PARIS — When members of the cast of the new Apple TV+ period drama “The New Look” turned out for Dior’s spring 2024 haute couture show in Paris last month, it was a case of life imitating art.
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Among the guests taking in Maria Grazia Chiuri’s midcentury-inspired collection at the Musée Rodin were Ben Mendelsohn, who plays Christian Dior; Juliette Binoche, who stars as Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, and Glenn Close, who appears as Harper’s Bazaar editor in chief Carmel Snow. A meta moment, if ever there was one.
For Karen Muller Serreau, the costume designer of the 10-part series, working on the show was more a case of art imitating life.
For this industry veteran, whose screen credits include “At Eternity’s Gate,” “Stillwater” and “The Serpent Queen,” the project meant recreating some of the most famous designs of the golden age of French haute couture.
“On other projects, I was using a base of things that I’d seen and creating around that. This is actually stepping into other creators’ shoes and trying to think how they would think, which makes it quite different,” she told WWD ahead of the series premiere on Monday during New York Fashion Week. The first three episodes will hit screens on Wednesday.
Having worked in France for most of her 30-year career, Muller Serreau was aware she was tackling a national institution.
Founded in 1947, the house of Dior by 1953 accounted for more than half of all Paris couture exports. Today, it’s a jewel in the crown of luxury magnate Bernard Arnault, the founder of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, who has owned the brand since 1984.
Initially “overwhelmed” by the challenge, the costume designer soon felt “great joy” at the prospect of delving into the label’s archives. “It was really exciting, and became more and more so as we did it,” she said.
Dior flung open the doors of its Dior Heritage division in order to allow Muller Serreau to faithfully reproduce a selection of haute couture designs for the two key fashion scenes: Dior’s inaugural show at his Avenue Montaigne headquarters on Feb. 12, 1947, and the display he staged in tandem with a lecture he gave at the Sorbonne University in 1955 in front of 1,200 students and guests.
In all, 20 models were created, including the iconic Bar suit that was heralded by Snow as the New Look, which was welcomed as an antidote to the austere women’s fashions of World War II. It represented “a more glamorous future to what everybody had been living through and the importance of that, how that can really lift people,” Muller Serreau said.
There were no dresses from 1947 in the archives, so she and her team used fabric swatches, sketches and press clippings to recreate looks such as the Figaro evening gown, made from pleated pink silk faille draped in black polka-dot tulle.
Once her fabric selections were greenlighted by the Dior team, she worked with Atelier Caraco, a specialized workshop in Paris, to make the outfits. While it’s virtually impossible to reproduce the level of detail of a vintage couture dress within the time and budget constraints of a modern-day TV show, Muller Serreau said there was a lot that didn’t meet the eye.
“It’s very elaborate cutting, for a start, and then to get that kind of outer beauty, there’s this whole interior structure,” she explained.
“We’d start with first of all getting underwear for all our girls. That was the foundation of the dress, having the right underwear, really, and then we built little tiny-waist corsets to get their waists even smaller,” she added.
Though Dior presented 95 looks in his spring 1947 collection, only a handful were needed for filming. Working in tandem with director Todd A. Kessler, Muller Serreau picked a selection of day, cocktail and evening wear, including Fidélité, the house’s first wedding gown.
“I chose the wedding dress so that we had a beginning and an end, to get the feeling that we were seeing many more dresses,” she said. “And then I tried to use color and have colors that popped a little bit in between pastel colors, as well, giving it a feeling that there’s a bit more going on.”
To mark the launch of the series, the costumes will go on show in a dedicated room at the Galerie Dior at the brand’s historic flagship in Paris, where they will remain on show until May 13, Dior said.
However, those runway looks were only a small portion of the hundreds of costumes required for the show. Muller Serreau drafted people with experience working in fashion houses for her 15-strong workshop, and lost count of how many outifts they produced. “There was never, never a break,” she said.
Most of the action is set during the Nazi occupation of Paris from 1940 to 1944, and focuses as much on Dior, who was working at the time for couturier Lucien Lelong, as Chanel, who had shut her house in 1939.
Though Mendelsohn bears little resemblance to Dior, Muller Serreau decided against padding out his suits.
“It wasn’t about recreating them identically as people, but them playing their characters as actors,” she said. “There was something about him that I actually think that Ben managed to convey very well, a slightly shy, boyish almost, feel about him.”
Billed as “inspired by true events,” the series addresses Chanel’s previously documented wartime activities, including her intervention to secure the release of her nephew, André Palasse, from a prisoner of war camp, and her affair with Nazi spy Hans Günther von Dincklage.
Muller Serreau said that in the absence of solid archives, she opted for an interpretation of what Chanel might have worn at the time, designed to highlight the parallels and differences between her and Dior.
“During the wartime, she wasn’t creating anything and there’s very little documentation about her at that time,” she said, explaining that she sprinkled in some of Chanel’s signature androgynous tailoring. “Dior building everything to be so feminine, I thought I would add more of this masculine side to her, and work on that.”
“The New Look” also delves into Dior’s relationship with his sister Catherine, played by Maisie Williams, a member of the French Resistance who was the inspiration for the Miss Dior scent. Harrowing scenes show her being captured and tortured by Nazi officers, before being sent to the Ravensbrück concentration camp.
“You want to make her glamorous because she’s Dior’s sister, somehow, and yet she was this hard-working resistant,” she said. “So it was quite interesting, pulling yourself away from this desire to make her into this kind of glamorous character.”
Ultimately, Muller Serreau sees “The New Look” as a story of resilience.
“Individually, it’s each person, how they survive this period, each of them with their different characters and their different reasons as to how they manage to survive the period of war, and then how the fashion industry survived that period, because the Nazis wanted to take it off to Germany and we would have had a whole different story today,” she said.
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