People in fashion: Pumping up the volume

Where do Herb Ritts and Mario Testino shop for fashion books in London? Zwemmer Media Arts, where Claire de Rouen has turned a niche market into a thriving business. James Sherwood meets her
LIKE THE Sphinx, photography and fashion book dealer Claire de Rouen mystifies her rivals. Zwemmer Media Arts on Charing Cross Road is the fashion industry's bookshop. De Rouen is general manager, head buyer and queen bee of arts publishing. For ten years, de Rouen has used the tactics of a Wall Street shark to get kudos titles and cognoscente credibility on her shelves first. Her customers and her authors are one and the same: Herb Ritts, Corinne Day, John Galliano and Mario Testino.

"Once you've got the respect in this business and a reputation, you never rest on your laurels," says de Rouen. "I have to keep looking forward, pushing boundaries. I also have to keep my instincts sharp. I'll give you an example." Bruce Weber's National Portrait Gallery exhibition book, Branded Youth, was sold by the gallery at pounds 35. The cover price for bookshops was pounds 50. "Bruce buys his books here," says de Rouen, casually. "He was in town with Martin Harrison for the exhibition and I called him. I said, 'Bruce, how can I sell your book at pounds 50? Would you sign my copies? I offered to bring the books to his hotel, but he came to the shop and signed. I sold 50 in one day and he took a photograph of me with Tara (her pet pug).

"I think Zwemmer is on the best street corner in London," says the feline, kohl-eyed de Rouen. "We have St Martin's fashion college up the road, the Ivy round the corner and a vista of bookshops along Charing Cross Road." London's book quarter, celebrated in Helen Hanif's 84 Charing Cross Road, is still teeming with dismally sinister second-hand bookshops, desperate to retain that Dickensian "authenticity". In sharp contrast, Zwemmer goes for the Nineties jugular. A provocative framed Robert Mapplethorpe plate or Larry Clarke pubescent boy-with-gun will assail your eye from the window. The latest edition of limited-edition fashion magazine Visionaire is on display before the competition have even placed their orders.

"I was hired ten years ago as the photography buyer," says de Rouen, relaxing for a moment in her basement bunker office, pitch-black pug Tara snuffling at her feet. "I had worked as an assistant at The Photographer's Gallery, but they didn't take me seriously. I was the Saturday girl with her silly dogs. Zwemmer didn't have a personality then. I wanted to push contemporary photography and fashion. I like the competition of getting an edition from the States first and I wanted to pulverise the opposition." This is not a lady to tussle with, and pulverise she did. For a fashion student, it is an honour for a debut collection to be featured in Browns's window. De Rouen made Zwemmer's window the fashion publishing equivalent of Browns. She lured Photographer's Gallery bookshop manager, Johnny Nicol, to design Zwemmer's window. "I think the first one was silver and black," she says. "It was modern, clean and very Eighties. Then I asked David Bailey to sign his new book of nudes and give me a framed photograph of him for the window. That's how you sell books."

De Rouen is following a tradition of avant garde started by Dutch-born Anton Zwemmer, who opened his art bookshop in 1922. A collector and publisher, Zwemmer presented the first Surrealist exhibition in London in the Thirties. With patrons as diverse as Salvador Dali, Anthony Blunt and Man Ray, Zwemmer was as much a part of the new establishment as a promoter of their work. The Zwemmer family no longer own the shops, thought the prestigious fine art bookshop stills runs alongside de Rouen's media arts division.

The boom in fashion publications is reflected in the glossy menagerie that lines Zwemmer's shelves. Thames & Hudson have colonised the fashion market with their series of fashion memoirs, running the gamut from Paul Poiret to Comme des Garcons. Fashion historian Colin McDowell has consistently produced eloquent, intelligent fashion texts for Thames & Hudson. "I think the term fashion book is misleading," says de Rouen. "Photographers like Bruce Weber, Cecil Beaton and Irving Penn are not just fashion photographers. By the same token, people in fashion are inspired by everything from architecture to contemporary art. We have a stand at London Fashion Week and I will not just take books about designers. Fashion is an art form. Fashion photography can also be an art form. As a buyer I can't be too narrow in my perspective."

Born in Alexandria, married to an American and living in London, Claire de Rouen is an international player. In her brisk Armani suits, you can imagine her charming authors and publishers into submission. It was she who persuaded her boss to publish Larry Clarke's The Perfect Childhood, an art photography edition of provocative adolescent male nudes. It sold 2,000 copies, despite police complaints about one of the images in her window. "They told us we had to cover up the offending part of the photograph," she says, with an infectious giggle. "I said that was ridiculous. It would just draw even more attention to the image and the book. It did draw attention as a cause celebre and we sold more books." Madonna's Sex, however, another notorious edition, was bought exclusively by Books etc. "They got it in Chicago and I hadn't gone that season. People were queuing at midnight for that book," says de Rouen. "My customers expected me to have the Madonna book. They had been ordering copies with me. So next day I went to Books etc with the MD's credit card and bought the lot for pounds 800. Our reputation was at stake."

The credibility of the Zwemmer customer is a key element of the shop's success. "I do go to the book fairs in Frankfurt and Chicago. I look at catalogues from France and Italy. But I also hear about 'sexy' new titles from my customers. When I see there is a waiting list for a book like Anthony Haden Guest's The Last Party - the Studio 54 book only available in the States - I will make sure we have it. You don't wait for the book to make its way to London. You have to go out and get it."

Zwemmer Media Arts, 80 Charing Cross Road, London W1, 0171 240 4157