The Last Collection
Book Review - The Last Collection by Jeanne Macklin
You would think that someone who ended up getting her Ph.D. in fashion history had always been interested in history. This was not the case for me. I was really ho hum about history in high school, when the teachers focused a lot on war and violence and memorizing dates. Oh, and men…everything was about old men. In college, when I was taking courses focused specifically on fashion history I was moderately more interested - now we were talking about design evolution and I had fun tracing back modern trends to various times in history. But there was one distinct lesson in my college fashion history course when I remember sitting up straighter in my chair, leaning in, and thinking to myself: wait, this history stuff is kinda interesting. That moment was when I first heard about the feud between Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli.
I was aware of each designer separately and the contributions they made to fashion, but I hadn’t learned much about their personal lives and especially not their rivalry. My mind was blown: Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer? Schiaparelli was a communist? (It is not lost upon me that this was only a revelation because of those so-called boring high school history courses…I concede that they were a necessary foundation but I still found them boring.) They hated each other?? Suddenly I found myself lost in a rabbit hole of research (my first research rabbit hole!) on all things Chanel and Schiaparelli. I’ve been hooked on fashion history ever since.
So imagine my delight when I heard that there was a book coming out about their rivalry. I can’t remember now when I first heard it was coming out, but I’ve been looking forward to reading this book for months…going on close to a year. The story actually focuses more on Lily Sutter, an American who comes to Paris to visit her brother. He offers to take her to Chanel to buy a new dress but she suggests they try Schiaparelli. Her brother brings along his socialite girlfriend, who was once a loyal customer of Chanel’s and is now a new patron of Schiaparelli…sparking a relationship (friendship?) with both designers, much to their dismay.
The story was strong, I enjoyed reading about the designers, the effect WWII had on each of their fashion houses, and the multiple love stories (which were complex and nuanced.) The fashion historian in me would have preferred Chanel and Schiaparelli to be at the forefront of the story, but I can understand why the author chose to create the Lily character to drive the story. There is plenty of wonderful design talk, I especially loved the role color played…almost a character itself! I want to teach fashion history courses again so that I can assign this book - it is a great way to get people excited about fashion history who might not otherwise be interested.