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Books: California Love

By Anh-Minh Le

Aiming to present a consummate picture of her cherished home state, Christine Suppes’ new book proves that elegance comes in many forms.


Author Christine Suppes is known for both her fashion writing and her extensive collection of
couture.

Christine Suppes was in the midst of the press tour for her 2015 debut book, Electric Fashion, when she hit on the idea for her next literary project. “While I was doing interviews with the international press, they kept asking how I knew about fashion, being from California,” recalls the longtime Palo Alto resident. “I was dumbstruck. I couldn’t believe that they didn’t understand that you could be from California and be fashionable.”

So, for their follow-up collaboration, she and London-based photographer Frederic Aranda initially set out to showcase fashionable Californians. Almost immediately, though, the concept evolved. “As we got into it,” Suppes continues, “we recognized that the true elegance of California didn’t lie just in fashion, but in the amazing diversity of things that were happening here.”

Over a four-year period, the duo crisscrossed the state, logging thousands of miles in the car as they conducted interviews and photo shoots. The result is the newly released California Elegance: Portraits From the Final Frontier. “I wanted to show readers who this state was, so that people don’t just think we’re Hollywood or Silicon Valley,” Suppes says. “I wanted to show them a fuller picture.”

The book’s 80 stories spotlight more than 100 figures from myriad sectors, including the arts, science, agriculture, tech, activism, sports, public service, health care and politics. While there are household names, like Governor Gavin Newsom and his wife, Jennifer Siebel Newsom, the book also celebrates the oft-unsung. Firefighters, a prison chaplain and NASA scientists, for instance, help round out Suppes’ tribute to California.

Aranda’s photography is not limited to personalities. Throughout, the Golden State’s landscape — its beaches, wilderness and mountains — takes center stage as well. And instantly recognizable are landmarks such as the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite, roadside Cabazon Dinosaur and UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate.

Fashion still features prominently in the book, with a chapter devoted to it. Aptos-raised Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters behind the Rodarte label, are shown clad in their pajamas in a room at The Battery in San Francisco.

Also highlighted is aromatherapist and herbalist Jeanne Rose, who was a go-to designer for rock stars during the hippie era, including members of Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Mehri and Balgobind Jaiswal — the couple credited with bringing Dries Van Noten and Japanese designers like Yohji Yamamoto and Comme des Garçons’ Rei Kawakubo to the Bay Area — are depicted in their Palo Alto boutique Cielo.

Additionally, stylish individuals known for their work in nonfashion fields — including tech exec Karen Richardson (in a strapless gown), attorney and children’s book author Meena Harris (wearing a floral pencil skirt with a T-shirt from her Phenomenal Woman brand) and society photographer Devlin Shand (draped in a vibrant kimono) — are sprinkled throughout California Elegance.

As she was growing up in Hills­borough, Suppes’ earliest sartorial memories involve the charity fashion shows that her mother modeled for and helped organize. Around 1990, when Suppes was raising a son and a daughter on the Stanford University campus (her husband at the time was a professor there), she began to buy “really good clothes,” as she puts it, by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Geoffrey Beene.

Betty Reid Soskin is the National Park Service’s oldest park ranger.

The book Electric Fashion documents Suppes’ couture collection that was 30 years in the making, along with her journey in fashion and the arts. She was a major patron of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s Yves Saint Laurent and Balenciaga exhibitions as well as a sponsor of the Jean Paul Gaultier show. In 2018, Suppes donated more than 500 pieces to the de Young Museum, among them, special Chanel designs and the haute couture of Christian Lacroix.

While Suppes acknowledges that California Elegance is a 432-page love letter to her home state, she doesn’t shy away from dark periods in its history. “On top of being beautiful,” she says, “I’d like to think that [the book] tells the story of California that is accurate.”

The first chapter, titled “California’s Diaspora Until World War II,” opens with Frances Snyder, a tribal member of the Santa Ynez Band of Chumash Indians, who discusses the removal of Father Junipero Serra’s name from parts of the Stanford campus. Later in the chapter, master weaver and Bay Area native Kay Sekimachi shares her childhood experience in an internment camp.

“We really covered so many aspects of the state and I got to learn a lot,” says Suppes. Although the subjects she was less familiar with — such as the farming community in the Central Valley and the pioneers of the LGBTQ movement in Los Angeles — may have started out as the most challenging, they ultimately proved the most rewarding. “I was timid because I knew nothing,” she says, “but it was eye-opening.”

Artist, performer and writer MicahTron is shown at her former Oakland apartment.

For the cover, Suppes advocated for an unexpected image: the Sun-Maid raisin girl. Natalia Valdivia, a young woman of Mexican descent (with “strong roots in California,” says the author), portrays the iconic bonneted figure. A basket brimming with grapes rests against the layers of red tulle that form a skirt by designer April Black Diamond, who specializes in quinceañera fashion (and is profiled in the book).

“I was passionate about showing Natalia as a third-generation Mexican Californian, for whom the legacy of Cesar Chavez is self-evident,” explains Suppes. “Hence the grapes, as Chavez was one of the first protectors and supporters of the grape workers and began the United Farm Workers of America.”

From the cover through to the last profile of Los Gatos’ Negar Alaya, a personal stylist, and Danny Kadah, the founder of Prep2Prep, photographed cradling their infant daughter, Rooney — with Louboutins, bow ties, cowboy hats and wetsuits appearing on the pages in between — Suppes and Aranda illustrate that there is no singular California style. Even the notion of elegance is turned on its head.

“Hopefully, we’ve come to redefine elegance through this book on California, to give it a broader definition,” says Suppes. Referring to health care worker Johnny Elorza, she notes: “What is more elegant than a compassionate young man caring for older people?”

Society photographer and performance artist Devlin Shand creates a mood in an elegant kimono.

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