The Collection

A Novel

The Collection

Isabelle Varlet, charming and naïve, comes from a long line of seamstresses in a small town in France. A series of unfortunate events and her prodigious sartorial talent carry her to Paris, which in the wake of World War I is electric with new life. When Isabelle takes a job in the atelier of Coco Chanel, the rising star of haute couture, she finds herself in the heart of a glamorous and ruthless world filled with arrogant designers, handsome men, beautiful women, and fashion thieves who prowl Paris hoping to steal designs before they hit the runway.

In Chanel's workshop, Isabelle thrives on the time-honored techniques of couture -- the pains-taking hand stitches, the perfect fall of fabric -- and the sleek, pared-down lines of "Mademoiselle's" revolutionary style. As Isabelle brings an exquisite dress to life for the fall collection -- from its embryonic origins in humble muslin to its finished form in the finest silk -- she navigates the tempestuous moods of Chanel, the cutthroat antics of her fellow workers, and her own search for love.

Just as she did in her critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, Gioia Diliberto brings a rich historical moment to life through her vivid and compelling storytelling. Her penetrating research and imagination are gracefully woven together in this poignant story filled with larger-than-life characters embroiled in scandalous tales, passionate love affairs, and extraordinary careers. The Collection is an exuberantly entertaining read.
  • Scribner | 
  • 304 pages | 
  • ISBN 9780743280662 | 
  • September 2008
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Reading Group Guide

Discussion Questions
1. "I wasn't prepared to enter a world that operated on a hierarchy as rigid as the Catholic Church. If Mademoiselle was the pope, the vendeuses were the cardinals; the premières and secondes, the bishops; the mains, the priests; the arpètes, the acolytes" (page 27). Discuss the importance of hierarchy, both to the House of Chanel and to the plot of the novel.
2. Do you think Isabelle belonged in the world of haute couture or do you think she was too provincial for such a cutthroat industry? What similarities did her life have to that of Chanel?
3. "What had started out as a symbol of grief was evolving into the postwar standard of elegance" (page 38). What else does black symbolize in The Collection? Where are there great splashes of color in this novel?
4. Why do you think "seamstresses are obsessed with marriage" (page 68)? How did Isabelle reflect or reject this stereotype? Did the characters of Jacques and Daniel help to influence or limit Isabelle's independence?
5. What single item of her mother's did Isabelle possess? How was it significant to Isabelle's craft and success?
6. "Often, when I sewed, I would slip into a meditative state, almost as if I'd become one with the fabric and thread. At these times, I felt a kind of release that was almost like happiness" (page 131). Is sewing an escape for Isabelle? Or is it a trap that keeps her within a certain class level?
7. "You c see more

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I Am Madame X
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About the Author

Gioia Diliberto
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Gioia Diliberto

Gioia Diliberto has written biographies of Jane Addams, Hadley Hemingway, and Brenda Frazier, as well as the critically acclaimed novel I Am Madame X, based on the life of Virginie Gautreau. She lives in Chicago with her husband and son.