‘Please don’t cry, Monique, they say “identical models” but I doubt they will be,’ Chanel explained. ‘The workmanship will be shoddy, the fabrics poor quality. No one can copy the essential qualities of a Chanel.’
And this was the sentence that cemented my decision to love Harold Carlton’s latest book, Heaven, Hell & Mademoiselle (Orion, $32.99). You see, not long ago, I posted on my Facebook status that I was sick of Facebook allowing fake brands to advertise their wares on the site: not only was every fake I encountered tacky and thus not an accurate representation of the designer and the luxury that the house purported, but I couldn’t help but think that the obvious market for these fakes was promoting a lower culture that destroyed the appeal of fashion as an art, and that funded those nasties we want eradicated from the world (there is significant research that shows that fake markets fund terrorist training and groups, among other things).
As someone who has celebrated some of her bigger life milestones with the purchase of a designer good (if only as an investment piece that transformed my otherwise chain store wardrobe, for the use of a family heirloom and as testament to my love of a luxury that goes the distance), and who loves the appeal of advertisements for luxury brands and the chic factor they bring to my inspiration wall, I was able to really resonate with the sentence in Carlton’s book, which gave me some comfort in the face of my frustrations. Not because I had saved to celebrate my milestones with a material object (we all have our weaknesses), but because I would ahte for my creative work to be so blatantly copied in a manner that denounced its value. High fashion and couture is art, so where is its copyright and why are we so quick to embrace the lows of it? Surely we know when we’re not in the presence of the real thing, so why buy into it? (I was given a fake Gucci wallet when I was in year 8. I was embarrassed, even at that age, to be carrying it out around).
I guess what I am trying to say is that creative licence is a lot more than money and style. It’s someone’s love and work stamped on something that requires effort and commitment (most designer bags, at least in the league of Hermes & Chanel, are hand stitched, and in the case of Hermes, made by one person), and the fact that there are some people profiting (albeit in a tacky way) from ripping this work and creative licence off.
The fact that I own a few real designer bags makes me very conscious of the fakes, and I am often quite smug (naughty!) at the fact that I can tell what’s real and what’s not. maybe it’s because I hate liars, and maybe it’s because I worked just as hard to save up for my goods that it irks me to see them paraded around at market stalls with no concern for their true value as a product. Then again, this is the difference in the way that people see fashion: whether as a statement or just as clothes, shoes and accessories that you scope out when getting dressed everyday.
The former are the type you’ll read about in Harold Carlton’s book, and maybe through his tales you’ll be able to see just how much fashion can really mean.
When I picked up the book and read its blurb, I thought that I would hate it and that it would bore me, but I was more than plesantly surprised. Perhaps because I had known little of the author at the time (his last book, Labels, was published in 1988), and I was overcome with a scepticism about how this man, whom I purported to be a fashion journalist, would capture the time, place and exuberance of 1960’s Paris with the might required for a book on the grand dame of fashion: Coco Chanel herself.
But Harold Carlton (whom I discovered actually worked as an assistant designer for two Parisian maisons de couture, and was a fashion illustrator for a number of high profile publications in New York & London) has done a maginificent job, not necessarily for capturing the essence of 1960’s Paris (the storyline itself would have worked no matter the time or setting, and to me, was thus rendered irrelevant to the appeal of the whole book), but for his great story telling, and particularly in his ability to weave together four very different characters, all essentially on the same mission: to find love and work in fashion in Paris couture.
The year that sets the tale is 1968, and four young fashion hopefuls have arrived in the city of love, dreaming to make their way to the top in the competitive and often damning Parisian fashion scene. They have all come from different, often fraught, backgrounds or recent events, and are burdened with both their past and their quest for making something of themselves in the future.
And, lest this girly scenario supposedly lend us the wrong idea that this is a somehow girls-only book, they are not all women: and the men play as much a part in the novel as their female counterparts. Monique’s chance encounter with Mademoiselle herself sets the stage for her successes, and her undeniable natural talent as a seamstress, sees her plucked from the workrooms to a place where she can command a lot more than she’s ever been used to: but will she let an adulterous man and her little relationship know-how affect her career?
Christopher on the hand, is not as devoted to Chanel as Monique: the boy just wants a shot as a desginer in the couture houses. Clawing his way to the top is one thing where fashion is concerned, but as he finds himself letting his English sex appeal get the better of him, he wonders about the choices he has made in the search for success.
Samantha is the New Yorker who has had Daddy pave the way for her too long. The only problem is, when she decides she’s going to make it on her own, she fails to realise that her brash attitudes is not exactly what french society is made of.
And then there’s beautiful Sophie, who has had everything she could have ever wanted out of life, except the answer to a question that has paved the way for her burdening insecurities a little too long.
As their lives collide in mash of fashion, society, culture and relationships, and all in a quest for work, they all begin to realise that what they set out to achieve is not necessarily what their happiness is made of.