by Jeanne Mackin
The Last Collection is a terrific story about the intense rivalry between legendary designers Coco Chanel and Elsa Schiaparelli in pre-war Paris.
In 1938, Lilly Sutter, a young American widow, travels to France at the insistence of her brother, Charlie. Charlie is a medical student involved with Ania, a wealthy, married woman. He wants to buy Lilly a couture gown she can wear to a party that night. Because Ania is married, Charlie needs Lilly to accompany them on their dates to cast suspicion away from them.They visit both Chanel and Schiaparelli’s design houses. Lilly is drawn to the colorful designs that Schiap creates and through a series of events, she begins working with Schiap. She also becomes friends with Chanel and this puts her in the middle of their rivalry. The two designers couldn’t be more different. Chanel grew up poor and clawed her way to the top of the couture fashion world. Schiap was born into a wealthy family. Their design styles are also different with Coco Chanel favoring clean, elegant lines, while Schiap likes bold colors and whimsical, sometimes outrageous designs.
Although war hasn’t started yet, Nazis officers are in Paris and everyone is nervous. People are unsure whether to befriend the Nazis in the hope of securing their own safety when war breaks out, or avoiding them. Chanel chooses to befriend them while Schiap does not. It is a dangerous time but there are still parties and the cafes are full of people socializing but war is coming.
Against this backdrop is the story of Lilly, an artist, who is grieving for her lost family and unable to paint anymore. Her world is colorless and somber. As she becomes embroiled in the intense rivalry between these two legendary fashion icons, she begins a journey of self- discovery that allows her to find herself as she begins to deal with her grief.
Although I have never owned a couture gown, I loved reading about these two legendary designers.The detailed descriptions of their designs and the behind the scenes look at their infamous, sometimes dangerous rivalry was fascinating. This atmospheric novel, told from Lilly;s point of view, is more than just a story about two famous fashion designers of their time. It is also about about survivors, war, friendship and the power of women.
Thanks to NetGalley and Berkley for providing me with an advanced reading copy for review.