In 1944, newly married Copper Reilly arrives in Paris soon after the liberation. While the city celebrates its freedom, she’s stuck in the prison of an unhappy marriage. When her husband commits one betrayal too many, Copper demands a separation.
Alone in Paris, she finds an unlikely new friend: an obscure, middle-aged designer from the back rooms of a decaying fashion house whose timid nature and reluctance for fame clash with the bold brilliance of his designs. His name is Christian Dior.
Realising his genius, Copper urges Dior to strike out on his own, helping to pull him away from his insecurities and towards stardom. With just a camera and a typewriter, she takes her own advice and ventures into the wild and colourful world of fashion journalism.
Copper arrives in Paris with her husband but when he cheats on her again, she asks for a divorce and is determined to become a journalist. Although Copper has no clear plans on how she is going to achieve her ambition, she is fortunate when a journalist friend of hers dies unexpectedly and she appropriates his equipment. Since Copper has already been ghost writing for said journalist, she knows she is good enough and decides to submit his last story under her own name.
Not only is Copper a talented writer, she is also a very beautiful woman who enchants everyone she meets to the point they can’t seem to do anything without her. Therein lies the problem. Copper is too good and manages to get everything she wants with very little effort. Harper’s Bazaar loves her work so much, they immediately offer her a contract but Copper declines because she want to work freelance and not compromising her freedom is something you’ll hear her talk about incessantly.
Having become Dior’s close friend, Copper gets to meet his inner circle which is comprised of other designers and artists, all of whom are a lively bunch. Interestingly enough, Copper also crosses paths with Ernest Hemingway who is just a boorish as he was in The Paris Wife, but Copper manages to evade his advances easily enough. Dior is portrayed quite convincingly, although I felt he was a little too passive in regards to wanting to start his own fashion house and having Copper be the one to push him into it was unnecessary. Of course, most of Dior’s circle are real people and the author drops many famous names from fellow designers like Balmain, to artists like Bérard and the film director Jean Cocteau.
As the only fashion journalist in Paris in 1945, Copper gets exclusive access to the creation of the Théâtre de la Mode, an exhibit of doll-like mannequins dressed in couture clothing and accessories. Since the war is not officially over and materials are still scarce, the fashion houses come up with the idea of displaying their designs in miniature using every scrap of fabric they can muster. The real exhibition opened at the Louvre on 28 March 1945, and was so successful, it went on to tour Europe and the United States before being acquired by the Maryhill Museum of Art in Washington. The descriptions of the mannequins and their clothing are exquisite and I just wish more attention had been paid to it.
Unfortunately, the biggest chunk of the story is claimed by the dull love triangle between Copper; Suzy Solidor, a lesbian chanteuse; and Henry, the Russian count who is also a war spy. Suzy, a real person, owns a nightclub called La Vie Parisienne which Dior likes to frequent and when he brings Copper, Suzy falls in love with her. Suzy is a larger than life character who Copper describes as being exceedingly beautiful, however her forceful nature also makes her pursuit of Copper uncomfortable to read because Suzy crosses the line on more than one occasion. While Copper is not a lesbian herself, she finds herself both drawn and repelled by Suzy which confuses her.
Suzy also becomes exceedingly jealous of Copper’s relationship with Henry, a Russian count, who is a friend of Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of the American edition of Harper’s Bazaar. Although Copper does little to encourage him, Henry falls in love with her and proposes to her with the assurance he’ll do nothing to curb her freedom. Copper isn’t sure she even loves Henry but when he disappears on a mission, she realises she’s loved him for awhile and accepts his proposal when he returns.
After Copper’s marriage, we finally get to see Dior come into his own but it is so near the end of the book there’s not much time to spend on his creativity. When Dior launched his New Look collection, it caused a sensation as the designs incorporated a large amount of material that was considered wasteful in war-torn Paris. By the way, in reality the phrase New Look was credited to Carmel Snow but guess who gave it to her in the book? What would we do without Copper?
It’s a shame the book finished with the release of the collection because the afterword proves there was so much more to the story as Gabriel relates how Dior’s designs were too expensive for the average woman but cheaper ones started appearing in boutiques within days. The collection was also ill-received in places like New York which was hoping Paris’ days as the fashion capital of the world had been ended by the war, however Dior had proved otherwise.
While The Designer isn’t a bad read, there’s too much focus on Copper and not enough on Dior where the real story is supposed to be.