A young woman from the French provinces watches Chanel reinvent high fashion in an enjoyable second novel from Diliberto (I Am Madame X, 2003, etc.).
In early 1919, orphaned Isabelle Varlet leaves her hometown of Agen and travels to Paris, armed with a letter of introduction to Chanel from a local dressmaker praising her skill with a needle. “When I started work at Chanel Modes et Coutures, I joined a revolution,” Isabelle says. Women are cutting their hair and showing their ankles; Chanel’s sleek, unstructured clothes have the simplicity and ease they want. Lovingly detailed descriptions of the painstaking draping, cutting and hand-sewing that goes into each couture creation are more interesting than Isabelle’s personal life, which involves a not-terribly-exciting romance with a one-legged war veteran and some ferocious passes by wolfish male couturiers. Happily, most of the plot centers on rivalries within and outside of the Chanel workshop. Isabelle rises quickly to the rank of première (head seamstress and virtually an associate designer), but her position is threatened by a jealous coworker and the theft of her group’s toiles (master patterns) just before the all-important August 1919 unveiling of the collection with which Chanel hopes to cement her reputation as France’s greatest fashion designer. By far the most vivid character is Mademoiselle, as her employees call Chanel: imperious, capricious, utterly dedicated to her art yet also a shrewd businesswoman, a proto-feminist who tells Isabelle, “work and independence are what keep women young and attractive.” Around her swarm jealous rivals like Jean Patou, scheming subordinates and impossible clients, whose every arbitrary demand she expects her overworked staff to fulfill. Isabelle is nowhere near as colorful, but she’s a good observer who holds back the dressing-room curtains so readers can enjoy an insider’s peek at this rarified world.
Anyone with even the mildest interest in clothing will enjoy this knowledgeable, readable account of a pivotal year in haute couture.