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, beautiful 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 pains-taking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings an 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.
Just as she did in her critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, Gioia Diliberto brings a rich historical moment to life through her vivid and compelling storytelling. Her penetrating research and imagination are gracefully woven together in this poignant story filled with larger-than-life characters embroiled in scandalous tales, passionate love affairs, and extraordinary careers. The Collection is an exuberantly entertaining read.
Setting her second novel among the glamorous couture houses of post-WWI Paris, Diliberto (I Am Madame X) delves into a Europe inching its way back to caring about fashion. Following the death of her fiance and family, fictitious 22-year-old seamstress Isabelle Varlet leaves her provincial town in 1919 and takes a low-level job working for Gabrielle Coco Chanel, joining a gaggle of young women sewing until their fingers bleed to serve Mademoiselle in preparation for the upcoming fall collection. Dresses are depicted in magnificent detail; fellow couturiers Madeleine Vionnet and Jean Patou are vibrant and alive, and Diliberto even incorporates period fashion journalism. Still, Isabelle, on a frustrating run of bad luck, proves a bit of a snore--she's an orphan, she falls ill and loses her job, her workroom is robbed. And her love story with poet Daniel Blank feels forced. Chanel, however, is another story: with her married lovers and fiery arrogance, Mademoiselle is the true star of the book; each moment she's on the page is sheer pleasure, much like fine couture. (Sept.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 10, 2007
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Excerpt from The Collection by Gioia Diliberto
Instead of dying, I learned to sew.
I was nine, ill with my first bout of consumption, and the nuns at Saint Foy, the convent school in Agen, where I'd lived for a year, had sent me home with a high fever and a horrific cough, not expecting me to return. For two months I lay in bed while my grandmother cared for me. Despite her ministrations, I grew steadily thinner and weaker, until one day she placed on my quilt a stack of white silk squares and a pincushion spiked with a threaded needle. "Here, dear, let me show you," she said, lifting my limp body from the pillows. Holding me upright, she supported the needle in my fingers and guided it through the silk. Over the next weeks, as she taught me how to baste and overcast, how to turn hems and cut bias strips for binding, and how to patch holes, my fever and cough subsided, and my strength returned. I sewed my initials, IV, in the bottom right-hand corner of each square, and my grandmother tacked them to the walls -- monuments of my survival. Determination was in the stitches and also hope. I still feel the bloom of possibility when I put needle and thread to silk.
Another grandmother would have given a sick girl a new doll or a kitten. But I come from a long line of seamstresses for whom stitching is the same as breathing. My namesake, the first Isabelle Varlet, worked at the court of Louis XVI, and, according to family lore, was imprisoned with Marie Antoinette in the Tuileries. I have a gold locket, dulled with age, that belonged to this Isabelle. Inside is an oil miniature of a lovely young girl whose fine straight hair is the same reddish-gold color as mine.
In those years before the first great war, my grandmother and I lived in a two-story cottage on a hill overlooking the road to Timbaut, a little medieval village a mile outside Agen. Our house had an attic and a wine cellar, shuttered windows, a giant oak in front and a vegetable garden in back. Chickens scratched in the yard, where a little goat tethered to the fence gave us milk each morning. Beyond, lay undulating fields of sunflowers and purple heather starred with marguerites. I lacked only parents.
My father, who made hats at a factory in Agen, suffered a heart attack several months before I was born, the event that cost my mother her life. Neither of my parents had siblings. My grandmother, though, had three sisters with whom she once owned a dressmaking shop. They were old ladies by the time I came along, and I never saw them in anything but heavy black dresses. Every day at four, the aunts came to our house for tea, drenched in black, their faces covered by black veils trailing the floor, and carrying little round hat boxes. When they stepped inside, they removed their veils and pinned black caps to their white hair. I asked them once why they dressed like death, and one of them answered, "So everyone will know we are widows!" It was their proudest accomplishment.
After my recovery, my grandmother, in consultation with the aunts, decided to tutor me at home rather than return me to Saint Foy. Over the course of the next eight years, I suffered repeated relapses and was confined for long periods to bed. My grandmother and the aunts worried and hovered over me; my every cough and sniffle sparked grave concern. Because they feared they could lose me at any time, they indulged my smallest whim, and I grew up convinced that life would give me what I asked of it.
My favorite pastime was drawing fashion sketches, inspired by illustrations in the Parisian magazines my grandmother collected. I occupied hours copying clothes from the glossy pages into my sketchbook and then inventing outfits to wear while playing dress-up. For fabric, I used scraps of serge, wool, bombazine, and cotton twill, remnants from my grandmother's shop that I kept in a large box on top of my wardrobe. Most of the pieces were musty and stained, but the box held a few treasures: a square of lush black velvet, some pink organdy, a triangle of beaded white satin, and a baguette-sized strip of mink. I often spread these gems across my bed to examine them, imagining that some day, when I was older and lived in Paris, I would incorporate them into a grown-up gown.
In the August of my tenth year, my grandmother would not let me outside due to a typhoid epidemic that had swept through our region with a wave of severe heat. I couldn't swim in the lake or go to the village to join the other children for games under the thatched roof of the old stone march�. I couldn't even go to church. One morning, I pulled out my fabric remnants and began piecing them together, carefully stitching them into a child-sized dress.