Saturday, October 27, 2007

Farida Khelfa: Paris Fashion’s Accidental Muse…

Farida Khelfa is an intriguing anomaly within the fashion world. When one considers the significant growing pains Europe is experiencing in integrating its large immigrant populations, as well as the current heated debate concerning a lack of racial diversity on the fashion runways, it’s a wonder someone like Khelfa can even exist in the industry. Especially within the upper echelons of French fashion, an enclave that is notoriously hard to crack. Add to this the spate of riots in its immigrant suburbs and the recent inauguration of a controversial Museum of Immigration, (at which the French president was conspicuously absent), and it becomes abundantly clear that France has some ways to go in acknowledging its diverse population. But Farida Khelfa has defied those odds, maintaining the stature of a respected style icon in a notoriously fickle business for over 20 years. Her story serves as a reminder that immigrants and their children can be important contributors to a nation’s culture and patrimony, enhancing and enriching it with their own experiences.

The irony isn’t lost on anyone when one considers that Khelfa, the daughter of Algerian immigrants, is routinely held up as an example of French elegance and savoir-faire. Loulou de la Falaise calls her one of the chicest woman in the world, while Jean Paul Goude has credited her with opening his eyes to a new definition of beauty. But whatever professional titles she has garnered over the past two decades (model, singer, actress, or even the directrice of a couture salon), the title that best befits Farida Khelfa is that of Muse.

It is a somewhat peculiar title considering this statuesque mother of two was never a willing muse, eager to place herself in front of the camera. In fact nothing in Farida’s early years could have foreshadowed her life in fashion. She neither came from a privileged background nor desired to be a part of it. It is also somewhat astonishing that this second generation French-Arab never considered herself beautiful. But what she did have, and didn’t realize at the time, was a strong physical presence that came alive when she walked into a room.

In the early Eighties, having survived a difficult childhood growing up outside of Paris in the rough immigrant suburb of Minguettes, the site of recent riots, this streetwise gamine had only one thing on her mind and that was to get out of the suburbs and move to Paris. The difficulties she faced in adolescence forced her to become self-reliant and helped form her character at an early age. Those who knew her from those early years, remember a somewhat guarded and headstrong young woman who never hesitated to put her foot down and speak her mind. She was at times referred to as being difficult and temperamental, when in reality she was a shy and secretive individual. But the passing of time, a busy career and motherhood seem to have mellowed her considerably, although she rarely gives interviews today.

Upon her arrival in Paris, her imposing six-foot figure and gruff demeanor got her a job working the door of the Bains Douches, the fabled Paris nightclub that was a haunt of both designers and supermodels alike during the 80’s. It was there that she caught the eye of Jean Paul Gaude, the art director who would go on to create memorable ad campaigns for Chanel Number 5 and Coco. At the time Gaude, who had always been attracted to strong woman, had recently divorced and cut all professional ties with the singer Grace Jones whose career he helped shape. Upon seeing Farida, he was immediately taken by the young woman with the "curly black hair combed dramatically to one side, like an actress from the 1950’s." Seated on a high stool at its door, she ruled over the mob outside waiting for her to decide who would be permitted to go in. According to Gaude, "She gave herself no limits and could, without a blink, turn away Mick Jagger because he was too drunk or David Bowie if she didn’t like what he was wearing." Falling under the spell of this unconventional beauty, she went on to became his muse and proceeded to spend a good part of the decade collaborating with him on creative projects and advertising campaigns.

Although she eventually gained enough confidence to consider herself beautiful, as Gaude makes clear, the road to that realization was a gradual one. "She was the literary type, a cerebral person who liked to read more than anything else, including philosophy." Gaude said. "But she harbored self-doubt and did not like herself. So much so, that I once actually caught her insulting her own reflection in the mirror." But despite this the Paris fashion world embraced her, holding her up as an example of the New Style. Gaude saw her as the "incarnation of a new movement, it was because she possessed a real political awareness, came from a modest background and spoke the authentic language of the ghetto from which she had recently emerged." During this period both Gaude and Farida became the toast of the fashion and advertising industry, attending a string of parties from Paris to New York, where Khelfa’s unique sense of style attracted many admirers.

One of the earliest projects they worked on together helped launch Farida’s modeling career. At the time Gaude had just been hired as artistic director for a new supplemental magazine to accompany the French newspaper Le Monde, and he set about designing the first issue around Farida and the new world she exposed him too.

During that period France was just beginning to explore other ethnic cultures living within its midst, especially its large North African immigrant population. To celebrate this phenomenon Gaude decided to dedicate the first issue as a showcase of French-North African culture from the Paris suburbs. He called it Le Style Beur (Beur being a slang term for Arab) and placed Farida on the cover, causing an immediate sensation.
Shortly afterwards Gaude introduced Farida to the diminutive Tunisian fashion designer Azzedine Alaïa, who fell in love with her, and hired her on the spot as a model and muse at his atelier. With her height and curves she resembled one of the designer’s sketches and was the perfect canvas for his slender body conscious creations. Thus Khelfa became the first woman of Algerian decent to have a successful modeling career, walking the catwalks for other designers such as Jean Paul Gaultier. It was with the later that she went on to establish a long standing professional relationship, becoming an integral part of his creative team, and eventually being appointed as directrice of his Couture studio, until 2004 when she decided to resume an acting career begun in the mid-Eighties (recently staring alongside the French actress Arielle Dombasle in the film Gradiva). Countless advertising campaigns also followed, including one for Jean Desprez’s perfume Sheherazade. She still maintains a close friendship with both Alaïa and Gaultier, continuing to inspire them.

Today in her early forties, Khelfa is often cited as embodying the epitome of French chic. She counts several designers as close friends and can be found seated in their front rows during Paris fashion week. Never prey to the vagaries of fashion trends, over the years she’s developed a casual sense of elegance that most woman seem to spend hours trying to emulate. When asked to point out a key element in her wardrobe that she can never do without, Khelfa enthuses about her collection of pants, "because I have tons of pairs and feel comfortable in them." But she is quick to add that you probably won’t be seeing her in a mini skirt and "girly dresses" any time soon because "they don't suit." "Knowing what works on you is key to achieving your look," she says.

Trying to define this elusive Parisian style, her friend the shoe designer Christian Louboutin pointed out that, "describing a 20-year-old as chic is rare here. It’s usually a word you’d use for Parisian women in their thirties and upwards. From an early age, the French girl’s ideal is to resemble Catherine Deneuve." Louboutin explained. "There lies a key difference between France and Anglo-Saxon countries," he continues. "The French woman’s aim is to look chic – not hip, which implies youth." Khelfa herself seemed to echo that very thought when she said that, "A French woman is unapologetic about whatever she chooses to wear and adapts clothes to her body, not vice-versa."

This seems quite an apt statement from a woman whose trajectory in life has been anything but conventional, and a style icon who will continue to inspire others as she begins a new chapter in her life.
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Farida Khelfa: The Muse

Farida Khelfa is considered a style icon within the fashion industry and counts many close friends amongst its most talented innovators. Clockwise from center: Over the years Khelfa has perfected a distinct sense of style, photographed here in one of her signature pantsuits, Paris 2007; Seated by fashion photographer Dominique Isserman at Ungaro’s Fall 2005 collection; Earlier this year the Foundation Cartier in Paris hosted an exhibit of David Lynch’s art works – paintings, drawings, videos and photography, the director seen here with Khelfa at the exhibit; During the recent spring 2008 Paris collections Farida attended yet another exhibit by Lynch, in which he collaborated with her good friend, the shoe designer Christian Louboutin. Lynch commissioned Louboutin to design nine-inch heels that he photographed on dancers from the Crazy Horse, the famous Parisian cabaret; Lou-Lou de la Falaise, Saint Laurent’s muse and an accomplished designer in her own right, often cites Farida Khelfa as the epitome of French chic; Attending the David Lynch exhibit at the Cartier Foundation with the designer L’Wren Scott; Farida Khelfa with Victoire de Castellane, Dior’s haute jewelry designer.
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Farida Khelfa & Jean Paul Goude

The famous art director Jean Paul Goude discovered Farida in the early 80’s. She became his muse and proceeded to inspire and work with him on several projects. Clockwise center: The creator and his muse, Gaude and Farida, Paris 1992; A profile of Farida by Goude, litho and pastel, Paris 1984; Inspired by her Arab roots Goude created an earring of embossed metal baring Arabic calligraphy; A sketch of Farida’s hairstyle by Goude, Paris 1984; Farida on the cover of the Le Monde Illustré, her first project with Goude that launched her modeling career; Farida, painting on photograph by Jean Paul Gaude, Paris 1985; Farida in the role of George Sand, by Gaude, Paris 1992; Farida collaborated with Goude on the cover of the Revue Pétentaine, 1994.

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Farida Khelfa & Azzedine Alaïa

Goude was also responsible for introducing Farida to the Tunisian born-Paris based designer Azzedine Alaïa. It is often remarked that Alaïa is a perfectionist, presenting his collections when he sees fit, often outside of the regular show schedule. The designer is also known for forming long standing relationships with his models, as well as treating them like family, often giving them a meal and a place to sleep during the Paris collections. He treated Farida no differently. She became his muse and assisted at many of his fittings. In 1990 Alaïa presented what would be one of his last runway shows at his studio in Paris’ Marais quarter. Farida more than likely had a hand in this collection as she was still working with the designer at the time.

Clockwise top center: In May of 1995 Alaïa created a Middle Eastern inspired hooded cloak as a maternity dress for Farida, his close friend and muse, photographed at the Musee National des Arts d’Afrique et d’Oceanie, Paris. In an ironic twist the building, originally a homage to the French colonies, now houses France’s new Museum of Immigration. Alaïa and the model Veronica Webb backstage at his 1990 runway show. Model Yasmin Le Bon in a dress composed of tiny metallic discs from the 1990 collection; Alaïa is a favorite of the Supermodels as well as celebrities, seen here coming down the runway at his 1990 show are models Naomi Campbell, Yasmin Le Bon and Veronica Webb; Alaïa and Farida, cut-up photograph and adhesive tape, by Jean Paul Goude, Paris 1984; Farida "cut up" by Jean Paul Goude; Part of a design project for the Alaïa retrospective fashion show at the Palladium in New York, 1984; Alaia with André Leon Talley, Vogue’s editor at large; The model Naomi Campbell in a bodysuit from Alaïa 1990 collection, embroidered with Arabic calligraphy.
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Farida Khelfa: Gaultier Paris-Part I

Khelfa’s association with the designer and couturier Jean Paul Gaultier comes as no surprise when one considers Gaultier’s history of casting ethnically diverse and older models in his shows. They met in the early 80’s and she went on to become his muse as well as model in his runway shows. Gaultier is often inspired by minorities and those living on the fringes of society. Whether it be an element of gay sub-culture, immigrants or a group of Hassidic Jews on the street, Gaultier always seems to be drawn to the "other," which may explain his attraction to Khelfa.

For all the beauty and fantasy found in his collections, Gaultier is intensely aware of what’s happening around him socially, culturally, and even politically. In 1997 he decided to dedicate his Autumn/Winter 1997-98 collection to black culture as a homage to Nina Simone and Miriam Makeba. The collection would be shown entirely on black models. As it so happened, that same year the French government was passing a law to limit immigration, so what had begun as an artistic decision by Gaultier had, by show time, become a political statement. Gaultier has said himself that, "Being homosexual, I think about minorities a lot. There are times when you must take a position. Individuals always feel venerable and want to hide. But that is never the way. You can’t be frightened and run away. Our everyday life is the fruit of politics and the only way to make it work is by getting together and fighting."

Clockwise: In 1997 Jean Paul Gaultier presented his first haute couture collection under the Gaultier Paris label, and he called upon his friend and muse Farida Khelfa to become the directrice of his couture studio. Khelfa with Catherine Deneuve and Gaultier, wearing one of the designer’s variations on the trench coat from his Spring 2002 couture collection, pictured on model Hannelore Knutz below; Looks from Gaultier’s Spring 2002 couture collection, which also featured a mix of ethnically diverse and seasoned models that included Ines de la Fressange, Julia Schonberg and Teresa Lourenco; Farida modeling Gaultier’s Barbarella inspired "Forbidden Gaultier" Fall 1987-88 collection.
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Farida Khelfa: Gaultier Paris-Part II

For his first couture presentation in 1997 Gaultier recreated the atmosphere of the old couture salons, packing his audience into tight rows of spindly gilt chairs, as the models walked around them carrying numbered cards for each outfit. Although each piece was made to the highest standards of couture, it wasn’t lost on those in attendance that Gaultier was poking fun at the couture establishment. It takes someone with a deep understanding of couture to be able to sustain such a spoof. It also bares to keep in mind that together with Lacroix, Gaultier is one of the last couturier’s currently working today to have trained under the old system, having apprenticed with Pierre Cardin. But the significance of couture is that it also established Gaultier as a serious designer in the eyes of those who saw him as fashion’s court jester in the past.

Although Gaultier’s atelier is a small operation when compared to the bigger houses, with around a dozen seamstresses, he managed to put together a formidable team early on. There was Madame Jacqueline, the head of the Atelier flou, working with soft fabrics and evening dresses. She started with Dior in the 40’s, and later worked with Yves Saint Laurent and Chanel. Then there is Madame Anise, the head of the tailoring atelier, who comes with years of experience after working for Saint Laurent and Givenchy. Together with their skills and knowledge they were able to tackle Gaultier’s most outrageous and technically challenging requests. Gaultier also reestablished the practice in couture of giving each outfit a poetic name to describe it, as well as resurrecting the tradition of the house model. Today models Suzanne Von Aichinger and Julia Schonberg have become part of Gaultier’s image and make a regular appearance at all of his runway shows.

During her tenure as directrice of Gualtier’s couture salon until 2004, Khelfa helped influence what would become many of the designer’s signature pieces in his couture collection. If one pays close attention to his shows each season, you will find variations on the trench coat, the corset and the pantsuit. The later is arguably one of Gualtier’s best sellers today, and a linchpin of Farida Khelfa’s own personal style.

Clockwise: Looks from Jean Paul Gaultier’s Spring 2003, Spring 2001, Fall 2002, and Fall 2001 haute couture collections.
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Sunday, October 7, 2007

An American in Paris: In a unique work of historical fiction, the novelist Gioia Diliberto brings to life a legendary couturier & her fabled atelier..

Meeting an author on her own home turf can be an interesting experience, especially when she’s presenting the first reading of her recently published novel. It’s not only an opportunity to see the individual at ease in her own environment, but if one is lucky enough, it also becomes an occasion to observe the players who helped shape and influence her most recent work.

As any individual acquainted with the inner workings of the publishing business will tell you, no author is an island unto themselves. Whether working from a beachside villa in French Polynesia or a tiny study on the fortieth floor of a London high-rise, writers are inevitably influenced by a multitude of everyday encounters, research, and chance events that somehow feed their imagination and steer their tales into a variety of directions.

So on a warm September evening I made my way to Woman & Children First. In the age of Barnes & Nobles, it is the last of that rare breed, the independent bookstore. Surrounded by a Persian bakery, trendy furniture stores, bars and small shops selling a variety of odd nick knacks, this corner bookstore has been a mainstay of Chicago’s Swedish neighborhood of Andersonville, witnessing its transformation from immigrant enclave into one of the City’s trendier neighborhoods.

For over two decades this institution has also been known for celebrating and nurturing a succession of feminist authors. The kind of place where the shelves groan heavy with the weight of tomes by Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Nadine Gordimar and Simone de Beauvoir. Its past lecture series have included the likes of Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, and Hilary Rodham Clinton. While authors Susan Faludi and Naomi Wolf are set to present their latest oeuvres in the coming weeks.

The Collection is one of the first historical novels to bring to life some of the most notable couturiers at the Turn of the Century who helped redefine the way woman dress.

Clockwise: The author Gioia Diliberto. As a child growing up in the suburbs of Bethesda, Maryland she spent most of her days writing short stories. She sites The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert as two of the novels that have influenced her the most; A picture of Gabriel "Coco" Chanel taken during the early 1920’s, around the same period the novel is set; A cocktail dress by the couturier in black lace from the same period demonstrates Chanel’s obsession with creating a modern silhouette.

The novel also includes a number of Chanel’s contemporaries, hinting at the rivalries and competitiveness between the couturiers to have their designs featured in fashion editorials or to acquire the greatest number of clients. Madeleine Vionnet, (bottom, right) known as the "Queen of the bias cut," is featured briefly in the book, as well as her atelier. She began many of her designs by draping on a wooden mannequin; An evening gown by the couturier in crepe entirely embroidered with rows of fringe from 1938; Such a piece would have employed the work of a couture workshop that is virtually extinct today, the Crépinières, who specialized in braid and fringe work.

A picture of the couturier Jean Patou (bottom, center) from the 1920’s. Although Chanel is often credited with creating the modern woman’s wardrobe in the 1920’s, Patou is recognized for creating sportswear, including the first tennis outfit, and simple lines for a liberated woman. Despite this he was also a notorious womanizer, some of which is hinted at in the novel; An evening gown by the designer from 1931.

Although Poiret (pictured left with a model in 1930) is only mentioned fleetingly in the novel, his spirit lives on in "Fabrice," one of the novel’s characters as well as Chanel’s main rival. The subject of a recent retrospective at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Poiret and Chanel’s vision of the modern woman were at complete odds with each other. While she saw woman in movement, taking part in the modern world, Poiret by contrast often envisioned his woman as kept objects, heavily adorned in embroidery, exotic feathers, and skirts so narrow at the ankle they impeded woman from taking full strides. Although he ruled over Paris fashion until the beginning of the First World War, he inevitably became a victim of his own success, unable to keep up with the changing times brought on by the onset of war.

But on this particular visit I’ve come to hear Gioia Diliberto, the Chicago based author of the critically acclaimed book I Am Madam X, speak about her latest work The Collection. It serves to remember that I Am Madam X was a breakthrough novel at the time it was first published. Long before the appearance of books (and subsequent films) such as the "Girl with the Pearl Earring," Diliberto was one of the first authors to create a work of historical fiction based on a famous painting. In this case the well known portrait of the same name by John Singer Sargent, which created a scandal and almost destroyed his career when it was first unveiled in 1884 at a Paris exhibition. Diliberto’s book explored the richly imagined world of Virginie Gautreau, a notorious American beauty from New Orleans who was a fixture of Paris’ demi monde and the model for Sargent's scandalous portrait. Dripping with Diliberto’s meticulous research on the period, the book was also a masterful exploration of Belle Époque society.

That same attention to historical detail can also be found in her latest offering The Collection. A novel also based in Paris but this time in the period between the Wars. Set at the cusp of the 1920’s, the book explores the world of Coco Chanel as well as a rare behind the scenes glimpse into her couture atelier through the eyes of the novel’s heroine, a seamstress by the name of Isabelle Varlet, who manages to secure a position at the Couturier’s workshops.

Diliberto has always been fascinated by Coco Chanel and her life, and for years toyed with the idea of writing a work of fiction around the designer. But it wasn’t until her aunt sent her a scrap book of sewing samples belonging to her grandmother that she knew her story had to be told threw the eyes of a seamstress. Then there is Angeline, another pivotal character within the novel. Yet Angeline is not a person, but a very challenging dress that Isabelle struggles to complete on the eve of a collection, not only to please Mademoiselle, but because the garment has come to symbolize her struggle over adversity.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Angeline actually existed and was presented by Chanel in 1919. But to find any trace of it involved an exhaustive amount of research on the author’s part. Assuming the zeal of an archeologist unearthing precious treasure, Diliberto, a former journalist and Manhattan transplant, carefully sifted through stacks of Vogues and Harper’s Bazaars dating from 1919. What she found was a murky ink print of the dress that didn’t give much in terms of detail, but a description was included in the form of a paragraph. With the help of her friend Billy Atwell, a designer and former instructor in the fashion department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the author went through a crash coarse in couture sewing technique, jokingly admitting that she was a "disaster" at it and that all her lines turned out "crooked". But with the written description and his extensive knowledge of construction, Atwell was able to recreate an approximate copy of the dress out of muslin, the inexpensive material traditionally used in couture to produce "blueprints" of the designs before they are cut from expensive fabrics. Dilliberto’s research also involved observing the designers Michael Vollbracht and Maria Pinto at work in their ateliers, to better understand the process of creating a garment.

Through her book Ms. Diliberto was able to encapsulate a society in transition, capturing a moment in time when woman were experiencing a physical transformation (discarding the corset, shortening their skirts, and cutting their hair into short bobs) that was ultimately a reflection of a greater movement towards woman’s emancipation.

Although most associate Chanel’s signature with the tweed suit, camellia, quilted bag, and ropes of pearls, (which did not appear until her return to the couture arena in 1953) Diliberto’s novel exposes the reader to a different Chanel. Early on in her career she sought to liberate woman by creating modern streamlined shapes that reflected the new mood of the 20’s. The luxury she proposed was that of ease in dressing after the long reign of the corset, a process that required lengthy periods of time, and assistance, for woman to get dressed each day.

From right: The famous portrait of Coco Chanel taken by Horst in 1937. Three designs by the couturiers from the 1920’s which are very similar in style to those mentioned in Diliberto’s novel; A wool day dress from 1924, An embroidered evening dress 1924, Pink silk crepe chiffon evening dress 1925.

As a work of historical fiction it’s hard to ignore the fact that Diliberto’s current offering also appears to be both relevant and timely. Anyone with a firm interest in fashion will have probably seen Signé Chanel, Loïc Prigent's all engrossing documentary following the work of the Chanel ateliers in the weeks leading up to the Fall 2005 couture collections. In 2008, a new film entitled Coco Avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) will be released. Starring Audrey Tatou as the couturier, it will explore Chanel’s life before she became famous. Add to this a renewed interest in haute couture, which seems to be experiencing a resurgence in clients, as well as a blockbuster exhibit on the same subject currently being held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, and one begins to grasp the significance of The Collection as not only a work of fiction but also an opportunity to understand what makes haute couture so special.

Upon entering Woman and Children First I find Diliberto at the back of the store preparing for her reading. Far from looking like a modern day Gloria Steinem in utilitarian jeans and sensible shoes, she’s impeccably turned out in a dark suit (not a Chanel but by a local designer) and slick shiny pumps that cast a glint from the florescent lighting above. She not only gives off the impression of a woman who loves fashion, but points to the fact that feminism and strong woman writers in general can take on many forms.

At this particular moment Diliberto is experiencing some technical difficulties as she fidgets with her laptop, which stubbornly refuses to start up the slide show she’s put together for her lecture. Her teenage son Joe is enlisted to help with the unyielding computer, as a couple of friends and acquaintances gather around her offering help and bits of advice on how to fix it. Diliberto seems unfazed by this minor hiccup, joking with friends and greeting people as they come in. In fact one is so taken by how approachable she is and the warmth with which she greets strangers, that for a moment one forgets they are in the presence of a best selling author.

Looking around at the audience present in the room one can find many of the individuals Ms. Diliberto thanked or mentioned at the end of her book. There was Teresa Varlet, from whom the author acquired her heroine’s family name. An elegant and cosmopolitan woman who is a close family friend of Diliberto and her husband Richard Babcock (the editor of Chicago Magazine), she sat in the back row conversing with the author’s son Joe in fluent Italian (when only a few minutes ago he sounded like any other mid-western teenager). While in the front row sat Timothy Long, the curator of costumes at the Chicago History Museum, who aided Diliberto in her research by giving her access to the museum’s rare collection of early Chanels. (There will be a more in depth piece on Mr. Long to follow in the near future).
Seated next to me was a young woman who teaches an introductory fashion coarse at the School of the Art Institute and helps manage its costume collection. We chatted about her internship at Alexander McQueen’s in London during her student day’s, a conversation that leapt from the painstaking hours she spent assembling the dress for the finale of his fall 2004 collection, to the innovative presentation the designer showed the season before, recreating a circular ballroom, based on a 1969 Sydney Pollack movie, where the models danced till exhaustion.

In 2005 Loïc Prigent produced a documentary called Signé Chanel, that followed the famous house’s designer Karl Lagerfeld as well as the petite mains of the Chanel couture ateliers, as they went about creating the Fall 2005 collection. The documentary is one of the few to provide an in depth look into the inner workings of a couture house and painstaking hours needed to produce such rare garments. Although also based on the Chanel ateliers, Diliberto’s novel captures a completely different atmosphere at the turn of the century, where mademoiselle presided over her seamstresses with an iron hand.
Clockwise: The façade of 31 rue Cambon, which has been the seat of the Chanel empire since 1918. Through her meticulous research Diliberto offers a rare glimpse of the House in 1919; A picture of Chanel in the 1920’s getting into her car. The vehicle is featured in the novel and was a source of pride for her as she had purchased it with her own money; A picture of Chanel pinning a sleeve onto one of her models in the 1960’s, she worked up until her death in 1971. Diliberto gives us a glimpse of the couturier in her later years towards the end of the novel; Inside the Chanel atelier today; Signé Chanel made a household name out of Madame Martine and Madame Laurence, the premiers of the couture ateliers.

During this time Diliberto managed to resurrect her slide show, the lights dimmed, and the presentation began. Soon it became apparent why the slides were so important to this author, who is just as passionate about the meticulous research and cultural immersion she went through to create The Collection, as she is about the novels characters and the plot she spins around them. In many ways it’s the story of Chanel’s vision at its purist and most unadulterated, before the advent of the iconic camellia, quilted bag, chain belt, and a certain perfume. It was a time when Chanel was focused on creating a modern and unencumbered wardrobe, liberating woman from "fashion for the subservient and the helpless." Her deceptively simple dresses took hours to create by the skilled petite mains of her ateliers, yet they could be worn or removed by simply lifting them over ones head and shoulders without the need of cumbersome corsetry.
Through the book’s main character we learn about the inner workings of not only Chanel’s early atelier, but also that of her contemporaries at the time, such a Vionnet, Jean Patou, and Paul Poiret. This is not the first time Chanel or her contemporaries have been written about, as countless biographies can attest to. But Diliberto’s genius lies in taking that biographical information and weaving it into a fictional narrative that brings these individuals to life.

Like her previous novel, I am Madame X, which touched on the lives of Sargent and more precisely Virginie Gautreau, Diliberto seems fascinated by the American in Paris; those waves of expatriates, from Josephine Backer to Thomas Jefferson, who crossed the Atlantic in search of new lives and excitement on the continent. The Collection also seems to carry on that tradition with the inclusion of several key characters. There is Daniel Blank, a Franco-American writer who becomes Isabelle Varlet’s love interest. As well as Amanda Nichols, a wealthy American art dealer who is a frequent client at the Chanel Salon. More intriguing perhaps is a character by the name of Susanna Lawson, a British aristocrat working in Mademoiselle’s atelier, who bares a vague resemblance to Amanda Harlech (Karl Lagerfeld’s right hand at Chanel).

The slideshow complete, the lights flicker back on and Diliberto scans the room for questions from those in attendance. A woman in the back inquires if she owns a Chanel piece of her own, to which Mrs. Diliberto’s eyes light up with a smile. "Yes, a 1954 Chanel couture skirt with pockets. It’s a huge tulle skirt, printed with camellias and a row of gold buttons trailing down the back," she says with a hint of delight in her eyes, as if speaking of a prized possession. "I discovered it at a vintage store while in Washington D.C. and knew right then and there that it may be my one chance at owning a Chanel. I kept it for two years, vowing not to wear it until I finished the book." That moment finally came a few day’s prior to her lecture, when she hosted an intimate party for her friends at the Victorian row house she shares with her husband and teenage son, to celebrate the launch of her latest novel. But now that she’s worn it she admits that the voluminous confection’s only down side is that it takes up an extraordinary amount of closet space. But like her heroin Isabelle Varlet and her attachment to Angeline, one has the impression that Diliberto is not quite ready to part with her hard-earned Chanel skirt just yet.

Gioia Diliberto’s new novel is also unique in the way she exposes the reader to the mysteries of Haute Couture. Through her extensive research, as well as observing various designers at work in their ateliers, she was not only able to bring the garments to life, but also the meticulous way in which the they were constructed. The quest for perfection, the toile prototypes created out of muslin, the basting of seams, the waxing of thread, and all the tiny superstitions that the seamstresses hold onto. Through the novel we also learn that the Atelier Tailleur (the workshops responsible for tailoring, creating suits and working with stiffer fabrics) and the Atelier Flou (the workshops responsible for working with softer fabrics, creating dresses and evening gowns) form the backbone of a couture house, and play a prominent role within the novel. Pictured above are looks from Chanel’s Spring 2004 collection (top row) and Fall 2007 collection (bottom row).

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