Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Claire de Rouen

Claire de Rouen, the doyenne of fashion and photography books, has died after a long illness. I first met Claire in the late seventies at the Photographer's Gallery, where she was an eternal presence behind the counter that served as the diminutive bookshop in their Newport Street premises. To this day, I regret the non-purchase of a Minor White monograph which Claire predicted 'would become extremely sought after in years to come, darling'.

During the eighties and for most of the nineties, she was the force behind the photography and fashion department at the original Zwemmer bookshop in Charing Cross Road. Her breathtaking knowledge of the subjects made her the icon of fashion students and famous photographers alike. I had the pleasure of working with her during her short-lived tenure with Shipley Art Booksellers. It is however, for the shop that proceeded this period that she will best be remembered. She was afforded the governance of a small premises on the first floor of a sex shop at the Tottenham Court Road end of Charing Cross Road, and it soon became a mecca for the faithful as well as the neophite to the world of photography and fashion. The shop was easy to miss, but a discreet neon sign in the window directed the determined to their destination like a beacon. It flourished as much by word of mouth as any website, and garnered a reputation among a dedicated cognoscenti for whom Claire's advice was paramount. With her trademark bob and a fringe that skimmed those smokey, intriguing eyes, Claire's dress-sense was immaculate; her look was timeless and never disappointed. Usually sat by the till, her faithful pug Otis curled beneath the desk, she would direct customers to whatever newly-published book she thought might suit their needs and tastes, but often, she simply delighted at your own discoveries amidst the stock. Seldom resorting to the shop's database, she knew her books by heart, with rarities temptingly encased in a vitrine which were never priced but which she would be more than happy to let you examine. Collectors were legion, and giants of the photography world sought her out when they were in town. Bruce Weber was a regular visitor, and Claire was an early advocate and seller of his monographs. David Bailey was a huge fan, stating that Claire's was 'probably the best photography bookshop in the world' and it was Bob Carlos Clark who persuaded her to open premises under her own name.

Born Claire Alphandri in Alexandria in the early thirties, her age was always a notoriously-guarded secret. She attended art school in London and married Reid de Rouen in the 1950s. She met John Nichol in the mid 1980's, and they lived and worked together until her death this week. Claire was passionate about the things she loved, and kept her manicured finger firmly on the fashion pulse of her time. Her mystery and allure added greatly to the shop's atmosphere. She was a tireless champion of young photographers and fashion students (the newly-graduated Alexander McQueen adored her) and she often displayed their work in the stairwell gallery adjacent to the shop. Her stock of fashion and photography magazines from around the world was unrivalled.

Claire de Rouen books will continue without her, but her legacy will live on there for as long as it remains open, as I trust it will for many years to come. The world will be poorer without her, and her throne within the pantheon of fashion and photography will remain unoccupied. It was a privilege to have known her.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

The Lion Roars in Rye

William Morris's epithet of having nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful has never seemed more apposite than in the case of The Lion Street Store in Rye, East Sussex. Owned and operated by former milliner Sarah Benton, the shop has been open only a few short months, but it has clearly already attracted a huge following which spreads far beyond the ancient Cinque Port town. Situated just down from the historic St Mary's church which crowns the Rye skyline, Sarah has created a light and airy space and stocked it with objects of desire which are a feast for the eyes and the senses. The best in contemporary-designed items effortlessly blend with carefully-chosen vintage pieces, all of them bought together with an assured sensibility which makes the shop such a mecca for all who hanker for the unique and the unusual in their home. With all the panache of a Bawden vignette for Fortnum and Mason, Nicholas Frith's masterful logo of the sailors and the friendly lion perfectly captures the mood of the shop, as elsewhere, fabric dolls by Jane Foster and textiles by Lisa Stickley sit alongside one-off toy theatres by Emily Warren. Knitted creatures by Donna Wilson become the outriders in a vintage Triang truck, whilst distressed children's desks open to reveal their treasures. Sarah shares with her customers a passion for the miraculous images of the likes of Robert Taverner and Edwin La Dell, and the card racks overspill with the cream of British 20th-century printmakers. Wire baskets are packed with handwoven Irish blankets, fashioned from recycled wool, whilst elsewhere are screen-printed boy and girl-shaped cushions that somehow evoke the days of 'Look and Learn' and the Ladybird series of books so beloved of our childhoods. In the coming months, Sarah hopes that the store will become a regular venue for literary and musical events, and is keen to organise one-off specialist exhibitions of artists and craftspeople. With a contemporary eye fixed firmly on the sensibilities of similar institutions such as St Jude's Gallery, Loop in Islington and Old Town in Holt, Sarah's conviction that people deserve to have the very best in British art and craft is everywhere evinced at the Lion Street Store. The ancient town of Rye has never seemed so fortunate to have this newcomer in her midst; I urge you to beat a path to its' lovely painted portal.

The Lion Street Store. 6 Lion Street, Rye, East Sussex TN31 7LB