I just spend four days in Paris.
Four days living the life of a seamstress in the couture workrooms of Paris in 1919.
Four days savoring The Collection by Gioia Diliberto.
Be prepared to be captivated by the fictionalized account of Isabelle Varlet, a charming young women hired to work as a seamstress in the couture workroom of Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel in the early 1900's.
"Instead of dying, I learned to sew." Words uttered by Isabelle as she begins to tell her journey into the post WWI behind the scenes world of couture in Paris.
The story begins with Isabelle as a young child bedridden due to a bout of consumption. She lives in a small French town and is being raised by her grandmother. While bedridden her grandmother teaches her the fine art of sewing, not such an odd thing considering Isabelle comes from a long line of seamstresses.
When Isabelle grows up she works in a dress shop owned by a woman who once worked for Chanel. When her fiance dies, Isabelle heads to Paris, letter of recommendation in hand, with high hopes of securing a job in Chanel's workroom.
Isabelle is in the process of being turned down by the house manager at Chanel's workroom, when Chanel herself walks by and notices the perfect cut and fit of the Isabelle's dress. When Chanel discovers Isabelle sewed it herself she is hired on the spot.
Isabelle's skill with needle and thread quickly earn her a promotion. The hours are long and the work demanding, but she loves the meticulous work required to create the couture garments.
She loses herself in her work and learns how to deal with the sometimes outrageous outbursts and unrealistic expectations from Chanel, as well as competition from others in the workrooms.
As the story progresses, Isabelle's heart and soul are poured into the creation of Angeline, a beautiful yet challenging gown, that is to be part of Chanel's 1919 collection - if it passes final approval by Chanel.
The story is filled with the competition, back stabbing, scheming, stealing, and ruthlessness of the post war couture workrooms. Even though the tale is told from the viewpoint of Isabelle, you get a strong sense of what Chanel's personality and fashion vision must have been like.
This is not only an entertaining read but a must read for anyone interested in sewing, fashion, and historical fiction.
The Collection by Gioia Diliberto
Copyright September 2007
Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
275 pages (hardback)