Wednesday, November 4, 2009

22. The Collection by Gioia Diliberto

I'm not sure how I heard about this book. If I had to guess, I would say that I probably jotted down the title one afternoon when I was browsing through a few book links that my friend Adriana, master of library science, sent me. I have a compulsively organized spreadsheet for keeping track of books that I want to read, so I have ideas in mind when I head to the library. Seeing the cover sealed the deal for me. Colin even remarked that the book looked "so you." He's a keeper, folks.

Isabelle Varlet, charming and naive, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautifiul [sic] women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to steal designs before they hit the runway. In Chanel's workshop, Isabelle thrives on the time-honored techniques of couture -- the painstaking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings in [sic] exquisite dress to life for the fall collection -- from its embryonic origins in humble muslin to its finished form in the finest silk -- she navigates the tempestuous moods of Chanel, the cutthroat antics of her fellow workers, and her own search for love.

Plot summary courtesy of

"Instead of dying, I learned to sew."

And so the opening line of The Collection sets the tone. When I started this book, I half expected a The Devil Wears Prada-esque roman a clef about Mademoiselle Chanel -- which in truth, I wouldn't have minded. But this is so much more. For me, Chanel was entirely in the background. Her volatile nature and (what would be today) outrageous demands on her workers are threaded throughout the narrative, but it's Isabelle's story that takes center stage. As a young girl suffering from bouts of consumption she is taught to sew by her grandmother, the first step on her path to Paris. Through Isabelle's eyes we see the fall collection take form and develop from inspiration all the way through to the final product on the runway. I enjoyed reading about someone who has so much talent and is clearly fulfilled by her work, something that seems to be an increasingly rare occurrence.

I appreciated how Diliberto took pains to accurately portray her chosen setting, explaining her choices in an Author's Note and providing a Selected Bibliography. The inherent drama in the world of haute couture in post World War I Paris provides a lot of material: the competing designers are shown comparing press coverage, throwing tantrums when theirs is less than a rival's, and endlessly criticizing each other's work to anyone who will listen; lavish parties are thrown and attended; the very real issue of theft is addressed in a major plot line; Americans complain about the prices, ignorant of the quality of the work and materials of haute couture fashions. True couturiers are rapidly becoming extinct, and it's interesting to read about their heyday and note how much in the fashion world has changed and how much is still the same.

The Collection is a page-turner, though not in the vein of Jackie Collins (or Lauren Weisberger, for that matter). It's not a fluffy beach read, but it is engaging and captivating -- you won't want to put it down. Don't worry if you don't know very much about sewing or couture (my knowledge thereof mainly comes from Project Runway). Although the story and setting are so specific, Diliberto is not writing solely for fashionistas. Anyone who appreciates good writing and an interesting story will most likely enjoy this book.

No comments: