Dylan Lauren wants you to Unwrap (Book Review)

January 19, 2011 at 9:51 am 7 comments

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?

Entry filed under: Books and Literature. Tags: , , .

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7 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Mark D. (sugarpressure)  |  January 19, 2011 at 11:52 am

    I picked this book up but have not read it yet. I quickly paged through but found it was a coffee table book. I had hoped for more since her name is well known in the sphere of candy people. Oh well, I’ll read it anyway but your review makes me want to move it farther down my list.

    Reply
    • 2. Candy Professor  |  January 21, 2011 at 9:05 am

      Yeah, I couldn’t bring my self to actually own it. I don’t have a coffee table, and even if I did, this is not the book I’d put there. That said, the section on color and design is worth reading: when Dylan goes to candy shows, her number one concern is what color range the candy comes in.

      Reply
  • 3. Loralee  |  January 20, 2011 at 12:42 am

    When we do candy experiments, my children and I turn candy into science and play materials, and actually stop thinking of it as food for awhile. Perhaps Dylan has undergone the same transformation as she uses candy for decoration. After all, you would never eat your paint set, or the beads you string for jewelry.

    Reply
    • 4. Candy Professor  |  January 21, 2011 at 9:04 am

      Good point. Candy can have many uses, and eating need not be the only one. But I guess what really struck me in the book was the way surface takes the place of substance, and what gets lost when there is nothing but surface. In particular, what gets lost or suppressed is a specific form of bodily pleasure associated with eating and with candy especially. This is not to say there are no other pleasures, but it interests me when that specific connection to the body is avoided.

      Reply
  • 5. GretchenJoanna  |  January 20, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I love this line: “If our bodies are reduced to eyeballs, we’ll get by on less.” I’m thinking of adopting it as a mantra.

    Reply
    • 6. Candy Professor  |  January 21, 2011 at 11:02 am

      Thanks! But there are many pleasures you’ll miss out on if you become nothing more than a giant eyeball!

      Reply
  • 7. GretchenJoanna  |  January 21, 2011 at 11:16 am

    C.P., your points about the disconnection from other pleasures than visual are well-taken. In my case, I am so well-connected to candy by the usual means that I need to remember that even regular candy can be eye-candy. I really don’t want that aspect to be the only one for me, though!

    When I used to take my small children into stores I would tell them to keep their hands in their pockets so they wouldn’t instinctively reach out and handle untouchables. I wish I had thought to teach them this trick, “We are entering a store; time to reduce your bodies to eyeballs.”

    Reply

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Candy: A Century of Panic and Pleasure

Welcome to Candy Professor

Candy in American Culture What is it about candy? Here you'll find the forgotten, the strange, the curious, the surprising. Our candy story, one post at a time.

Samira Kawash, PhD
Professor Emerita,
Rutgers University

(C) Samira Kawash

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