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Christian Dior and Coco Chanel series suffers from poor craftsmanship

‘The New Look’ explores the lives of Parisian designers who were infinitely more conflicted than the Germans when it came to dressing up Nazis

Caption: Juliette Binoche (as Coco Chanel) and Claes Bang in the new Apple TV+ series 'The New Look'
Caption: Juliette Binoche (as Coco Chanel) and Claes Bang in the new Apple TV+ series 'The New Look'

Hugo Boss designed the Nazi uniforms. After facing bankruptcy in 1931, the German designer joined the Nazi party and successfully pivoted from raincoats and sportswear to making uniforms for soldiers, resulting in the unforgettable all-black SS uniforms for the Nazi Schutzstaffel. After Boss died in 1948, the company — which turned a hundred years old this year — switched from making uniforms to gentlemen’s suits, and the rest is history. 

Or is it? Do we use a surreptitious whisper when asking for a bottle of cologne marketed under the same brand who proudly made jackets for Hitler and the gang? We do not.

The New Look (Apple TV+) is a series that explores the lives and decisions of Parisian designers who were infinitely more conflicted than the Germans when it came to dressing up Nazis. During the occupation of Paris, some designers — like Coco Chanel — closed their doors and chose not to design clothes for their fascist overlords, whereas several — including Christian Dior — continued to work and create, making clothes for Nazis to wear at soirees. 

It feels natural to take sides, yet the truth is murkier. Dior was a designer on hire who needed money to try and protect his sister, an active part of the French Resistance. Meanwhile, Coco used her iconic status to live comfortably at the Ritz, hobnobbed with high-ranking German officers, and had at least one Nazi lover. Already our allegiances shift.

As premises go, this is a showstopper. Conflict and couture, the horrors of war and the beauty of design, the way something truly gorgeous can indeed change the world. The New Look begins with a title card advertising it as “the story of how creation helped return spirit and life to the world” and while this is admirable and lofty, for the series to declare this feels a bit gauche, a bit “Tom Ford by Tom Ford.” That, sadly, sets the tone.

Despite elements in place — especially the ethereal Juliette Binoche as Coco Chanel — the series displays ironically poor craftsmanship, with obvious, over-written scenes, and a catastrophic lack of subtlety. At one point British socialite Elsa Lombardi sits across from Coco Chanel and hisses “Your boyfriend is a Nazi!” This series, created by Todd A Kessler, is that kind of series, where every scene feels like it is part of a ‘Previously On’ montage. The budgets may be lavish, but the seams are showing.

Ben Mendelsohn is a fine actor and does well as Christian Dior, a tortured and heartbroken man. The show begins with Dior being celebrated at the Sorbonne, the first fashion designer to do so, where his appearance is preceded by a jawdropping display of his clothes, casting a spell over the audience. Unfortunately, right after the first student asks a question, the show cuts to wartime and — for the next several episodes — Mendelsohn is fighting back tears and wringing his hands — hands that would be much better spent actually designing. 

“All I ever wanted to do was design the most beautiful women’s clothing that ever existed,” Dior says on the show, reminding me of Daniel Day-Lewis in Paul Thomas Anderson’s magnificent Phantom Thread (available to rent on Amazon Prime) where the actor and the film allowed us to understand just how much every stitch of every outfit meant to the designer. The New Look never quite engages with the clothes themselves, neglecting Dior’s stylistic flourishes and inspirational design in favour of World War II bleakness that countless films and shows have conveyed more effectively. 

Binoche is dealt a better hand as Coco — largely because the empress was famous for her quotable lines and put-downs — but those can only go so far. This is a series about how designers used fashion — the unlikeliest, most elitist, and therefore French-est of art-forms — to reshape the public imagination. Yet while we get Binoche telling us that haute couture means “high sewing,” we do not get insights into her genius. We do not, alas, get to see Coco being Chanel.

From the ten episodes, only one quiet moment has stayed with me. It is where Cristobal Balenciaga (Nuno Lopes) shares the richest of wartime treasures with Dior, a couple of pieces of fine Swiss chocolate. Balenciaga describes this as a “rare morsel,” and a grateful Dior is ecstatic as he bites into the little piece. For an instant, the world is more beautiful.

The fundamental issue — besides the clumsy writing and direction — is that The New Look wants to muddy the waters. It wants to give both Christian Dior and Coco Chanel a reprieve, letting them off the hook for whatever they may and may not have done, suggesting that war puts us all in the same terrible boat. Yet the series unwittingly demonises Chanel, depicting her as myopic to Nazi evils, declaring that the Allies will be just as bad. If she was in India today, we’d call her a ‘centrist.’

This is what makes The New Look an important show. It is important for people and companies conveniently serving fascist governments and dictatorian regimes today to understand that the receipts are always going to be kept, that our memories will not be wiped clean, that we will always remember who got into bed with the monsters. This may not be a good show, but one hopes that it may prick at some well-dressed consciences.

A genuinely good series would have actually provoked argument and debate about art and artist. Must we judge a brand that once survived by dressing the wives of Nazis? Perhaps we must, since the brand itself prides itself on the founder’s name, a name that makes bags and perfume bottles cost so exorbitantly much. Should the little black dresses be kept but the tags cut off? These are weighty questions worth arguing over, but the one truth is that beauty — true beauty — in any art cannot be denied. We cannot cancel culture.

Streaming Tip Of The Week:

For Valentine’s Day, here’s a swoonworthy recommendation: Norman Jewison’s 1987 romance Moonstruck is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Starring Cher (who won an Oscar for her role) and an incandescent young Nicolas Cage, the film makes all us viewers feel like we’re caught between the moon and New York City. 

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