Saturday, September 29, 2018

New York Fashion Cool-Aid® by Laurel Marcus

Book Review: WILDCHILDS Takes a Walk on the Wild Side of the Modeling Industry

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You know when a good suspense novel has you on the edge of your seat waiting to see how all the loose threads get woven together? Wildchilds, a first novel written by fashion industry insider Eugenia Melian released last week to coincide with Fashion Month, never really sews up the garment.

"The loss of innocence, the death of beauty, and the price of success. An ex-model's journey through the dark side of fashion, where beautiful people do ugly things" reads the book's blurb. Protagonist, Iris de Valadé has a secret -- 17 years ago she suddenly fled Paris leaving the love of her life and her successful modeling career to return to her parents' home in New York -- oh, and she's pregnant.

As the story opens, Iris, now a sculptor, is raising now teenage daughter Lou on a sleepy northern California ranch when her past comes back to haunt her. A FedEx from a lawyer informs her that her long-estranged lover, celebrated art and fashion photographer Gus de Santos, and father that Lou has never met, has unexpectedly died. He has left his estate to his daughter. However, Iris must return to the scene of her traumatic experience to face her demons to recover a missing collection of his work. Also, there's a notorious tabloid threatening to expose very private images of her past, oh my!

I found it tough getting past the highly descriptive, plodding beginning. The inauthentic mother-daughter conversations with Lou on a road trip to the lawyer's office, a writing device meant to fill the reader in on Iris's backstory, didn't ring true to me. The real action doesn't occur until Iris arrives in Paris. Another problem with the story is that the narrative often shifts from points of view and present to past without warning. Suddenly we have time traveled back almost twenty years to when Iris first encounters Gus on a Genius Group shoot. Small problem on set -- the featured clothing has not yet arrived. Iris agrees to be photographed au naturel --a state that she seems to spend a good deal of time in considering that she's a fashion model, not an adult film star.

Photographer and model become inseparable --Iris eventually comes to terms with the fact that Gus is an artist -- a tortured soul who, even as he adores her, warns her repeatedly that he's no good for her. When he hires an unsavory agent to represent him, she becomes Gus's protector yet Gus is unable to protect her. Speaking of the agent, "I don't want that toxic piece of shit in our home. He's going to pollute it," she pleads before a party celebrating their opulent new Boulevard Voltaire digs. "Iris, seriously, just burn some sage after he leaves," responds Gus. Without giving away the plot twist, here's where it all gets a bit hazy.

Eugenia Melian

Author Melian, a former model (as well as agent, producer, and music supervisor who's managed photographer/fashion illustrator Tony Viramontes and photographer David LaChapelle), clearly knows the ins and outs of the New York, London, Milan, Paris fashion circuit. She takes us from the runways to the photo studios, from the cramped model flats to the editorial offices of the fashion industry's most influential publications. Her fictional Iris was introduced to the fashion and modeling biz courtesy of Revue Magazine -- her inscrutable (seemingly negligent) mother Delfine was its former, long revered editor-in-chief. In an interview about the book, Melian denied that she is the basis for Iris saying that her characters are a composite of multiple people who may even recognize themselves.

Much seems to ring true --her insights and details on the underbelly of the fashion beast appear horrifyingly spot-on --from the party scenes, to "baby models" falling prey to smarmy svengalis wielding editorial power. The breakneck pace at which the newbie models are worked, abused, preyed on, plied with "blue pills" to be thin and maintain energy, leaving them hollowed eyed and drug dependent often leads to physical or mental breakdowns or even suicide -- facts that were long swept under the industry rug. Melian worked on this book for four years yet somehow managed to hit the bullseye with her timely intersection between the #MeToo movement and the newly forming organizations providing supportive platforms to guide and protect young models.

"Kids are being made to believe that success comes fast, but in Wildchilds I address how long and difficult the process is and what it can take if you want to succeed. The sacrifices you must make. And what happens when your ambition is stronger than your moral standards," -- said the author.

I couldn't help noticing that the book's cover shot by Ethan James Green is reminiscent of the Michael Gross books "Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women" as well as "Focus: The Secret Sexy Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographs." I had assumed that Wildchilds would have been a more polished literary work as high profile industry friends Joan Juliet Buck, author of "The Price of Illusion" and editor-in-chief of French Vogue 1994-2001, and photographer/director Peggy Sirota had each written favorable reviews.

Towards the end of her Paris ordeal redux, Iris gazes contemplatively at the Seine watching as a bateau passes by. She seizes a talisman of her past -- Gus's leather corded silver pendant from around her neck, tossing it into the river. This gesture, symbolizing her freedom -- reminded me of the famous scene in "Titanic." Although the book had its moments, I also felt liberated upon reaching the end of 405 pages.




- Laurel Marcus

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