Style to spare: Fashion books of 2012

In the new anthology "W: The First 40 Years," the critic Vince Aletti compares high fashion photographs to animals: Outside their natural environment, they can look freakish or foolish. "Inside, they rule."

The tigresses and peacocks who reign over the world's fashion capitals get their due this holiday season, with a wealth of coffee-table books, biographies and memoirs that flesh out the creative, often quixotic forces behind the provocative layouts and visionary runway shows.

You would never call W the Bible of the fashion industry, but the magazine, which began life as a high-toned spin-off of the rag-trade newspaper Women's Wear Daily, has carved its a niche as one of the most daring and decadent glossies. If you're going to spend $75 (gulp!) on a fashion book this year, let it be "W: The First 40 Years," edited by its current chief Stefano Tonchi (Abrams).

The book is split into three sections. The first two celebrate the who (Jackie O, Madonna, a naked Bruce Willis, straddled by a dominatrix in a face mask made of hair) and the where (Elizabethan estates, Italian islands, post-Katrina New Orleans).

The third is the wow — quite simply, the most arresting spreads the magazine has produced: A close-up portrait of an un-retouched Kate Moss (who knew she had pores?). A fashion spread in which Amber Valletta ages from 29 to 120, sporting bondage gear in her dotage. A series of Victoria and David Beckham, scorchingly hot in their unmentionables. And that infamous photo narrative of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, before their romance went public, as a disturbingly sexual Stepford family in '60s surburbia.

"Vogue: The Editor's Eye," edited by Eve McSweeney (Abrams, $70) explores the personal style and creative processes of eight top Vogue stylists past and present, including creative director Grace Coddington, fashion director Tonne Goodman and 99-year-old former fashion editor Babs Simpson.

The book, chock-full of photo spreads from the last 60 years and weighing in at a little more than Moss herself, is a bit too self-congratulatory. No one actually says, "Aren't we fabulous, dahling?" but that's the subtext. But you know what? They are pretty fabulous. Simpson, who worked with Irving Penn and Richard Avedon and styled Marilyn Monroe's last sitting, recalls tracking down Ernest Hemingway in Cuba in 1950 for a photo shoot.

"Isn't he revolting?" she asks, looking at the photo of a shirtless writer lounging with the elegant Jean Patchett, the leading model of the day. Hemingway turned up with a Basque priest, and they two got drunker and drunker as the day wore on. "They wanted us to go and see the pelota or something or other with them afterward. They wanted to spend their lives with us. So we got the first plane we could out of there."

The photo spreads, many iconic, are breathtaking (and some unintentionally funny; how can you not laugh at acid wash jeans paired with a jacket with a giant bejeweled crucifix, even when it's Christian Lacroix?).

Which brings us to perhaps the most talked-out fashion book of the year, Coddington's "Grace: A Memoir" (Random House, $35). Through the 2009 documentary "The September Issue," we came to know the flame-haired editor as a passionate creator of complex visual narratives, but her book is breezy, down-to-earth and unsentimental ("English girls have so much individuality. I can't stand all the sappy blondes, or athletic girls with too much of a tan").

It skips from her childhood on the bleak, fogbound shores of Anglesey, Wales, to mod London, where she modeled in the 1960s, to her relationships with Vogue editor Anna Wintour, editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley, photographer Bruce Weber and others, with plenty of dishy anecdotes — but not as much insight as we'd like into what makes Coddington herself tick.

It's a fast read, with charming illustrations by Coddington and a handful of layouts, although some can be seen, and to greater advantage, in "Vogue: The Editor's Eye."
It's hard not to love Diane von Furstenberg, the champion of all that is chic and yet comfortable, but it's quite easy to dislike the quasi-biography "Diane Von Furstenberg and the Tale of the Empress's New Clothes" (Harper Design, $21.99). In the third of her "Fashion Fairy Tale Memoir" series, Camilla Morton clumsily casts the former real-life princess as the rescuer of a fashion-obsessed empress. The saccharine prose and silly conceit is not worthy of the subject.

Speaking of empresses, celebrated editor Diana Vreeland, who presided over American fashion for half a century, the latest 14 years as special consultant to the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gets a more traditional bio treatment from Amanda MacKenzie Stuart. "Empress of Fashion: A Life of Diana Vreeland" (HarperCollins, $35) delves headfirst in the woman described by Truman Capote as "some extraordinary parrot — a wild thing that's flung itself out of the jungle," and by Coco Chanel as the most affected woman she had never met. (And in the fashion world, that's saying something.) It's scholarly but never dry -- how can it be, with drop-ins by Josephine Baker, a young Lauren Bacall, Veruschka and Andy Warhol? -- and an insightful, inspiring look at a complicated woman.

When British designer Alexander McQueen committed suicide in 2010, he left a gaping hole in the fashion landscape -- one that publishers have been trying their best to plug. A major exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art produced the spectacular catalog "Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty" last year, and this year brings two new lavish coffee-table books.

"Alexander McQueen: Evolution," by Katherine Gleason (Race Point, $35) focuses on the outlandish, exquisitely conceived runway shows for which he was notorious -- "Highland Rape," which put its blood-smeared models in tattered frocks, and "Scanners," in which model Shalom Harlow rotated on a turntable while paint-spraying robotic arms graffiti'd her white dress.

For more insight into the development of his collections — which arose from his initial concepts for his runway shows, not the other way around — consider "Alexander McQueen: The Life and the Legacy," by British fashion historian Judith Watt (Harper Design, $35).

"Love Looks Not With The Eyes" (Abrams, $75) takes us behind the scenes at those runway shows with photographer Anne Deniau. The only photographer McQueen permitted backstage, Deniau throws back the curtain and finds, surprisingly, a meditative quality there — silent, sculptural figures clad in McQueen's feathers or flowers, or even flocks of birds; models en deshabillĂ©, unaware of the lens, and all the more arresting for it; and McQueen's blissful smile as his moving tableau matches his dreams.