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Published on: 12/24/17 6:50 AM

Book review: The Designer by Marius Gabriel


A  look-back at the start of the Dior phenomenon

The Designer is an account of fashion at a time when Nazi – grey and American/Allied Forces khaki was the shade du jour. This is Paris in 1944, seen through the eyes of American Oona ‘Copper’ Reilly. Married to a promiscuous man and trying to follow women`s magazine advice on how to fix her marriage (One tip: no dishing up unappetising meals, served on unclean crockery and stained linen), she one day loses her temper and demands a ‘Paris frock’ of her straying husband. Which is how she lands up at the fashion house of Lucien Lelong and meets `Monsieur Christian,` a member of Lelong`s team.

The middle- aged, balding, shy and self-effacing Christian Dior immediately takes to Copper and goes on to make her his muse. They develop a close bond and as she immerses herself in his world, her strong ‘American’ nature becomes more and more Bohemian. Soon she has a new job that she loves, the freedom that divorce allows her,  and then romance enters her life as well.

Gabriel paints a vivid picture of the times – the politics of liberated France before the end of the War with Nazi collaborators being rounded up, the very real threat of Communism, the grim horror of the concentration camps (Dior’s sister Catherine Dior survived the Ravensbruck concentration camp), the wild parties, the fashion gossip of the day like Coco Chanel’s wartime affair with a Nazi officer and her subsequent escape to Switzerland after liberation. And of course, there was the man himself, Christian Dior.

Deeply superstitious (he swears by a clairvoyant who promises that his sister will return from Ravensbruck)  and filled with self-doubt, Dior is constantly prodded to branch out on his own but he baulks each time, for a long time. His strong ideas about women’s fashion are unambiguous, though.  “My ambition is to save women from themselves …between Chanel and her little black jerseys and the beasts who design military uniforms …your position is extremely perilous,” he states. He wishes to clothe women as flowers; indeed, his later designs are characterised by bright colours and flare from the waist much like flowers. Even the name of his first collection under the name of Dior was called Corelle or ‘circlet of petals.’

Dior’s character, as written up by Gabriel, takes a long time to settle into itself.  The reader gets caught up with the atmosphere of the story more than any of the long line of characters who make an appearance, some real-life ones like singer Suzy Solidor, artist and designer Christian Berard, fellow designer Pierre Balmain, writer and filmmaker Jean Cocteau, composer Francis Poulenc and the like.

The style of writing keeps the reader at a distance, and they are never quite able to feel the characters. It also tends to be overly simplistic when it comes to the experiences of the characters. Copper grieves, she weeps and yet, we don’t mourn along with her, we watch from a safe distance, almost dispassionately. She is surrounded by Bohemians and calls herself one, but we don’t really see her acting as one. As for  Dior’s character, we read of a timid man who claims to always be unlucky in love, but are not given any deeper insights.

Where the story  finds itself on strong ground is in the telling of the happenings of the day. There are entrancing accounts of the Theatre de la Mode, the various Dior designs like Suit Bar, Jungle, even about the wood- gas cars of the time which used firewood as fuel due to a shortage of petrol.

By the time Dior has his big opening with the Corolle line on Wednesday 12 February 1947, he has transformed from a mild-mannered man into a raging perfectionist with slight megalomaniacal tendencies.  Gabriel describes the momentous fashion show in meticulous  detail, right from the less-than-smooth beginning to the thunderous applause at the end.

Dubbed   ‘New Look’ by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow, Dior’s collection takes the fashion world by storm and puts  French fashion back in first place. His designs alone make up three-quarters of the fashion exports in 1947. There is a lot of backlash though, with people questioning  the cost of his expensive designs and the amount of cloth that went into a single dress,  even as so many starved in post-war Paris.

However, Christian Dior had emerged as a phenomenon. In Gabriel’s words, he had “single-handedly made being fashionable fashionable again.” Dior died in 1952 while holidaying in Italy. He was succeeded by his protégé Yves Saint Laurent. But  that is another (big) story.

While not heavy enough on the history of fashion or romantic enough to be read as a romance even though Marius Gabriel is a romance writer, The Designer is a light and entertaining read.

The Designer/Marius Gabriel/Lake Union Publishing Rs 399/322 pages

This ran in DECCAN HERALD of 24 Dec 2017.


Christian Diorhaute coutureMarius GabrielParisThe Designer

Sheila Kumar • December 24, 2017

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