Representing the creative future

1 Granary Book Club: Fashion biographies and memoirs

Explore the real behind the scenes of fashion making!

In the Italian biography of Miuccia Prada, sadly never translated to English, a very long paragraph from the most intimate and revealing chapter of the book describes accurately a typical meal at Miuccia’s. Some traditional dishes she would personally cook, like saffron risotto and Milanese-style cutlet; and, for an impromptu dinner, well-cooked plain white rice, perfectly ripened strawberries, and some cold champagne she would beautifully call “sparkling wine”. The key, seems to suggest the author of the biography, is to treat trivialities as deadly serious. When you write an account of the life of Mrs.Prada, you must consider the insatiable hunger of readers and fanatics for every minor detail of her persona; as if that could help them decipher her highly cerebral work.

The narration of the lives and vicissitudes of designers and fashion insiders is anything but an end in itself. Netflix series “Halston” and long-awaited film “House of Gucci” are recent examples of how quickly the interest for a brand, or part of its history, can be rekindled; portraying the lives of those protagonists as flawed and thus relatable, and at the same time desirable. With Instagram accounts such as mcqueenvault, yslbypilati, or tomfordforgucci, whose bio clearly states in caps-lock: “If it wasn’t by Tom ford, is it even Gucci?”, the role of designers has superseded that of the Maison they work for. The chronicles of their lives, whether posthumous or contemporary, irremediably inspire and feed into the brand’s imagery and storytelling.

We drew up a list of fashion biographies and memoirs that will help you gain, or broaden, your knowledge of a couturier, fashion editor, photographer or even historic moment. Uniting fashion, narrative, and an account of the social context in which the protagonists operate, these books represent an indispensable tool of analysis of their work. These authors, very often subjects of their narrations, indulge in the dreamiest, most opulent details of their lives, while debunking the toxic idea, so common to the fashion industry, of the creative genius, and reiterating their substantially human nature.

Beaton, Cecil. 2014. The Glass of Fashion. New York: Rizzoli

The chronicle of Cecil Beaton’s life is as dazzling as his thoughts on fashion and the legendary characters that eventually ended up in front of his camera and in his notes.  Photographer, writer, draftsman, and, ultimately, the arbiter of taste, Beaton puts together an anthology of fashion in the first half of the 20th century and the people who inspired it. An eccentric account of the members of the fashion system as well as some familiar faces, like “A Lady of Fashion: [his] Aunt Jessie”.

Read the introduction and the first chapters here.

Bergé, Pierre. 2010. Letters to Yves. Marrakech: Editions Jardin Majorelle

A heart-wrenching collection of love letters to the late designer by his former partner and collaborator. Pierre Bergé remembers his 50 years at the side of Yves Saint Laurent, from their coup de foudre and the creation of the Maison to the bitter moments of depression and drug addiction. An unusual, intimate perspective, in the shape of an epistolary novel, on the work and life of the couturier who moulded modern fashion.

Blume, Mary. 2014. The Master of Us All: Balenciaga, His Workrooms, His World. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Despite the success of his creations, Cristóbal Balenciaga was a reserved person, who kept away from the glories of his profession. The Master of Us All, as Christian Dior would call him, is the very much needed story of the couturier and his ascent, through the memory of his collaborator Florette Chelot.


Buck, Joan Juliet. 2017. The Price of Illusion. New York: Atria Books

Impeccably written and highly addictive memoir of Joan Juliet Buck, film and theatre critic and the first and only American appointed at the head of Vogue Paris. From her childhood years marked by extraordinary encounters, to her cerebral work to modernise the French magazine, Buck narrates her personal “tale of many cities”, observing with a critical eye the glitters of London, Paris, New York, and Los Angeles.

Take a peek at the first pages here.

Coddington, Grace. 2012. Grace: A Memoir. London: Chatto and Windus

The autobiographies of fashion insiders are never just about their own lives. After working for the past 60 years in the fashion industry, where getting to know the right people is an essential condition to enter and thrive, it will come as no surprise if Coddington casually drops some names throughout her narration. That said, Grace is an absolutely exquisite chronicle of her rise in the fashion system as a model turned fashion editor and of her one-of-a-kind friends and colleagues.

You can scroll through her illustrations here.

Cohen, Lisa. 2013. All We Know: Three Lives. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux

Not the typical fashion biography, but an account of the lives of three lesbian women living in the first half of the 20th century. A glamorous, witty narration that is also a study of queerness throughout modernity and of the literary genre of the biography itself.

Cunningham, Bill. 2019. Fashion Climbing. London: Penguin

The possibility of reinventing oneself has always been one of the main (few?) perks of the fashion industry. From being a milliner, to becoming a fashion journalist, and eventually landing to street style photography, Bill Cunningham had two passions in life: fashion and New York City. In telling the story of his life, the photographer gives us an account of the fashion scene in the second half of the century, and the great characters that inhabited New York.

Read an excerpt of his memoirs here.

Cutrone, Kelly. 2011. If You Have to Cry, Go Outside. New York: Harper One

Very often known for her role as the caustic boss of Whitney Port in the MTV reality television series The City, Kelly Cutrone is first and foremost the founder and CEO of prestigious PR agency People’s Revolution. In her book If You Have to Cry, Go Outside, Cutrone brushes up her good old frankness and gives us an honest and rough account of this world fashion and the secrets to hack it.

Day, Daniel. 2019. Dapper Dan: Made in Harlem. A Memoir. New York: Random House

A bildungsroman of the creative genius behind the most fantastic rip-offs of European Fashion and father of high-end streetwear in the 80’s. As belonging to the (sub-)sub-genre of black fashion biographies, Dapper Dan narrates, in a very typical “from rags to riches” format, an inspirational story of redemption through fashion, craft, and creativity.

The preview is available here.

Dior, Christian. 2018. Dior by Dior. London: V&A

With his “New Look”, the words allegedly pronounced by Carmen Snow in 1947 to describe the collection, Dior shaped a new ideal of woman and fashion after WW2. This intimate autobiography allows us to discover the man behind the creative genius acclaimed internationally.

Drake, Alicia. The Beautiful Fall: Fashion, Genius and Glorius Excess in 1970s Paris. London: Bloomsbury

Not a biography, but the chronicle of a city that has been the battlefield between two couturiers. The Beautiful Fall is the very Parisian account of an era of indulgence, luxury, and vice, epitomised in the designs of Karl Lagerfeld and Yves Saint Laurent.

You can read an excerpt of the book here.

Gaines, Steven. 1993. Simply Halston: The Untold Story. New York: Jove

The name of Halston has experienced a second youth with the eponymous Netflix series transmitted in May 2021.  Simply Halston traces his story, from his work as a milliner to his celebration at the Battle of Versailles as the American couturier capable of intercepting and forging national taste.

Gay Forden, Sara. 2021. The House of Gucci: A True Story of Murder, Madness, Glamour and Greed. London: Harper Collin

Brought to the fore by Lady Gaga’s performance as deadly Patrizia Reggiani in the film House of Gucci, the book narrates the homicide of Maurizio Gucci by the hand of his wife. While some lines have become an instant classic well before the release in cinemas, the film has been demolished by critics and… house’s former creative directors. Tom Ford said he felt “deeply sad” after watching it. If you too found Jared Leto’s Italian not particularly convincing, go image a better one yourself here.

Givhan, Robin. 2015. The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled into the Spotlight and Made. New York: Flatiron Books

The narration of the event that consecrated designers such as Halston, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass, Stephen Burrows and Anne Klein to American couturiers. The Battle of Versailles, represents an epic moment for the acknowledgment of minimalist American fashion as opposed to French extravaganza.

Keckley, Elizabeth. 2017. Behind the Scenes: Or, Thirty Years Slave, and Four Years in the White House. Eastford: Martino Fine Books

Not all biographies are chronicles of a fashionable lush life. This one, for example, is the story of slave-turned-seamstress Mary Todd and her work at the White House.  Far from the whims of fashion, her life is a symbol of the transformative and dignifying power of clothes making, as an instrument of social redemption.

Quant, Mary. 2019. Mary Quant: Autobiography. London: Headline

If you’ve missed her exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum and you want to know more about the designer and entrepreneur who first bared the legs of her generation, don’t miss this autobiography. From Quant’s childhood years to the opening of her first shop in King’s Road, to the birth of the most liberating fashion phenomenon of the century, this book tells the story of the designer, who, more than anybody else, epitomised a place and an era.

Here you can find some excerpts.

Schiaparelli, Elsa. 2007. Shocking Life: The Autobiography of Elsa Schiaparelli. London: V&A

There’s no better way to understand Daniel Roseberry’s work for the French maison than looking at the novel-esque life of its founder Elsa Schiaparelli.  The Italian designer based in Paris, started a collaboration with surrealist painter Dalì and illustrator Jean Cocteau, making the relationship between art and fashion finally explicit. Her iconic and uncannily contemporary pieces that mimic body parts and objects (hello, Bella Hadid’s lung dress?) feed into the imagery of the brand and keep inspiring its creative director.

Smith, Julia Faye. 2016. Something to Prove: A Biography of Ann Lowe, America’s Forgotten Designer. Createspace

Biographies represent a tool to rediscover and remember great individuals of our past, otherwise forgotten. However, the narration of fashion biographies is often western-centric and white-dominated. This biography is a very much needed account of the life of Ann Lowe, grandaughter of a former slave and first African American couturier who also designed First Lady Jaqueline Kennedy’s wedding gown. Narrative, fashion, and racial issues weave together in this unique book.

Stagg, Natasha. 2019. Sleeveless: Fashion, Image, Media, New York 2011-2019. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)

An account of New York in the 2010s, through the essays and stories of artists, designers, journalists, and fashion insiders right in the middle of the big boom of social media. Stagg explores the new dynamics of the fashion industry and personal identity in the era of internet fame.

Talley, André Leon. 2020. The Chiffon Trenches. London: HarperCollins

In his autobiography, former creative director of Vogue André Leon Talley narrates his rise into the fashion Olympus, from his work with Andy Warhol at Interview, to his troubled, as much as unique, relationship with über Editor in Chief Anna Wintour. Talley’s story-telling is catchy and amusing and does justice to an incredible career marked by inspiring encounters, and the bigger purpose of fighting racial prejudice within the industry.

You can read the introduction here.

Thomas, Dana. 2016. Gods and Kings: The Rise and Fall of Alexander McQueen and John Galliano. London: Penguin

By far the most popular fashion biography ever written. If you’re new to the genre, this should be your first read. A detailed, catchy, and raw account of the ascent and decline of the two designers that defined the aesthetics of a decade. A love letter and a tirade to the fashion industry and its frenzied rhythms. Taking Galliano and McQueen as examples, Thomas points out the detrimental consequences of the idolisation of designers as creative geniuses.  Read some excerpts of the book here.

Vreeland, Diana. 2011. D.V. New York: Harper Collins

If you liked her documentary The Eye Has to Travel you will love her biography. Diana Vreeland’s writing is almost as lively and opulent as the life she describes in these pages.  D.V. rekindles the reader’s love for fashion, as they enter the dreamy, camp world of Harper’s Bazaar editor and the fashion scene of the early mid-century.

Westwood, Vivienne. 2016. Get a Life: The Diaries of Vivienne Westwood. London: Serpent’s Tail

The first-person narration of the life, work, and philosophy of the most revolutionary and rebellious designer of our times. This collection of diaries offers a glimpse into the past of Vivienne Westwood, the epitome of environmentalism and British fashion and culture.

Have a peak into her thoughts here.


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