Dylan Lauren wants you to Unwrap (Book Review)
Celebrity candy entrepreneur Dylan Lauren wants you to live your life candy-style. Her new book Dylan’s Candy Bar: Unwrap Your Sweet Life (2010, Clarkson Potter/Random House) offers all of America an opportunity to emulate her candy infused decorating and fashion sensibility. (Look inside a virtual copy here.)
In Unwrap Your Sweet Life, self-proclaimed Queen of Candy Dylan Lauren offers us a field guide and instruction manual for the candy life style. The book is a visual mashup of Wallpaper and UsWeekly, highly styled candy photo spreads on one page and celebrity peep-show on the next. There is a lot about Lauren here, her childhood, her relation with her father designer Ralph Lauren, her connections in the fashion and art worlds, her design sensibility. But Dylan Lauren is a distraction from the main attraction: the candy. Candy in these pages is dazzling. Carefully arranged arrays of rock candy or swirly lollipops transform common sweets into glimmering jewels. Candy, one quickly notices, is not a subtle visual medium. I recommend sunglasses or small doses.
The book builds on the success of Dylan’s candy stores, first in Manhattan’s Upper East Side and now expanded to East Hampton, Houston, Orlando and beyond. The brilliance of Dylan’s Candy Bar as a retail enterprise has been to use her design sensibility and her celebrity connections to elevate the cheapest sort of mass-produced food product into a luxury good. Neiman Marcus and Bloomingdale’s are upper-end department stores that feature her branded merchandise: adequate chocolate bars in designer Dylan wrappers, and transparent tubs of colorful cheap candy like Runts and gummies distinguished only by the Dylan’s logo. Dylan’s brand is not a flavor or type of candy, it’s a look. It just happens to be a look made out of candy.
The book encourages you to bring Dylan’s candy style home. True, you might not be able to manage a Lucite staircase embedded with gummy bears like the one in Dylan’s Candy Bar. Instead, the book proposes do-at-home projects that might have been cooked up by Martha Stewart on the day she woke up in Wal-Mart’s candy aisle. Dylan suggests scattering bowls of gum balls around your living room for a burst of color or sprinkling foil-wrapped chocolate kisses across your mantel for a little sparkle. And why stop at a candy buffet for your next party? Dylan has ideas for using candy for every aspect of celebratory decorations, from the invitations to the favors to the table settings.
Although the art fell out of fashion in the twentieth century, sugar-based centerpieces have long been a feature of banquets and feasts. Artisanal sugar work as practiced in the 17th and 18th centuries was a finely wrought art. The sumptuous temples and follies that graced the banquet tables of the wealthy were made of sugar paste and therefore nominally edible. The wealth and power of the host were signaled by the fact that no one expected to eat them.
The candy décor of Dylan’s is decidedly down market compared to these ancestral masterworks. Where artisans would labor for weeks to create a sugar replica of the Parthenon, Dylan coaches her aspiring readers to fill a bowl with blue jelly beans and float a yellow chocolate duckie on top. But like the royal revelers of old, it is impossible to imagine the baby shower guests who would surround this luscious table actually stooping to eat the jelly beans. The ultimate destination for this candy craft is the garbage can.
Sugar was once so rare and expensive that many people would go their whole lives never tasting it. To decorate with sugar with the express intention of not eating it was to declare one’s indifference to need or want in the most flagrant way. The value of sugar has fallen precipitously in the intervening centuries, of course. Uneaten candy in Dylan’s scheme recreates the gesture of conspicuous waste, but at a fraction of the cost. The waste of the royal banquet reminded the guests who was king. At Dylan’s table the waste is of a more democratic sort. It is conspicuous waste, but conspicuous waste that anyone can afford.
Waste is perhaps a little harsh word for Dylan’s vision of candy art. Waste seems so 1990s. But on the other hand, maybe decorating with candy is a clever solution to the problem of caloric over-production. We know the story of supersizing: too many calories need to go somewhere, and where they tend to go is to America’s waist line. Attentive readers will notice that in Unwrap Your Sweet Life, nobody actually eats. Here is the unstated premise of candy style, the promise of consumption without expansion.
This will come as a surprise to the hundreds of shoppers in Dylan’s Candy Bar, who fill their sacks and buckets with an evident intention to sample the wares. But Dylan herself remains chaste; in her entire book, filled with pictures of her and candy in every pose, the only thing that touches her lips is a straw (which may or may not contain milkshake). And that picture was taken when she was 8 years old.
Dylan’s persistent obliviousness to the foodiness of candy produces some comical effects in the book. Take, for example, the suggestion to craft a children’s gift by artfully covering a metal lunchbox with jelly beans and gummy bears and then shellacking the result. One can only surmise that Dylan has limited contact with actual children who might like to actually put the candy in their mouths.
Maybe this is where we’ve arrived in the collision of exploding global production and contracting local consumption: look, but don’t eat. If our bodies are reduced to eyeballs, we’ll get by on less. And if it is just about the surface, no matter if what’s underneath is nothing but sugar paste. All that glitters, glitters. From a distance, who can really tell the difference between rock candy and a diamond in the rough?