Ithaca writer Jeanne Mackin returns to France in her seventh historical novel, “The Last Collection: A Novel of Elsa Schiaparelli and Coco Chanel.” She’ll be reading from it on Wednesday, June 26, at 5:30 p.m. at Buffalo Street Books. Mackin spoke with Ithaca Times journalist Barbara Adams recently about her interest in these influential, competitive fashion designers and their era.
Ithaca Times: When did you first become aware of Coco Chanel?
Jeanne Mackin: Probably in high school, in the ‘50s and ‘60s, with those little tweed jackets and Chanel N°5. I read teen and fashion magazines she was featured in. But I didn’t catch onto Elsa Schiaparelli until about 10 years ago, when I became interested in the Parisian surrealists like Dali and Man Ray. Schiaparelli was part of that crowd; she thought of herself as an artist, bringing clothing and art together. I was so fascinated by the bitterly intense rivalry between these two women that I wanted to explore that situation: where it came from, what it meant on a larger scale for a country, a world, heading into World War II. Politics and fashion really ran together for a few years there.
IT: You include both Schiaparelli’s communist leanings and Chanel’s German ties, and how the women responded and survived in occupied France.
JM: In the four years I was researching the book, I read many biographies of Chanel. One author insists she was a spy for the Germans, but I don’t think that can be safely asserted. She was a good friend of Churchill; maybe she passed information to both sides. Documents that might have clarified her role were destroyed by the French government after the war. I decided not to villainize her: villains don’t make interesting books; characters have to be more complicated.
I see Chanel as an extremely difficult person—vindictive, completely dedicated to her work and her career, and ultimately a very lonely, solitary woman—whereas Schiaparelli was whimsical, hard-working, very self-absorbed, highly creative, in some ways quite generous and a true patriot.
IT: What’s been your personal interest in fashion?
JM: Very minimal to begin with: I was a tomboy as a kid, a hippie as a young adult, and when working I was too minimum-wage poor to afford couture. When I was revising this book, right then women were out marching in their pink pussy hats, and I realized that fashion isn’t just about buying expensive designer clothes. I remembered as a hippie what our style of clothing said about our political ideology, and how when women wanted to look powerful in the workplace they padded their shoulders like men. So my interest in fashion isn’t necessarily what clothes look like but what they say.
IT: So what did the work of these two designers mean?
JM: Coco Chanel is deservedly famous for liberating the female body—from corsets, picture hats, skirts you couldn’t move in. In her fashions she epitomized the healthy, athletic, liberated woman, with simple lines, practicality, the lack of froufrou. Schiaparelli, in contrast, epitomized
daring, individuality, and the art of clothing, almost to a fault. Some of her clothes were so impractical they disintegrated—but they were art. And she worked in collaboration with artists, with Dali on the famous lobster dress; the Duchess of Windsor wore it and didn’t even realize it was a phallic joke.
A hat shaped like shoe? A joke, but also an identifiable brand. Schiap had an intellectual, creative family background and could afford to take risks with irony and puns—unlike Coco, who’d been abandoned by her father, taught by nuns in an orphanage, and was terrified of risks.
IT:There’s a lot about class in your novel: Schiap had privilege; Chanel was self-made.
JM: Which is one reason I couldn’t hate Chanel even if I wanted to: She was born with nothing, pulled herself up by her bootstraps, and became one of the richest women in the world.
IT:As in your previous novels, we access these historical figures through the progress of a female protagonist: here, the young American widow, Lily, a fledgling artist who joins her charming brother in Paris and ends up connected to both designers. Without giving too much away, how did you decide to have Lily fall for a German soldier?
JM: My editor suggested it. I resisted at first, then researching German POWs, I realized it worked as a storyline. German boys and men didn’t have a choice of whether to join the army; it was required; a lot (like Otto) didn’t support Hitler and didn’t want to be there.
IT: Lily eventually comes into her own as an artist. You’ve featured artists in some of your earlier novels ...
JM: I like to work with characters that are visual. This is a book about color, and yet for me, color is a personal challenge. I’m not a visual person: I think in words and dream in dialogue, not images. So in Lily I had to create a life much more attuned with the visual world and color than I am. It’s my weakness and I’m trying to make it my strength.
IT: Interesting, as you’re married to Stephen Poleskie, an artist who’s worked in many mediums.
JM: I’ve learned so much from Steve: Before we met, I took sight for granted, without knowing there were skills associated with it. He taught me that visual art has to be more than imitation; it’s translating something into new image and metaphor.
IT: This is your second novel of World War II.
JM: After I finished “A Lady of Good Family,” set in the early 20th century, it felt too far back to me, so I wanted to return to this era –– there was more I wanted to look at and say. It’s frightening for me to realize that there are generations coming up that don’t know much of this history, that World War II has to be reiterated, re-shown to them. I’m concerned about how people blundered into World War II, how it was a continuation of World War I. I worry today that those mistakes get repeated.
IT: What is the particular pull of that time?
JM: Mostly that there were moments when history could have been changed, when leaders could have realized earlier that appeasement and isolationism weren’t going to work –– these two things allowed World War II. And to a large extent, indifference. I think a lot of people thought if you ignore Hitler, he’ll go away. A lot of this novel is about other people’s indifference to pain.
IT: What’s your next project?
JM: I’m making my first forays in a novel set in the Riviera in the ’20s and ’30s –– with Picasso, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the party bunch. But it’s not about parties; Mussolini’s in it.
IT: You’ve set several novels now in France –– what’s the fascination?
JM: Some of my ancestors were from France; I love the language, the food, the scenery, the history. My home feels like a small stone village with very narrow cobbled streets. Whenever I’m there I feel like this is where I’m supposed to be. France has such a huge, beautiful cultural history to it –– and a good part has been women’s history. As the French saying goes, What women will, God wills.