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.