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.