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Review: 'Champagne Supernovas' explores how 3 unlikely '90s icons changed fashion forever

This photo provided by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone shows the cover of the book,

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This photo provided by Simon & Schuster/Touchstone shows the cover of the book, "Champagne Supernovas," by author, Maureen Callahan. (AP Photo/ Simon & Schuster/Touchstone)

"Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the '90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion" (Touchstone Books/Simon & Schuster), by Maureen Callahan

"Champagne Supernovas: Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, Alexander McQueen, and the '90s Renegades Who Remade Fashion" puts readers in the front row and three of the era's biggest names in the catwalk spotlight.

Author Maureen Callahan contends that the waifish, plain models and thrift-shop grunge esthetic of '90s fashion was an antidote to the "Glamazons" and gold-plated excess of the 1980s. There was a hunger for authenticity, and no one kept it more real than designers McQueen and Jacobs, and their muse, model Kate Moss.

Rising above childhoods marked by insecurity, financial instability and a yearning to escape the conventional, they had an unquestionable and enduring influence on modern fashion.

The book's title has three clever meanings: "champagne supernova" is a lyric from a psychedelic song by the '90s band Oasis and can refer to bubbly in a martini glass rimmed with cocaine. A supernova is when a star gets so bright it explodes, the perfect metaphor for the three profiled in the book, who each flame out at least once, but come back fighting.

The pace is as quick as an H&M runway knockoff. Callahan's prose is tight, and she stitches together momentum and suspense by alternating chapters on the trio. However, it's easy to lose track of the many minor players when the narrative switches focus and the timeline bounces around.

A page turner filled with juicy behind-the-scenes tales of partying and bad behaviour, the book describes all three figures as damaged but scrappy. Style-watchers will love the backstage drama, and pop culture fans may gain new appreciation for design as an art form.

A writer and editor for the New York Post, Callahan doesn't sentimentalize, and her style is blunt and detailed. She didn't speak to any of her subjects, relying on print sources and interviews with their friends and colleagues to fill in the blanks.

Callahan likens the industry to a giant chessboard, with fashion houses moving players around, and eager, young designers as pawns in their game. Many ambitious designers, including Isaac Mizrahi, Tom Ford, McQueen and Jacobs, wanted the status of running a line at Perry Ellis, Gucci, Givenchy and Louis Vuitton, but all said they were miserable once in the spot.

The corporations gave them little creative control while demanding a backbreaking productivity rate.

Moss — referred to as the "grunge goddess of the U.K." — quickly rose from a skinny, flat-chested teen with crooked teeth to international superstar. Early black-and-white photographs by documentary photographer Corrine Day that show her staring into the camera with messy hair and no makeup got the attention of Calvin Klein.

"This was Corrine showing the world what these avatars of perfection really looked like. (She was) codifying a new kind of glamour, one informed by imperfection, lassitude, vice, decay," Callahan writes.

Klein — whose company was on shaky ground — chose Moss for his stripped-down ad campaign, which turned the brand around and made her a household name.

As she matured, her unique style emerged, mixing high-end designer items with vintage finds, dresses with sneakers and shorts with rain boots. Callahan argues that Moss is the most influential model in history, inspiring fashion lines from paparazzi street photos and popularizing staples like skinny jeans and ballet flats.

McQueen was an artist who realized his darkest fantasies of sex and violence in the outrageous clothing and accessories on his runways, Callahan maintains. His early collections were both panned and celebrated for breaking rules and pushing boundaries, and the book's photographs illustrate the audacity of his shows.

Jacobs is a genius at identifying trends well before the mainstream. Kids in New York's East Village inspired his now-famous "Grunge" collection, which was ridiculed and got him fired, but now informs fashion standards. Often fusing street chic with luxury, he's known for his innovative whimsy, like reinventing the classic Louis Vuitton bag with graffiti-inspired colours.

Callahan emphasizes the connection between '90s fashion and other art forms, citing the movies "Trainspotting" and "Kids," and bands like Nirvana and Pearl Jam. "There is a through-line from the minimalism of Calvin Klein's early '90s ad campaign with Kate to the esthetic Steve Jobs created at Apple ... and a general public more attuned to design than ever," Callahan writes.

McQueen, Jacobs and Moss were ahead of their time, Callahan argues. They took risks that caused personal and professional downfalls, but came back to create again. They'll be remembered as pioneers who defined what is beautiful, edgy and cool.

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Check out my blog: carpoolcandy.com and follow me on Twitter @carpoolcandy.

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