The Last Col­lec­tion: A Nov­el of Elsa Schi­a­par­el­li and Coco Chanel

  • Review
By – October 7, 2019

You don’t have to know a thing about haute cou­ture to enjoy Jeanne Mackin’s absorb­ing new nov­el, The Last Col­lec­tion: A Nov­el of Elsa Schi­a­par­el­li and Coco Chanel. Told from the alter­nat­ing per­spec­tives of both fash­ion design­ers, as well as a young Amer­i­can artist who befriends the two women, the sto­ry is set in late 1930s France with the threat of a Nazi inva­sion loom­ing on the horizon.

The nov­el high­lights the enmi­ty between the famous design­ers, Coco Chanel and Elsa Schi­a­par­el­li, who pos­sessed large­ly dif­fer­ent ideas about women’s fash­ion as well as pol­i­tics. Chanel became a trend­set­ting fash­ion design­er who favored sim­ple, clas­sic cloth­ing in mut­ed col­ors that freed women from the con­strict­ing designs they had worn in the past. Dur­ing the Nazi occu­pa­tion of France, Chanel stayed in Paris and formed a rela­tion­ship with an offi­cer in the Abwehr, the Ger­man mil­i­tary intel­li­gence. In jour­nal­ist Hal Vaughan’s book, Sleep­ing with the Ene­my, he states that Chanel was an agent for the Abwehr. After the war, she was ques­tioned about her Nazi ties but man­aged to avoid being sent to prison as a col­lab­o­ra­tor, pre­sum­ably due to her friend­ship with Win­ston Churchill.

Schi­a­par­el­li, who grew up in a wealthy, aris­to­crat­ic fam­i­ly in Rome, dif­fered from Chanel in almost every way. Her fash­ions, which were known for their bright, flam­boy­ant col­ors, eye-catch­ing fab­rics, and whim­si­cal designs, were all the rage before World War II. Mackin describes how these fab­u­lous hats and dress­es were designed with a humor­ous touch, incor­po­rat­ing ani­mal prints and cir­cus themes on bold­ly col­ored fab­rics, includ­ing the shock­ing pink” that Schi­a­par­el­li loved. Schi­ap,” as she was com­mon­ly known, had left­ist sym­pa­thies, hat­ed the Nazis, and went to New York for the dura­tion of the war.

Mackin skill­ful­ly weaves togeth­er sev­er­al dif­fer­ent rela­tion­ships, which unfold against a back­drop of exot­ic cos­tume par­ties, glit­ter­ing balls, and polit­i­cal intrigue. The author draws upon actu­al inci­dents in the lives of these icon­ic design­ers, giv­ing the read­er a clear pic­ture of the cut­throat busi­ness of high fash­ion as Europe teetered on the edge of war. This fas­ci­nat­ing book is a trib­ute to the cre­ativ­i­ty of Schi­ap” and Chanel, two fear­less women whose com­pet­ing visions of what women should wear have left their mark on fash­ion to this very day.

Shi­ra R. Lon­don is the librar­i­an at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Com­mu­ni­ty High School in Bal­ti­more, MD. She holds an M.L.S. from Colum­bia University.

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