Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado

Set amid the French expats in New York City in the early 1940s, Ania Szado's Studio Saint-Ex stars a fictional young fashion designer in a love triangle with Antoine de Saint-Exupery and his tempestuous bisexual wife, Consuela. Saint-Exupery was writing The Little Prince at the time. Mignonne Lachapelle, daughter of a French father and Canadian mother, was smarting from the injustice of having the designs from her final college project stolen by her instructor, but Mignonne continued to create.

In the afterword, Canadian author Szado writes that she based the following scene (in Mignonne's voice) on something that a real designer, Valentina Schlee, did at around the same time.
One of Valentina Schlee's iconic creations
'Madame announced, "Allow me to present the first item in my Butterfly Collection."
"Very glamorous for a red carpet entrance," I said, "and a dramatic departure in your limousine."
Binty watched dispassionately. Consuelo was rapt, Madame anxious.
When I was sure Consuelo had taken her fill of the heavy detailing, I slipped off the jacket and placed it on the remaining empty armchair. Now I was wearing only the black blouse and the long velvet skirt.
"Perfect for an elegant evening with your husband," I said.
Consuelo put her fingers together in a steeple and smiled from behind them as I rolled my hips to catch the light in the velvet pile.
Then in one smooth motion, I pulled the blouse straight off, over my head, and dropped it onto the chair. "Or a special evening with someone else's husband." I twirled in the velvet skirt and my sleek black corselet.'
Isn't this Valentina
cap adorable?
Flash forward to Expo 1967 in Montreal, which took the title of Saint-Exupery's Terre des hommes. Mignonne introduces a retrospective of her now-famous work. "It all began at an interesting time. The world was at war. On the fashion front, France was suddenly missing from the global scene. So the American industry was slapped into being -- and it was slippery as any newborn, complete with awkward parts that couldn't be steamed."

I didn't notice any awkward parts in Studio Saint-Ex. It is a fascinating glimpse into the lives of interesting people, both real and fictional. It also prompted me to dream one night that I was hand stitching a garment, and to look up images of Valentina's work, since she was mentioned in the novel.

Readalikes: The Big Why (Michael Winter); The Paris Wife (Paula McLain); and Z (Therese Fowler). An obvious companion read is The Little Prince; I like the graphic novel adaptation by Joann Sfar. Readers who want more on fashion will enjoy Linda Grant's collection of essays, The Thoughtful Dresser.

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