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Lisa Birnbach surveys today’s ‘True Prep’

Thirty years after her ‘The Official Preppy Handbook,’ the author is at work on a follow-up.

April 25, 2010|By Adam Tschorn, Los Angeles Times

In January, Prada's fall/winter 2010 men's runway show in Milan included a model in a navy blue blazer and khaki-colored trousers, an unmistakable signal that the preppy aesthetic was surging back into fashion.

So no real surprise, then, when April brought word that Lisa Birnbach, co-author and editor of "The Official Preppy Handbook," is working on a follow-up to her madras-print-covered bible for the boarding school set with "True Prep," which is due to hit shelves a month short of the original's 30th anniversary.

In full disclosure, the first book, published in 1980, occupies a special place in my heart because it was hitting shelves just as I was hitting campus for my first year at a New England prep school. It served not only as my early sartorial inspiration, but also as a field guide that helped me quickly learn to navigate a world that, to a rural Vermonter, was strange and different.

The new book is scheduled for release Sept. 7, and in a recent interview, Birnbach, speaking from her New York office, said she is still hard at work on it. She's working with writer and graphic designer Chip Kidd, whom she credits with persuading her — after they connected over Facebook — to revisit the land of the G&Ts and "go-to-hell" pants.

"Chip showed me what a huge afterlife the ‘Preppy Handbook' had online — people were writing about the book and they sounded like they were in a desert dying for a drink of water. It was like: ‘Lisa, please!'

"And you know, I'm a giver," she said with a laugh. "So that's what brought me back."

The book is still a work in progress, she said. "But the chapter on clothes is finished — and I can tell you the title is going to be ‘I Just Found It in My Closet.'"

And how might the contents of that closet have changed, exactly? "It's funny," she said. "In some ways, 30 years is a long time, and in some ways it's no time at all. We've got brands that didn't even exist then as well as some brands that were around but that we just hadn't included."

Birnbach reassures readers that many of the familiar favorites are revisited. Among them are Lacoste, Sperry Top-Sider, Brooks Brothers and Ralph Lauren. "I was very, very stingy with [Ralph Lauren] in 1980. I think he's referred to maybe once," she said. "But this time he gets a lot of play."

She said that some additions are labels that actually predate the first book, including Burberry, Barbour, Hermès, Verdura, Kenneth Jay Lane, Hunter Wellies and J.M. Weston. ("They have these beautiful loafers from France," she explained.)

But the most interesting ones are the brands that weren't even born yet. "We've got Vineyard Vines — they started in 1998 — and of course J. Crew — which wasn't around then either [it launched in 1983 as a mail-order company]. And we've got some Kenneth Cole [1982] and a little bit of Robert Graham [2001]."

Birnbach said a good example of a modern women's label that "touches just the right nerve" is Tory Burch, who didn't open her doors until 2004.

"She has comfortably priced, sporty clothes. She has her finger in a lot of different pots now, but when she started out it was exactly the kind of thing we could wear to work, to the book club and to the country club — those sort of David Hicks-inspired printed shirts," Birnbach explained. "And she makes this big beach towel that's sort of like an Hermès towel."

Expect "True Prep" to reflect current reality beyond simply name-checking the nouveau-prep brands. "There's a lot more upmarket stuff, but there's also a lot of down-market stuff" in the book, Birnbach said, "because fashion in this decade is a lot more about the high and the low."

Another major difference? "I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you that the body is shown much more vividly [in this book]," she said. "There's a piece about how stretch [fabric] has arrived in our midst and how that allows clothes to actually fit. Thirty years ago, we were trying to hide our bodies; now we're not hiding them. Things like khakis look and fit better now."

The follow-up book has 12 chapters (five more than the first), presumably swelling in part to accommodate the tackling of new preppy-vexing topics like technology (no texting at the table!), rehab and reality television.

Birnbach noted that this time, there are a lot more specific brands included — clothing and otherwise — because many of the hand-drawn illustrations of people — and places — have been replaced by photos.

"So we have some Jonathan Adler interiors, for example, and I don't know if we even included Belgian Shoes in the first book, but they end up having a real place of honor in this one," she said.

Despite sounding like a paean to conspicuous consumption, Birnbach said that instead of reflexively trying to max Mummy and Daddy's Amex Black at L.L. Bean or Lilly Pulitzer, the true spirit of prep demands that preppies dig through their closets as well.

"The point I'm trying to make in this book is that yes, you can buy new clothes, but you can also rely on the things you have in your closet," she said.

"Anything old is preppier than anything new — that's just a rule."

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