How much do you budget for your bookshelf? If the trend for books with three-figure price tags continues, it will soon have to be a bit more hefty. Possibly in response to the shelfie, books are the new designer handbags.
Obviously, we’re not talking about the latest Jonathan Franzen here. These are books of the coffee-table variety: glossy, massive and weighing a tonne. The latest come from Taschen this month: a Gisele book in a limited-edition run of 1,000, some with a signed print by Jürgen Teller; and another on David Bowie’s style between 1972-3, yours via mrporter. Both retail for around £450, the same price as a Chloé Marcie mini.
These are only the latest examples of luxury fashion books. An early benchmark was set by 2000’s SUMO, the Helmut Newton book that retailed for around £11,000 and came with a stand created by Philippe Stark. Taschen is the publisher that has led the way, and as its director of digital publications Julius Wiedemann puts it, demand has increased “incredibly”. Wiedemann says it’s the most expensive ones, the so-called art editions such as the Jürgen Teller Gisele book, “that sell out first”. They’re less books, more collectors’ items, which can be seen in the way their value goes up over time. SUMO now sells for five times its original price.
While there are usually more affordable editions of such books released soon afterwards, the demographic for the high-end versions – someone who buys them as an investment, or who has no qualms about spending three figures on something that sits on the shelf or, more likely, coffee table – is obviously small. But it is clearly out there. Tom Tivnan, features and insight editor at the Bookseller, believes it’s in part about “status symbols” but also “an anti-digital thing. It makes print even more special.” This is something that Wiedemann echoes. “In the age of copy and paste, having an original has never been so valuable and so appreciated,” he says. It’s almost as if buyers of these books have one eye on the future, when the Gisele book will have the extra prestige that comes from it being vintage.
While Tivnan says that collectors’ editions can be applied to any subject (he points to a book produced by Manchester United that came with a ticket to a match at Old Trafford), fashion is a good arena because it has always valued – or fetishised – the printed page over anything digital. “Fashion is one of these amazing overarching subjects, where photography is taken at its best,” says Wiedemann. “When we talk about Gisele, Kate Moss, and soon to come Naomi Campbell, they provide us with this rich and diverse world.”
As with all collecting subcultures – from vinyl to denim – there are factions in the world of fashion books. The flipside of new publications clearly pitched at a collectable market is a scene that runs on out-of-print books, cult favourites and rarities. Stores such as IDEA Books at London’s Dover Street Market and Conor Donlon in east London are names that the in-the-know creatives drop over their flat whites, with IDEA’s Instagram feed followed by 182,000 tastemakers. Both say they are visited by fashion creatives who buy books as, says Donlon, inspiration for research, even if they are priced in the hundreds of pounds.
“For a designer, stylist or researcher, if an image from an obscure Japanese book from the 60s sparks an idea for a collection or campaign, that’s not very much money in the grander scheme [of things],” he says. There are certain cult books –Jean Paul Goude’s Jungle Fever at Donlon’s, Charlotte Rampling: With Compliments at IDEA – that get sold as soon as they hit the stores.
“We have a lot of regular customers who work in the fashion industry but we don’t really sell so many fashion books,” says Donlon. “People come to us because, partly for this reason, we try to sell books that provoke ideas rather than those simply to reference.” The latest example? A self-published book, Kindred Of The Kibbo Kift, about a kind of alternative Boy Scouts that was active in the 1920s.
Hill is keen to distinguish what they do from the bright, shiny world of new luxe fashion books. “They seem to have no soul or beauty,” she says. “These are for coffee-table customers who put them out in show flats, or for their interior designers.” Despite resistance from the indie side of things, those interior designers – if this is indeed the case – will have no problem stocking flats with print-based status symbols for a long time to come. “This sector keeps growing,” says Wiedemann. “We want to make sure that we keep innovating and surprising our followers. They are people that are global-minded and have very high standards.” As well as, you would have to conclude, bank balances.