The White Rolls Royce (from Ribbentrop's Chair)
The White Rolls Royce
"...all are subject to the tyranny of fashion... and it is a doubly despotic dictator, since it commands women, who in turn direct the actions of men." (Paul Poiret, quoted in Couture Confessions by Pamela Colbin)
It was the spring of 1928 and the Rue St. Honore was bathed in midday sunlight; the dust on the pavements agitated by great waves of shoppers moving from store to store, eager to consume the new spring fashions. On the fourth floor of No. 340, above the boutique, the salon and the workshop and below the studio, my great uncle Elias stormed across the small cluttered office and smashed his cigar out in last night’s coffee
cup. Madelaine Vionnet had just stolen Mrs. Markowski with the lure of a lemon chiffon cocktail gown. “Yellow!!!” he screamed. “ She’ll look like a bloody leper. That woman’s a sucker for acids. Jewel colours - she should stick to jewel colours. I've told her a thousand times! She really has no fucking taste. Madelaine’s welcome to her.”
So - the Avadis family had escaped the bloody massacres on the streets of Odessa for the promised land of France, only to enter the vipers’ nest of the Paris fashion world.
In the salons of the fashion houses, plush cream carpets served as catwalks and mirrored walls created the backdrop to a moving theatre of refined mannequins with impossible waists and attenuated necks, prancing and turning like thoroughbreds in dresses of every texture and hue. Outrageous colours clashed. Soft fabrics flared and settled. Wealthy clients, impossible to impress, looked on, poker-faced. Designers vied for patrons with a creative intensity that produced the most extravagant garments of the 20th century.
Sarah, Elias’s wife, squeezed his shoulder gently and whispered “Chiffon is SO passe. Get the girls to hurry up and finish your blue opera cloak. You know – the one they’re making for the August collection. Marguerite
practically lives at the Opera Garnier. She hates opera, but she loves to be seen there. She’ll look stunning in your cloak and her friends will all want to kill her for it.”
The cloak in question had taken 5 seamstresses 5 weeks so far, but it still wasn’t finished. Elias’s drawings illustrated a garment of fine slate blue silk devore decorated with cabbage roses, on a gold lame lace background. It had a mink collar and cape sleeves with wide scalloped edges. The sleeves would be lined in blue velvet, and the body in blue silk charmeuse. BUT the silk velvet Elias ordered had been two weeks late and wasn’t the right shade of blue (a notoriously difficult colour to achieve with natural dyes) and Elias’s howls
of frustration could be heard all the way from the Rue Saint-Honore to the Arc de Triomphe. The silk was immediately sent back to the warehouse, where the manager got on the phone and screamed at the shipper, who sent an angry telegraph to the dyer in China, who’s workers would have no fish to go with their rice that month. When the velvet (of the right shade of blue) was duly delivered it was immediately dispatched to Lyon, where the roses were etched into the fabric with acid by a specialist firm. However they misread Elias’s sketch and omitted the thorns from the stems. This time Elias’s roars could be heard all the way to the Bois de Boulogne. However time was short and he had to live with the mistake. When the finished fabric finally arrived in the workshop Gertrude pinned on Jacques’ paper patterns, chalked around them, carefully
cut out the pieces of velvet and handed them to Andrea who joined them with straight rows of tiny tacks and gave them to Simone who started to machine the hem, but she had the wrong needle in and the silk caught and rucked up and she abandoned her station and ran home in tears rather than face the wrath of her boss. Jaqueline carefully removed the rumpled fabric and pulled it gently in all directions until the delicate weave was straightened. She finished all the seams and carried the devore back to Andrea to secure it to the gold lace before handing it to Muriel to attach the blue silk lining. This, Muriel was still stitching in by hand with care and much quiet cursing. It had taken her days. Attaching silk to metallic lace is atrociously difficult. Her fingers were red and sore and every time she let go of the garment the whole thing slithered wilfully onto the floor and hungrily ate up the dust. And Muriel hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday lunchtime and her stomach was rumbling.
“MuriEL!!!” Elias yelled down the stairs. “COMMENT CA VA?!”
Elias turned to Sarah. “I was saving it for Helena Foch but hey, why not. I can always make another one
Now Sarah may have once loved her golden boy to distraction, but they’d been married for ten long years and what appeared to be her tolerant nature was actually something else entirely: Sarah had been rather browbeaten by her strict parents as a child, so knew that she was meant to suffer in silence and patiently endure whatever life dealt her. However her stoicism had its limits. She was beginning to tire of her husband’s histrionics, and was also highly annoyed by his fundamental misuse of grammar. He had a
tendency to say “I” instead of “we” and “me” instead of “us” and “mine” when surely he meant “ours”. She had reminded him of this many times, but her advice never seemed to stick. “OUR house, OUR family, OUR business!!! Get it?” But last week she had made a deal with him: if he named the firm after her he could keep his preposterous white Rolls Royce Phantom with the musical horn imported specially from England which Sarah wouldn’t ride in because it embarrassed her and the selfish bastard had never asked whether he could have one in the first place and the eyesore cost more than a year’s profits and anyway what was wrong with the Peugeot? And just because she’d stopped talking about it didn’t mean she’d forgiven him. If Elias named the firm after her, it would sure as hell rattle his sense of ownership. Her mother had warned her about the Avadises’ profligacy, and although Sarah hated to admit it, her mother was absolutely right.
The white rolls parked on the street outside drew more attention and whistles from the crowds than the clothes in the brothers’ shop window. However this car was a mirage. It was a conceit balanced on an assumption teetering on a premise: that things would only get better. Things, actually, could get a lot worse. Elias’s extravagance was underpinned by a fallable system that was just about to collapse.
Interestingly, Sarah, this slim, elegant woman with her small sharp face, saucer eyes and dark hair cut short a la Chanel, was the love of Elias’s life: long legs and old money; the muse to his genius - and the signatory to
all his cheques. Without Sarah’s financial support and business acumen the family would still be selling shirts on the RueTaillbot.
And but for his team of accomplished, overworked artisans, Elias’s beautiful cloak would never have come
into being. This garment, reminiscent of Poiret’s fantasies and Bakst’s extravagant oriental costumes would create such a stir in the fashion fraternity that the Avadis brothers would, along with Worth and Fortuny,
become known for their evening coats and opera cloaks. (It was recently re-discovered and sold in an
American auction for a large sum of money.)
Marcel put his head round the door. The pallor, bruised eyelids and blue chin spoke of a late night at the roulette tables. Elias glanced at his younger brother, surprised to see him before evening, and wondering how much of Jacques’ money he had thrown away this time. Jacques was such a soft touch. “Please try and understand Marcel” his mother had once pleaded after a particularly violent spat with his younger brother. “Try and see things from his point of view.” “I don’t want to get inside his mind. It’s dark in
there”. “You’re wrong. He’s really a gentle, well-meaning soul. His heart’s in the right place.” This would never be proven. Marcel – bon viveur , “coureur de jupons” and self-appointed culture scout, with his hand
on the pulse of Paris as well as everywhere else, had been conducting his research assiduously. “Elise and Genevieve have started wearing trousers! Coco has sure as hell started something. Can you believe it? So bloody inconvenient. They look like boys …… but that’s quite interesting. Anyway – they’ve been to
see LA BAL in Monte Carlo and they say it’s phenomenal. De Chirico’s sets and costumes are WILD. Fancy a trip down there this weekend in the Phantom, Eli? Sarah – tell him he’s got to come! I could bring Marie-Claire. She’s never been to the ballet.”
Sarah, who could never usually be accused of spontaneity, looked at him thoughtfully. “O.K. We can just about spare a couple of days, but I think we’ll take Marcus and Sarah. They’ve only just arrived. Marcus might get some good ideas. Rosie and Babette can come too, and sit on our laps. The girls’ll love it. Esther says Balanchine’s an even better choreographer than Fokine. Less gymnastics, more passion. You can take Bernie and Serge to visit Vera – you know how she adores you – and Oleg will be glad to have boys his own age to play with. You can take the Peugeot. Give Marie Claire a break, poor girl”.
“Oh – so I‘m a nursemaid now, am I? M-e-r-d-e!”
“And please sober up first. And don’t use that language in front of the children.”