HomeOPINIONSummer reading: The best things we read this year, retail edition

Summer reading: The best things we read this year, retail edition

The Woman I Wanted to Be, by Diane von Furstenberg.

This hot-pink memoir languished in the stack of books on my nightstand for nearly a year before I gingerly cracked it open, but honestly, it’s great. It starts with the fashion mogul’s early life in Brussels, telling her mother’s story of surviving the Holocaust, and swiftly moves on to cover von Furstenberg’s outrageous life as a high flyer in 1970’s New York. There’s gossip and name-dropping galore.

The business side of von Furstenberg’s fashion empire is introduced in the latter half of the book, and it’s nearly as spectacular as her personal life. The Diane von Furstenberg label has seen enormous highs and lows. At one point, von Furstenberg abandons her multi-million-dollar diversified collection of businesses to go and live in Bali with an itinerant beachcomber, then flits off to found a publishing house in Paris. Impulsiveness is both her greatest strength and weakness, von Furstenberg admits.

Ultimately, of course, we see both the label and its charismatic founder triumph. In 1992, von Furstenberg bounds back into fashion via the televised shopping network QVC, selling $1.2 million dollars worth of her Silk Assets collection within two hours, and relaunches her label to great success within a few years. While von Furstenberg’s life sounds exhausting, her energy and creativity is inspiring, and the unpredictability of it all makes for a very entertaining read. 

In the Arena, Diane Foreman.

While we’re on the subject of retail leaders named Diane, Diane Foreman’s In the Arena is also a good read. Some business memoirs are so blandly written that it’s easy to suspect a ghostwriter may have been involved. Not so In the Arena – Foreman’s voice is bold, completely original and likeably salty. 

Billed as a “candid portrait”, her memoir is really more of a business manual for entrepreneurs, but this is no bad thing. To invoke a cliché, Foreman is all business, and her memoir gets straight to the good stuff. It’s packed with behind-the-scenes detail and specific advice for those aspiring to start their own empire.

William Gibson on life inside and outside the internet, Rolling Stone.

I’m choosing to assert that William Gibson is relevant to retail, even if it’s only in the loosest sense. Gibson is an icon of speculative fiction – perhaps his biggest claim to fame is having invented the concept of “cyberspace” before the internet existed, but in recent years, he’s turned his analytic eye and powerful imagination towards trend-hunting, marketing, domestic surveillance culture and corporate espionage. 

His latest novel, The Peripheral, came out this time last year. It’s the third in a series set in the near future – Gibson’s been quoted in earlier interviews as saying he no longer writes in the distant future as the events and themes he was interested in exploring have now become current.

Those who enjoy this particular flavour of specfic should also seek out Paolo Bacigalupi’s 2009 The Windup Girl. It’s set in a futuristic Thailand, where patents on bio-engineered food sources have created new business opportunities in a post-Peak Oil world.

In Bangladesh, the sham of Shams Factory, Al Jazeera.

The 2013 collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh had far-reaching consequences for fashion retail. The disaster killed more than 1,100 workers, who were engaged in making clothing for brands selling to European and American consumers. Their deaths had the effect of focusing Western attention on the conditions which support the consumer appetite for cheap clothing – but as this article confirms, it will take more than a moment in the spotlight to dismantle the structural issues which underlay fast fashion.

The book refuge, The New Yorker.

This gentle, reflective story of three sisters who run a New York antiquarian bookstore will remind many retailers of why they got into the business. It explores the family dynamics behind Argosy Bookshop, and reveals the personality of Argosy founder Louis Cohen in profile, and plumbs the depths of why bookstores are, for many people, so mesmerisingly enjoyable: “Bookshops have an almost universal appeal. What constitutes this appeal is hard to pin down. When you enter an art gallery or an antique shop, you see what you hope will surprise and delight you, but a bookstore does not show what it is selling. The books are like closed clamshells. It is from the collective impression, from the sight of many books wedged together on many shelves, that the mysterious good feeling comes.”

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