Earlier this year, I read The Paris Seamstress by Natasha Lester, an absolutely gorgeous novel that I loved to bits. I went into a fair bit of detail in that review about my love for fashion, specifically:
I will happily admit up front that I love fashion. My grandmother was a dressmaker, professionally in Europe before she married and then just piece work after that. She made the most amazing outfits, for herself as well as us, and also made a lot of bulk items for markets. Her sewing room was located in what most families use as a rumpus room nowadays, quite large, but she needed it to be to accommodate the huge table, multiple sewing machines, dressmaker dummies, and shelves upon shelves of patterns and fabrics and tools and threads—the list goes on. I learnt to sew from her and while I didn’t mind it, I preferred drawing designs and playing around with the fabric, leaving the actual sewing to Grandma, who was a natural and far better at it. I don’t sew at all now, barely even mend, and all of my clothes are off the rack. But the love is still there and I remember the feel of fabric, taut beneath your scissors, that crisp sound as you cut out the pieces ready for a new outfit.
So, when The Collection came up on my radar, as you would expect, I immediately marked it as a show to watch. All of the elements for me were there: fashion; history – WWII and the years either side are my area of interest within modern history; and Paris – I love French drama, preferably in French with subtitles rather than in English, but I’ll take a French setting with any language in the end. Having only 8 episodes, each with a running time of 50 minutes, sealed the deal for me because I don’t like to watch a TV series that is going to take too much of my time away from reading. I tend to get caught up in these historical dramas and find it difficult to stop watching and after losing six months of my life to The Tudors, I hesitate when it comes to a long established series now.
Anyway, onto the show. The Collection focuses on brothers Paul (played by Richard Coyle) and Claude (played by Tom Riley) Sabine and their family’s couture fashion house in Paris, which, not so incidentally, is called Paul Sabine Couture – you can see right now where this might be heading. Set in 1947, Paris is emerging from Nazi occupation, so there’s a heavy atmosphere of uneasiness and paranoia, and the hunt for former Nazi collaborators is an ever present threat. People want to move on, but there are challenges as memories are still fresh, wounds still run deep, and hardship still prevails for so many.
Paul oozes charm and has the business savvy of the two brothers. Claude is the artistic talent, he does the actual designs, but they are passed off as Paul’s work, an arrangement that has been in place for many years, partly on account of Claude’s introverted nature, but also because Claude is extremely misanthropic and makes no effort to hide his disdain for almost every person he encounters. In short, he is bad for business, but insanely talented. He’s also a homosexual, which in 1947 was far from acceptable and meant living a life very much in the shadows. These brothers have a distinctly polarising relationship. Each covets what the other has and each feels their mother loves the other more. It’s often toxic and the loyalty gets blurred regularly, but there are moments when you see the bond between them and just how deep it runs. They have opposing philosophies though, and basically, Paul is stealing Claude’s talent, in an obscenely obvious manner, so it was always going to eventuate that Claude would get sick of being used and demand a sense of ownership over his own designs. The relationship between these brothers forms a clever parallel to the state of Paris itself within the era.
Paul has set his sights on staking a claim in the top tiers of the Paris fashion scene as the city poises itself to reclaim the title of fashion capital of the world. It’s very clear though that Paul has a murky war story. He did good things for certain people that led to lives being saved, but basically, he had his hand in both jars and he really doesn’t want the details to surface. Unfortunately for him, there is no shortage of people who are intent on digging up the past and exposing Nazi collaborators. As the show progresses, Paul becomes quite weighted down with his secrets and situations of his own making. It places a lot of strain on his marriage and eventually on his relationship with some of his employees. He also has mother issues. Big mother issues in the form of a mother who is not going to let anything get in the way of this family business prevailing, even if she has to sabotage, murder, and lie her way to securing the future. Frances de la Tour was the actor playing Yvette Sabine, the matriarch of this family, and she was out of this world sensational. She has such a vivid presence herself, and she was playing a character with such strength and dominance; this was excellent casting and I enjoyed watching her each time she took command of a scene.
The Collection is also Nina’s story, a young woman who is initially a seamstress for Paul Sabine Couture. She turns to modelling, fairly early on, and becomes the face of the new collection. Nina (played by French actor Jenna Thiam) has a close bond with Claude. She is his muse, and you can see the obvious love he has for her, despite his homosexuality. Their bond is forged from friendship, but hovers around desire, although, for both of them, I think it was more of a desire for an ordinary love and an ordinary life than anything truly romantic. At the time we meet them, they’ve already been there and done that and Nina is returning from a Belgian convent after having a baby in secret (Claude only finds out about this much later). Claude veers from embracing his sexuality to being repelled by it, or more specifically, repelled by those he encounters, who are often shallow and insubstantial, a contradiction to the connection that Claude is constantly seeking, a connection he already has with Nina, but constantly seeks within his relationships with other men. This confusion within him has complicated his relationship with Nina in a permanent way, but the depth of their affection for each other and the fact that they share a child leads me to believe that this is a relationship that could result in a good life together, for the most part, if you consider the alternatives within the context of the era. Tom Riley brings a lot of angst to his portrayal of Claude and was incredibly convincing within the role.
Into this mix walks Billy Novak (played by Max Deacon), an idealistic young American photographer who has come to Paris to photograph fashion for Life magazine. He is rapidly hired by the Sabine family as an in-house photographer, a job he initially relishes. He becomes inspired by Nina and quickly falls in love with her, a doomed infatuation given that she will never leave Paris without her baby and she can’t her get her baby back without Claude, but he knows nothing about any of this. Billy finds himself increasingly embroiled in conspiracy theories about his boss, Paul Sabine. He then becomes a person of interest to a group of communists which rattles him a fair bit. When he is asked by Paul Sabine to alter a photo in order to distort truth within a crime investigation, Billy feels his integrity is being compromised to a degree he is no longer comfortable with, and he makes plans to leave Paris and return to New York. He proposes to Nina, but we all know how that was going to go, poor Billy!
On a whole, the casting was well done and the acting was of a high standard. I had a bit of an issue with the accents though. Most of the actors were French, so they were speaking English with a French accent, but the actors playing the Sabine brothers were not French and were speaking English with a British accent despite playing characters that were French, which was odd and jarring at first and challenged the authenticity of the series that had been so carefully created. The American characters were fairly authentic, although a couple of the accents were very 1920s gangsterish. One of the American characters, Paul’s wife Helen, was particularly noteworthy. Played by Mamie Gummer, Helen was a complex character who added a lot of weight to all of her scenes. She was so elegant and poised, playing the underappreciated and overlooked wife of an important man to perfection. I couldn’t put my finger on why she was so familiar until I read in an article about the series after I’d finished watching, that she is Merryl Streep’s daughter. I could see it instantly then, particularly in her smile!
I really enjoyed The Collection. The fashion was just stunning, so beautiful, and Billy’s photography was equally so. His images featured heavily in the show and added to that aura of 1940s couture glamour. The show has received mixed reviews, some indicating that despite the strong cast and beautiful costumes, the story failed to grab. I didn’t find it so, I thought the story held its own quite well. It reminded me of a Penny Vincenzi historical drama: all of the glamour and historical atmosphere providing the backdrop for a family full of secrets. There was a credible element of mystery interwoven throughout the drama and the tensions ran high, along with the emotions. This cocktail mix had all the right ingredients for me and nothing was too weak or too overpowering. I did feel that there could have been an extra scene at the end of the finale though. There are loose hints online of a second season, and certainly, things were left open for Paul, Claude and Nina to accommodate this, but if I’m entirely honest, I don’t know if there is enough left out there in the wind for another complete season. Realistically, another five minutes added onto the finale would have done the trick and wrapped things up conclusively. I’ll be surprised if the second season eventuates, but if it does, I will certainly watch it. Most of the TV series I watch are based on novels, but this was an original production, and for that, I give the producers a lot of credit. The Collection is atmospheric, visually stunning, and highly engaging. It kept me away from my reading pile for several evenings in a row, and that doesn’t happen very often! Highly recommended to history enthusiasts and fashion lovers as well as those who love all things Paris.