The fashion world makes for eye-catching TV, but the makers of The New Look, about the origins of Dior and Chanel, show there were dark moral challenges behind the glossy facade.

Fashion-based dramas are a hot trend right now.

Disney Plus is already showing Balenciaga, and will soon release Kaiser Karl, a lavish series about Karl Lagerfeld, adding to a glut of films such as House of Gucci, Saint Laurent, Phantom Thread and Mrs Harris Goes to Paris

For those unfamiliar with the history of French couture, The New Look, streaming on Apple TV from Wednesday, may seem a sombre addition to the genre. 

Focusing on Christian Dior and Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, played by Ben Mendelsohn and Juliette Binoche, it tracks the grim years of the Nazi occupation of Paris.

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1931. Photo: WikipediaGabrielle “Coco” Chanel in 1931. Photo: Wikipedia

Chanel’s behaviour during the war is an ongoing source of debate among historians, with many accusing her of collaboration.

She closed her business when the Nazis took over but continued to live in luxury at the Ritz hotel, took a German officer as her lover and used anti-Jewish laws to try to wrest control of her company from Jewish business partners.

“It’s easy to believe you would do the right thing in that situation, but these characters were terrified for their lives, and I think it’s very hard to judge them,” producer Todd Kessler told AFP.

“Dior, Chanel, Balenciaga, Balmain – all these people were making decisions of how they could possibly survive,” he added.

‘Painful story’

“Maybe audiences will feel one way about a character halfway through an episode, and feel very differently by the end. But that’s inspiring for storytellers.”

The makers admitted they were nervous about approaching Binoche to play Chanel. 

“We wanted a French icon to play a French icon, but we didn’t know how a French actor would react given France’s mixed feelings about Chanel,” said co-producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura. “It was very gratifying how quickly Juliette embraced it.”

Dior, meanwhile, suffers through the trauma of his sister being taken to a concentration camp, but his “new look” designs came to symbolise France’s sense of recovery and hope after the war. 

“It’s a very beautiful, ambitious series on fashion,” said Pierre Groppo, head of lifestyle for Vanity Fair

“It gives an image of Dior that we don’t have. We picture him as a genius in his workshop. Many don’t know this painful story that he, and many others, lived through,” he told AFP.

Binoche’s “subtle” performance was particularly gripping, he said. 

Chanel “made decisions that were not always right, certainly, but don’t forget this was a woman, alone, from a very modest background. We get the sense of someone overwhelmed by events. 

“I look forward to a second season where we see her making her comeback.” 

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