Acid washed jeans and flannel pajamas from LL Bean: When young Kate Betts arrived in Paris in 1986, the items that made it into her single suitcase hardly foretold a career in fashion. Five years later, those icons of questionable taste a distant memory, Betts was returning to New York City having been personally chosen by Anna Wintour to work at Vogue.
So how did this self-proclaimed “mongrel among greyhounds” earn her pedigree in style?
Her new memoir, My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine, chronicles this transformation. Honest, humble, and at times quite funny, Betts exposes the vulnerability of an American who desperately wants to fit into Parisian society. This was no easy task. “To express oneself fluently involves more than simply speaking the language properly,” she writes. “It includes inflection, voice, posture, gestures, and clothing. All of these elements add up to an individual’s personal expression. They are the elements of style.”
Her attempts to master these elements read like an origin story, a superhero’s back-story. Teen-aged Peter Parker, for example, became Spiderman when bitten by a radioactive spider. For Kate Betts, known affectionately by her extended French family as “Le Grosse Américaine”—a tribute to her tall-drink-of-water physique—the path was more complicated. From the beginning, her efforts to attain Parisian style are met simply with, “Ce n’est pas à mon gout.” This is not my taste.
But what she lacked in style, she made up for in chutzpah. Soon after graduating from Princeton, where generations of her relatives went to college, Betts leaves New York City for Paris, where she rents a room with a lively young French family (the only noticeable horror is a small boy, Maxime, who seems to enjoy screaming about poop). She has a passing flirtation with one young Frenchman and a committed love affair with another. She goes to a wedding without a hat. She fails a typing test for a job that was all wrong for her anyway and then lands an internship at the International Herald Tribune, a mundane and unglamorous position that nonetheless is the necessary first step in a journalism career. When this is over she becomes a stringer for Metropolitan Home.
And then, in the ancient forest of Brocéliande, a 75-year old man hands her “freshly severed foot of a wild Breton boar, wrapped in a kitchen towel.” (It’s like a fairy tale by Charles Perrault but with a happier ending.) She has accompanied her Breton boyfriend, who is dressed in a blue velvet frock coat, on a wild boar hunt with 60 of his friends, five-dozen foxhounds and trumpets as well. She will write an article, and it will ultimately catch the eye of John Fairchild, the publisher of W and WWD. Fairchild, a Francophile and appreciator of elite rituals, is impressed. Voilà, with the story of a bloodied boar, Betts gains entrée to the world of fashion journalism, accepting a job as a features writer for W magazine and Fairchild’s now defunct men’s publication, M.
It’s easy to see the woman who would later become Anna Wintour’s “most valuable lieutenant,” the one who still favors September for its “back-to-business energy.” In her retelling, Betts comes across as an exceptionally hard worker, always ready to push through a problem—whether finding a job or attempting to discover who replaced designer Marc Bohan at Christian Dior. She is not easily cowed, even by the notoriously intimidating Fairchild. As a fellow WASP and Princetonian, she writes, his attitudes “seemed vaguely familiar” to her; they were of the same tribe. Professionally, she just doesn’t waste much time wallowing. It’s no surprise that she was ultimately to leave Wintour and Vogue to serve as editor in chief of its top rival, Harper’s Bazaar.
But if she is confident about work, she is less so when it comes to sartorial self-expression. “Compared to my college friends back in New York, I had high-fashion hauteur,” she writes. “But surrounded by the exotic orchids of the fashion world, I felt like a common dandelion.” And money was not the solution. Instead, she writes “my spending seemed inversely proportionate to my lack of taste and self-knowledge. Uncertain what looked right, I bought a little of everything.”
Admittedly, there may be some people perusing this review thinking, Who cares? My Dockers are fine and they get me out the door. The origin story of a life in style is not for everyone. But for those of us who, for example, perhaps moved to New York City from the Northern California suburbs in the early ’90s, still sporting an enormous mane of permed hair (ahem), this is where the character growth gets really interesting.
For Betts, fashion takes on a symbolic resonance, becoming the stepping stones of a fledgling fashionista. The just-right too-small t-shirt, move two steps forward. An orange tweed Chanel jacket, three steps backward. White jeans on a rainy day? Might as well move back to Peoria.
Suitable for a memoir of style, the backdrop for her seminal moment of self-discovery was the legendary couturier Yves Saint Laurent’s salon. In “the tabernacle” and the atmosphere of quiet deference, she has an epiphany. She writes:
“I was only in the studio at 5 Avenue Marceau for half an hour, but that moment looms large. Watching the model’s metamorphosis in the giant mirror, I was watching my own transformation … Everything about my life and my place in Paris crystalized that day in Saint Laurent’s studio. I saw a masterfully articulated vision of French style, of the elements of style: the discipline, the imagination, the sophistication … I was still so naïve and unformed, so unsure of who I was and who I wanted to become … That day, looking at my reflection in the mirror, I began to visualize her, the person I wanted to become. I saw the story I wanted to tell.”
In the months that followed, Betts was to become a champion for young talents such as Helmut Lang, John Galliano, and Martin Margiela. She was a regular at Karl Lagerfeld’s chaotic fiefdom at Chanel, where deafening rap music made interviews difficult while the studio assistants lived fashion with abandon, “clocking every look” of new urban street styles. “They knew how to push a look just far enough so people would notice—and copy,” she writes. These “fashion freaks” were key to Betts’s fashion education. As she writes, “The more comfortable I was mingling with the trendy kids in the studio at Chanel, the more confident I became dressing like them, in a sophisticated manner, more like a Parisienne.”
It’s this personal-growth aspect that makes Betts’s book stand out from classic memoirs by other well-known fashion editors. It’s far more grounded than Diana Vreeland’s DV (in which the grand dame of fashion-as-drama deftly merged fiction and fact into a form she labeled “faction.”) It’s far less stuffy than that of Always in Vogue by Edna Woolman Chase, who was raised a Quaker and reigned as editor in chief from 1914-1952. It’s not bitchy like John Fairchild’s Chic Savages. But it does share some of the behind-the-scenes gossipy charm of The World of Carmel Snow, the eponymously titled book written by one of Betts’s predecessors at Harpers Bazaar.
So, in the end, what was Betts’s Paris dream? Her dream was her awakening. That process—in all its awkward yet inspiring detail—is elegantly chronicled in these pages.
Lisa Santandrea teaches fashion history at Parsons The New School for Design.