I picked up this novel last summer because I was curious about one of the historical figures.
This is the tale of two rival fashion designers that unfolds in pre- and post-World War II Paris. One of the designers was quite well known to me (and perhaps everyone): Coco Chanel. But the focus of the novel was her less-known rival, the Roman designer Elsa Schiaparelli.
I’d heard a bit about Schiaparelli, but knew little about her, so I thought this novel would be a fun introduction, and the backdrop of pre-war Paris was a selling point, too.
“Have you noticed? All the new designers – they’re men, aren’t they? I think an era is ending.”
The real drama of this novel opens in Paris in 1938, as two rival designers vie for supremacy among the city’s glamorous and wealthy. Coco Chanel clawed her way up from abject poverty and a miserable upbringing in an orphanage to a spectacular career as a designer for Europe’s most discerning clients.
Her arch rival, Elsa Schiaparelli, grew up with wealth and privilege in a noble palace in Rome, but her itinerant and bohemian lifestyle cut the ties to her past. In her Paris atelier, she creates whimsical, feminine fashion that contrast sharply with Chanel’s more severe, minimalist designs.
Both women are ambitious and ruthless as they battle it out for clientele and recognition in glamorous Paris, even as the spectre of war threatens. The two women are observed by Lily Sutter, a young widow who arrives in Paris, and is immediately drawn into the rivalry.
The research is extensive and the sense of place and background into this golden age of fashion are strengths of the novel. Although the biographical notes for Coco Chanel were not new to me, I learned a great deal about Elsa Schiaparelli and how she revolutionized fashion.
While the writing and details about the rival designers was fascinating, the interwoven story of Lily Sutter felt more like a device to observe the two women rather than a well-developed and independent character in her own right. Lily and her story felt rather flat, despite the fact that the reader observes the entire story through her eyes.
Despite the weaknesses of some of the storytelling, I thoroughly enjoyed the overall novel, and welcomed the brief foray into the lost world of Paris couture and the strong-willed women who dominated the elegant Paris ateliers of the pre-war era.