chunks of life that could not be refracted into its witty prose..."

And, please forgive me, but the Style Issue is, annually, the best example for me of all of the above. It reminds me, almost, of Monocle magazine in all its base narcissism confused as intellectual rigor...


from a sow's ear said...

I always love hearing the little stories and anecdotes you've read from The New Yorker. Thanks for your review LTL!- I haven't ever read a copy, but your post makes me want to borrow a few!- can i, please?

The Monash Street Project said...

Great review Lee Tran - I lurve the New Yorker and now I can't wait to get the style issue - thank god a Border's just moved into my neighbourhood so I can get it easily now!

Hello Sandwich said...

What a great review Lee Tran Lam! I am rushing out for my copy pronto!
Hello Sandwich