When Lauren Weisberger’s Revenge Wears Prada landed on my desk, I was wary. I’ve never read The Devil Wears Prada, Weisberger’s bestselling roman à clef about her time as an assistant to Anna Wintour. But like a lot of people who work in fashion, the novel has dogged me.
When, for instance, I run into high school acquaintances, the first thing they ask when I say that I’m a fashion editor is whether my life is just like The Devil Wears Prada. “How so?” I ask. They then articulate some vision of a fashion industry comprised entirely of skinny girls in stiletto heels, catty gay men, and Wintour-ish bosses with ice picks for hearts. Look, I say, for the umpteenth time: There’s some truth to those stereotypes, but for the most part, the people who do well in the fashion industry are sharp, incredibly creative, and above all, very, very hard-working.
There are enough pop culture phenomena that traffic an image of fashion as a pit of campy vipers. As far back as the 1957 film Funny Face, with Audrey Hepburn, fashion folk have been portrayed as peerless superficialists – people who care only for the glamorous and the new. In Funny Face, at least, the parody was cheerful. British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous came at the topic with daggers drawn, and while its satire was often apt, no one mistook it for reality.
Whereas today, ‘reality’ fashion programming creates all manner of confusion, inasmuch as the people on those shows create caricatures of themselves. Think of Heidi Klum on Project Runway, doing Wintour lite with her dry “Auf Wiedersehen” dismissal of losers. Or Rachel Zoe, who acts – on her eponymous TV show, at least – as though being a simpering diva were some kind of qualification for fashion industry success. Trust me: It’s not.
Better the devil you know
And then, of course, there’s The Devil Wears Prada, which gave credibility to every other over-the-top portrayal of the industry, because it was reported from deep inside the belly of the beast. I haven’t read it but I did see the film - and I confess that I enjoyed it. When I received the advance copy of Revenge Wears Prada, I had a sneaking suspicion I might just like this book, too. A knowing send-up of my fashion milieu? Seemed like just the ticket for an upcoming long-haul flight.
Before I took off for the airport, I made one additional effort to put my Prada-ambivalence aside. I rang up Kelly Cutrone, to get her take on the differences between fashion as it’s represented in pop culture, and the fashion industry as it exists in real life. If anyone could speak to that subject, it would be Cutrone. As the founder and CEO of the public relations and brand strategy firm People’s Revolution, she’s worked with numerous luxury brands and staged countless fashion shows. But Cutrone also plays the part of Kelly Cutrone on TV: she’s a judge on America’s Next Top Model, and Lauren Conrad and Whitney Port interned for her in reality TV show, The Hills.
“I don’t think it is exaggerated,” Cutrone tells me, when I ask her whether she too found herself disabusing people of the picture of fashion they encounter in books or on TV. “Imagine you’re the person standing in line at the airport behind an insane fashion PR, who’s screaming at a customs agent because the coconut shell bikini Steven Klein is supposed to shoot the next day just got confiscated by Fish and Wildlife. I have been that PR,” Cutrone says.
“Reality is in the eye of the beholder. She perceives the ridiculous; what I behold is the specificity of fashion. Much of what outsiders perceive as fashion bitchiness is really just a heightened sense of detail. To work in fashion at a certain level, you have to see the subtleties of images and clothes in a way most people don’t. For a photographer or art director, that might mean picking the best shot out of a dozen takes that look almost exactly the same. A stylist has to know how to pin a dress so that it hangs with a certain attitude, and when I review a fashion show, I need to notice that the shape of a shoulder is different from the season before. It’s like a form of aesthetic OCD.
“Yeah, it’s very precise, the fashion industry,” Cutrone agrees. “And everyone’s working to create beauty, which is just completely intuitive, and you either get it or you don’t. And if you don’t, you get left behind, because frankly, fashion is insanely competitive, and we’re all playing for keeps. It’s a gazillion dollar industry, for god’s sake.”
Taking the plunge
So, girded by my conversation with Cutrone, I cracked open Revenge Wears Prada. The villainess of The Devil Wears Prada is Miranda Priestly, editor-in-chief of Runway magazine and the world’s most haughty and unrelenting boss. At the close of the first book, our heroine, Andy Sachs, has had her fill of the torment of being Miranda’s junior assistant, and quits her job, in the middle of Paris Fashion Week.
Revenge Wears Prada commences a decade later, with Andy now the editor-in-chief of an independent, aspirational bridal magazine called The Plunge. Andy herself is about to be wed, to the handsome scion of a blue chip family. Everything is coming up roses.
Except…. spoiler alert: Miranda Priestly re-enters the frame. In her new role as the editorial director of luxury publishing house Elias-Clark, she approaches Andy with the poisoned chalice offer to acquire The Plunge, for gobs of money. And thus, havoc is wreaked.
Weisberger’s book is risible because the author doesn’t seem to realise that Andy Sachs’ true antagonist isn’t Miranda Priestly - it’s Andy Sachs. Ten years after leaving her job with Miranda, Andy still has nightmares about her. She decides - instinctively, and without a moment of self-doubt – that taking the acquisition offer is the wrong thing to do, but she cannot bring herself to articulate her reason to either her best friend, with whom she co-founded the magazine, or to her adoring husband. She can’t articulate a reason because she has none. Miranda is evil - end of story. Andy never seems to entertain the possibility that Miranda Priestly has all this godlike clout because she’s very good at her work, or that she’s firm in her opinions because success has given her confidence in them. All that matters is that Miranda is not nice.
In Weisberger’s schema, Andy is very nice - but I take issue with that. Not only does she seem to lack the courage of her convictions, she appears to have none. What she has instead are insecurities: she’s not thin enough, not stylish enough, not posh enough for her mother-in-law’s approval. She’s a name-dropper, and an eager consumer of one percenter lifestyle porn.
The single most compromised thing about the fashion industry, is the way it operates as an engine of consumer desire. Andy has no truck with that, and yet the whole point of The Plunge is to tease brides-to-be with fantasy weddings they could never afford. That strikes me as pretty obscene. And on the other hand, the single best thing about the fashion industry is the fact that it’s a ‘gazillion dollar industry’ that prizes creativity, often in misfit, subversive form. If Andy is in any way attuned to art, or ideas, Weisberger declines to show it.
I’d rather work for Miranda Priestly any day.