There are dozens of novels about Paris in the Thirties: before the Nazi occupation, before the transports, before the lights dimmed in the sparkling city. It is a writer’s challenge to conjure those well-documented years sans clichés, to share a new story about a shocking time when German soldiers were increasingly glimpsed along the cobblestone streets and in the bars of the fanciest hotels. Parisians went about their business, but few lives were unaffected.

Many readers know that history, but most are unaware of the bitter rivalry that existed between two iconic fashion designers: the cynical Coco Chanel, born in 1873, with her dark eyes and red-lipsticked mouth, and the anti-Coco – Elsa Schiaparelli – seven years younger; diminutive and exotic.

This relationship, which Mackin portrays in detail based on extensive research, is at the center of Jeanne Mackin’s The Last Collection (Berkley).

On the one hand, here was the French-born Chanel, daughter of a laundrywoman. She grew up in an orphanage where the saving grace was that she learned to sew. After working as a seamstress and moonlighting as a cabaret dancer, she became the mistress of a wealthy man who introduced her to luxury. He was followed by another man who financed her first shop. She made her way to Paris in the early Twenties.

On the other hand, there was Schiaparelli, nurtured by her aristocratic, intellectual Italian family. She had traveled to London and the U.S. and married and divorced an opportunist who posed as a doctor and psychic. For “Schiap” – as she liked to be called – the saving grace was the birth of her daughter, nicknamed “Gogo,” in 1920. Schiap came late to the fashion business in Paris, opening her first boutique in 1927.

The author deftly shows how the two women were shaped by their pasts.

But now it is 1938. As they compete for prestige, joust over customers, and turn up their noses at each other’s new designs, the book’s heroine, a young and tragically widowed New Yorker named Lily Sutter, becomes an emissary between them.

Lily, who possesses a keen eye for color and dreams of becoming an artist, has returned to Paris at the invitation of her beloved brother. Charlie is a stunningly handsome medical resident with a passion for one seemingly unattainable woman. The shabbily dressed Lily joins in their café-hopping and tries to cover for their forbidden romance.

But Lily has her own needs – first and foremost, a job – so she renews an old acquaintance with Schiap, who hires her to paint the backdrops of window displays for the designer’s salon. Just steps away are Chanel’s boutique and the Hotel Ritz where many actions will occur.

Amidst the threat of war, Lily manages to become a painter and meets a man she truly adores. She also observes Schiap’s affinity with the Resistance and Chanel’s willingness to “collaborate horizontally” as the French liked to say.

The Last Collection is more than a good story. It is a consideration of love, work, and art; war, freedom, and memory.

 

About Jeanne Mackin

Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels.  She has worked as a journalist for several publications, and as a university research and science writer. She lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York State, with her husband, artist Steve Poleskie. Jeanne was the recipient of a creative writing fellowship from the American Antiquarian Society and her journalism has won awards from the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education.