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High fashion and high ambition shape stylish history of '70s couture

The Beautiful Fall: Lagerfeld, Saint Laurent, and Glorious Excess in 1970s Paris, By Alicia Drake, Little, Brown, 437 pp., $24.95

In "Much Ado About Nothing," Shakespeare noted that ``fashion wears out more apparel than the man." If the Bard thought 16th-century styles changed quickly, he would have been stunned at the transformation in fashion, and the fashion industry, during the last half of the 20th century.

Alicia Drake has captured these changes in "The Beautiful Fall," a well-turned-out history of the extraordinary and influential careers of Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld. Drake has done numerous original interviews with key fashion insiders, and has woven these into a story that moves stylishly forward, with frequent over-the-shoulder glances at some very dishy background.

Covering a rich swatch of fashion lore, Drake begins in 1954, when the two creative and intensely ambitious men were winners in a significant international design contest. Saint Laurent was 18; Lagerfeld was 21. From that Paris stage began a hare and tortoise race that would stretch across three decades.

Saint Laurent was the boy wonder who went straight from the design competition into the world's most illustrious couture house, Christian Dior. He debuted his first Dior collection to standing ovations and radiant reviews. A few years later, in 1962, he launched his own stunningly successful label.

Compared with Saint Laurent's explosion onto the fashion scene, Lagerfeld had a very ordinary entree into the respected but less prestigious house of Pierre Balmain. Unlike Saint Laurent, who would create a distinctive look for women, Lagerfeld would use bits of current culture to invent and re-invent a wide-ranging array of high-quality, ready-to-wear styles. He moved steadily, precisely upward through innovative careers at Chloe, Fendi, and Chanel, until he introduced his own label in 1984.

Drake, who writes about fashion for the International Herald Tribune, W, and Travel and Leisure, and lives in Paris, here writes knowingly about the sea change from haute couture to ready-to-wear. Lagerfeld especially anticipated this evolution.

Lagerfeld and Saint Laurent were ``two huge, vying talents who would never be content sharing the stage of Paris fashion." Their rivalry spilled over into their private lives, with overlapping romances and friendships generating more than a few dramas.

Lagerfeld dressed flamboyantly, but he was always in tight control of his personal and professional life. Saint Laurent was a collection of contradictions: an introvert who adored fame as much as he adored creating; who could fire an associate on a whim, but would often need to be hospitalized for nervous collapse. ``Fashion for [Yves] was like a play . . . peopled by characters with whom he could fall in love . . . and conjure up through clothes."

``The Beautiful Fall" sets the concentrated world of couture against the always-on social scene of 1970s Paris. There's Andy Warhol with his tape recorder at all festivities, a very young Paloma Picasso unveiling her jewelry designs, Bianca Jagger being beautiful, and the ``disco Amazon" Grace Jones strutting down the runway, signaling the era of model as superstar. As Drake drolly notes, ``By now the need to party was insatiable."

There had always been "mutual suspicion and envy" between the groups surrounding the two designers, but by 1976, "they were at war." The two personalities drove Paris ' beau monde into a frenzy, resembling rival corporations -- or spiteful high school cliques. Saint Laurent descended into drugs, alcohol, and careless liaisons, all of which fractured his fragile emotional state. Lagerfeld kept re-inventing himself, with an "absolute mastery of image and self-communication."

Fashion Week has just ended in New York, and will soon begin in Paris and Milan. It's a fine time to read "The Beautiful Fall," a story constructed as exquisitely as a couture dress.

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