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In ‘The New Look,’ It’s Chanel Versus Dior in War-Torn Paris

In “The New Look,” an Apple TV+ show premiering Feb. 14, wine glasses are never empty, cigarettes are always half-smoked and everyone is thin. The series follows two titans of French fashion, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, after all, toward the end of World War II.

But this glamorous portrayal of Paris’s creative milieu is also interested in how the French elite collaborated with their Nazi occupiers during this contested period. It offers a startling throwback to a time when swastika-stamped flags hung over the streets of Paris. From 1940 to 1944, the French Vichy regime collaborated with the Nazis and deported over 70,000 Jews to death camps, sent French workers to Germany and tried to crush the French resistance.

The show’s main action starts in 1943. Chanel (played by Juliette Binoche), a star of French fashion, is living at the Ritz Hotel, which was then a Nazi headquarter, where she hosts her boyfriend, the German spy Hans Günther von Dincklage (Claes Bang).

“Chanel was an excellent survivor,” said Binoche, sitting on a couch in the wood-paneled bar at the Hotel Regina Louvre, which stood in for the Ritz on the show. Binoche — wearing a white shirt layered with a black bustier, tie and pants — said she read several biographies of the designer to prepare for the role, and was impressed by how Chanel’s creativity and business savvy took her from childhood poverty to the top of the European elite.

Playing the character in this period of her life was challenging, the actress added, because “there’s so many layers of gray going on.” On the show, we see Chanel invoking Vichy’s Aryan laws in a failed bid to eject her Jewish business partners from the company. She travels to Madrid at the request of an S.S. general in a bizarre attempt to broker peace between Germany and Britain (Winston Churchill, whom she knew personally, declines to meet).

Her great rival Dior, played as shy and contained by Ben Mendelsohn, is not yet a famous designer. He works for Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich), creating evening gowns for the Nazis, even as he supports his sister Catherine (Maisie Williams), a resistance fighter who is eventually sent to a concentration camp.

Mendelsohn, in a blue coat, sitting next to Binoche in the Regina bar, said he didn’t approach his character by thinking about the morality of Dior’s choices. “The start of modern acting is to empathize with your character,” he said. “It’s hard to play someone with a highly externalized idea of them. You have to climb in.”

The show’s creator, Todd A. Kessler — who previously worked with Mendelsohn on “Bloodline” — was drawn to setting a show in occupied France because it meant characters were making decisions in extreme and fast-evolving circumstances, he said during the interview at the bar.

“It is not as inspiring to think of anyone as a villain or as a hero,” Kessler said. “Every person is many different people. Under different circumstances, you might respond differently.”

It was also essential, Kessler said, for the show to be shot on location, “on the same streets that Christian Dior and Coco Chanel walked and lived, to be in the same cafes and hotels that the Nazis occupied.”

“The New Look” reveals the tragic — and hidden — history of some of Paris’s elegant buildings, recreating the Gestapo’s torture house. just a couple of miles from the Eiffel Tower, as well as the interior of the Lutetia Hotel, which, after the war, housed returning camp survivors, its lobby crowded with desperate families hoping to find their loved ones.

For decades after the war, successive French governments refused to acknowledge the brutality of the collaborationist regime and the silent support it enjoyed among large swaths of the population. In 1995, President Jacques Chirac formally recognized France’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps.

But recently, debates about the period of occupation have been heating up again in France, with some far-right politicians arguing that the Vichy government has been judged too harshly. Éric Zemmour, who won 7 percent of the vote in the first round of France’s 2022 presidential election, has claimed the government saved French Jews during the war, disregarding any historical evidence.

The country’s largest far-right party was founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen, an avowed admirer of the Vichy leader, Philippe Pétain. Marine Le Pen, his daughter, another prominent politician in that party, once claimed the French state wasn’t responsible for the most notorious roundup of Jews in France during World War II; she has since tried to sanitize her party’s image.

“For countries like the United States and France — who see themselves as beacons of light and democracy — it can be uncomfortable to face the past, because we didn’t live by those principles” said Sarah Fishman, a historian and the author of “France at War: Vichy and the Historians,” in a recent interview.

To Binoche, the show’s themes also felt personal. Members of her Polish extended family were deported to Auschwitz “because they were intellectuals, and hid Jewish people,” she said. Her grandparents were separately detained by the Russian and German armies during the war, and afterward her grandmother slowly made her way from Poland to the south of France.

“There was a lot of damage from the war,” Binoche said.

On “The New Look,” high fashion helps revive the French spirit. After Paris’s liberation, Lelong organizes what he calls “an exhibition of hope”: a miniature fashion show in an annex to the Louvre of more than 200 dolls, dressed in outfits created by designers including Balenciaga, Balmain and Dior, since there was not enough fabric to fit human models. More than 100,000 people visited the showcase of French craftsmanship.

The following year, in 1946 — when bread was still being rationed in Paris, and coal and fuel were scarce — Dior broke with Lelong, and founded his own fashion house on Avenue Montaigne.

His postwar collection — which became known as “the new look” — was an instant hit, and helped return Paris to the center of the couture world, after London and New York had dominated during the war. “People need to dream again,” Dior says on the show, as he watches his models walk a runway in long pink and white dresses.

Very little, in fact, was new in Dior’s collection. A comfortable reminder of France’s prewar glories, the look centered on a corseted, hyperfeminine silhouette, with long skirts layered in taffeta and silk, a pinched waist and small, tilted hats. He drew inspiration from the flowers of his mother’s garden.

The outfits were a world away from Chanel’s designs of the 1920s, which had liberated women from the corset and given them outfits for hunting, sailing and playing tennis, as well as attending cocktail parties.

The house of Dior, now chaired by Delphine Arnault, helped design the dresses featured in the show, and let Kessler roam its archives for inspiration (Chanel wasn’t associated with the production).

Binoche said she accepted the role “right away,” and was drawn to the show’s depiction of Dior and Chanel as artists, trying to create regardless of their circumstances. “Dior and Chanel needed fine arts, they needed to be in touch with Cocteau, Stravinsky, Picasso, Max Jacob,” she said.

In Paris, high fashion survived the war. But the flourishing artistic scene of the prewar years that both Chanel and Dior enjoyed — the years of surrealism, Russian ballets and dancing in cafes that became known as “les Années folles” — never truly returned.

Following Germany’s surrender, Chanel laid low in Switzerland, returning to Paris to be interrogated by government officials over her collaboration with the Nazis. She was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing.

“After the war, the purges and trials didn’t go very deep,” Fishman said. “Only the people at the top were convicted.”

A decade after the war, Chanel moved back to Paris and started designing again. Her business thrived, while Dior crumbled, Kessler believes, under the pressure of leading his own fashion house; he died just 11 years after its opening. “Chanel had a fortitude in her to face the world,” the showrunner said. “Dior wasn’t built that way.”

Depicting the real lives — and many complexities — behind the two enormous fashion houses was important to Kessler.

“My hope is that people won’t see the name Chanel or Dior in airports again, without realizing that these were full people,” he said.

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