Open Thread: Let’s Talk About History

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Credit...Photography by Ian Kenneth Bird. Styled by Alex Tudela

Each week, the Open Thread newsletter will offer a look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. The latest newsletter appears here. To receive it in your inbox, register here.

Hello and happy (almost) Earth Day. It’s going to be a big week for sustainable fashion, especially given that the fifth anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse in Bangladesh is next Tuesday. We still have a lot of questions — like, has fashion really cleaned up its act?

Depends whom you talk to (and we are going to be talking to them, so get ready). But what is unquestionable is that all us shoppers are in for a lot of soul-searching. That’s good thing.

It’s also an incredibly far cry from the high-fashion world of yesteryear, which has been brought back to life in a compulsively readable oral history, “Loulou & Yves: The Untold Story of Loulou de La Falaise and the House of Saint Laurent” — though that tome likewise has some lessons we might all take on board.

The book, written by Christopher Petkanas, is full of juicy gossip about the super-decadent fashion scene in the 1970s and ’80s. His subject, for those who don’t know, was Yves Saint Laurent’s incredibly glamorous “muse.” And in telling her story, Mr. Petkanas raises some pretty serious questions about that bizarre job title, which exists as far as I can tell in no other industry, and provides great perks but no professional security.

So what does it really mean to be a designer’s “muse”? Read the book and find out. It’s great information in the guise of nonfiction escapism. Though, honestly, afterward you may think you couldn’t make it up it you’d tried.

But that’s often true of this world.That’s why there are so many fashion documentaries around.

Meanwhile, another unsung fashion hero currently getting his due is Tom Palumbo, a photographer peer of Richard Avedon, whose shots of everyone from Mia Farrow and Gloria Vanderbilt to a young Miles Davis form the body of a new coffee table book, “Dreamer With a Thousand Thrills,” which includes an intro by his widow, the journalist Patricia Bosworth (who wrote a great biography of Diane Arbus).

And for some shorter recommended reading, dive into some of the stories below, including a look inside the first-ever fashion week in Saudi Arabia; what Net-a-Porter’s founder, Natalie Massenet, did after she left her company; and an analysis of how James Comey’s style is pushing all our subconscious buttons.

Before you go, a question from a reader:

Q: I have noticed that every season there are not only emerging trends from ready-to-wear fashion shows, but similarities in motifs and fabric construction. Sometimes it looks as if fashion houses “read the same memo.” I am in the interiors industry, and there we have the same situation, which is caused by the influence of fabric mills and production economies. Is this also true in fashion? — Jennifer, Dallas

A: Indeed it is. If you want to know, for example, why you are about to see all sorts of plaid and tartan in shops, or why next fall it’s going to be all about silver mylar separates (I kid you not) — the first place you should look is the fabric fairs.

Specifically Pitti Immagine Filati in Florence, MilanoUnica in Milan, and Première Vision in Paris. Pretty much every designer — or at least a member of a design team at a big brand — attends them. And when they do, they all see the same things. And not just fabrics, but also trend presentations aimed at helping them sense what’s in the wind (People will want to cocoon! They will be thinking about the space age!). Designers actually have to choose their fabrics, or start experimenting with them, a season before the season when they actually start creating. So if you do the math, that’s at least a year before the clothes actually get sold.

There are exceptions, of course — Dries Van Noten often designs all of his own prints; companies like Zegna actually began as manufacturers, and still make fabrics for other brands — but for many smaller brands especially, who don’t have the corporate muscle or means to do this, it’s the mills that set the tone. I know everyone says trends are about X movie or X museum show, and the cultural ethos is a part of it, but it’s honestly a lot less highfalutin than all that.

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