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.
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 can have too much of anything, even happiness" (page 134). What does Mademoiselle have too much of in this book? Do you think this novel is a fair representation of Chanel? Why or why not? 8. "I forced myself to think not of what was happening, but instead of Angeline" (page 231). What did Angeline represent to Isabelle? 9. Discuss the themes of The Collection -- female strength and independence, simplicity creating sophistication, ugliness draped in beauty. 10. "I had taken a bold step tonight and more bold steps would be needed if I was to move away from darkness" (page 256). What bold steps did Isabelle take in this novel? What other bold steps did you want her to take? Were you satisfied with the outcomes in her personal and professional lives? Reader Tips So, sew!Join a sewing circle or take a sewing class. Surf coutureView the Metropolitan Museum of Art's 2005 Chanel exhibit online at www.metmuseum.org/special. Locate AngelineFind the missing picture from the 1919 Vogue article on page 267: "Great success has attended the absolutely simple model of burgundy crepe de chine sketched at the left on page 56." Quote Quiz: Which character in the book said, "Elegance means something is as perfect on the wrong side as on the right." (Answer on page 31.) "It is not healthy to be only with women, to have no life outside of work..." (Answer on page 70.) "Everyone's a survivor of something." (Answer on page 94.) "Style is French, just like painting is French." (Answer on page 161.) "When the fashion history books are written, Mademoiselle will be a footnote. She doesn't even know how to sew." (Answer on page 168.) "It's the Americans who are desperate for French couture." (Answer on page 216.) "It might cost a guy three hundred francs to feed himself and his lady, but she's gotta put out a fortune just to get dressed." (Answer on page 221.) "It's only a dress; it's not your life." (Answer on page 247.) To learn more about the book, visit the author at www.gioiadiliberto.com
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.
"A fascinating look behind the public salons of haute couture into the workrooms of the imperious Coco Chanel herself, revealing the hierarchies, jealousies, fierce ambitions, and treacheries of an industry that trades on elegance. Seamstress Isabelle Varlet has our sympathy from the first stunning line to the bittersweet ending, and Gioia Diliberto pulls us along on a thread knotted with surprises. A thoroughly enjoyable read." -- Susan Vreeland, author of Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party