Ahead of the premiere of Amazon’s latest original series, The Collection, we take the period French fashion drama for a twirl.
Amazon’s new original drama The Collection, created by the showrunner of Desperate Housewives and Ugly Betty, Oliver Goldstick, is a glossy, high-end affair, although, by the evidence of the first episode, slightly confused. Revolving around the world of haute couture, it’s a weird and wonderful combination of The Sopranos and The House of Eliott, with a bit of Mad Men thrown in for good measure.
It begins with a familiar scene – that of a body being buried in a forest in the dead of night, lit only by the headlights of a car and with a lone bunny rabbit as sole witness, before cutting to three nights earlier, the run-up to this deadly outcome. Paul Sabine (Richard Coyle), boss of the family-run fashion house which bears his name, is deep in exposition with a cockney taxi driver. We’re in Paris at the beginning of 1947, although it’s hard to tell from the accents.
Paul is the man at the helm of the family business, but it’s his brother, Claude (Tom Riley), who comes up with the designs. Claude, much to the consternation of his family, is gay, lives in what is literally a garret, has a cat for company, and is probably some sort of artistic genius, although his hastily drawn sketches of fancy dresses look more like Rorschach inkblots to the unstudied eye. Perhaps this is apt, given that everyone seems to be a little … highly strung.
Paul has been approached by a high-ranking government official, who has made him an offer he can’t refuse. France is in the doldrums and the top brass have decided that the only way to get them out of it is by way of fancy frocks. The future of the country is therefore in Paul’s hands. “The world thinks France is finished and the richest man in France wants me to change that opinion,” explains Paul to his American wife, Helen (Mamie Gummer). Charged with restoring France to its former glory, having had its image tarnished by some pesky Nazi collaboration they took part in during the war, this is high-stakes dress designing.
Meanwhile, Life magazine has come to do a feature on the House of Sabine, sending cynical newshound Stanley Rossi (Stanley Townsend) and young, idealistic photographer Billy (Max Deacon). Billy runs around the back streets of Paris with his old-school camera, taking black-and-white stills of young lovers on the banks of the Seine, boys coming out of bakeries with baguettes, and old men smoking and drinking red wine outside brasseries – the kind of images last seen on Athena posters. It’s all set to a jazzy Gallic soundtrack and with the backdrop of the Eiffel Tower, the Notre Dame, and the Arc De Triomphe, it couldn’t get much more French if it tried.
When Billy finally tears himself away from taking generic pictures of Paris to go an take photographs of the House of Sabine, he sees and instantly falls in love with a young dressmaker who works there, Nina (Jenna Thiam – an actual French actress, last seen in Channel 4’s The Returned). But Nina has her own sad secret, lurking in her Parisienne eyes, which, of course, makes her all the more irresistible to the young American Life photographer.
Fashion design is presented as the stuff of manly fantasies, and it’s unclear exactly how seriously the audience is meant to take so much grandiose hyperbole. “Fashion has the power to transform us,” Paul tells Jules Trouvier (James Cosmo) at one point. “It’s not so much about who you are but who you want to be.” Like Donald Draper, Paul Sabine is presented as a man selling a dream, and, like Donald Draper, he seems to have some dark secret tied up in the recent war. To his wife, meanwhile, he states histrionically that “everything I do is for this family”, as though the House of Sabine works like an à la mode mafia.
The Collection, then, is apparently about the high machismo world of haute couture. In amongst the lace and chiffon lurk tough guys and anti-heroes, however, it’s unclear who the target audience is. The cast is solid – Frances de la Tour plays the Sabine matriarch, while Irène Jacob is the boss of the dressmakers, and they are joined by Sarah Parish and Michelle Gomez, among others – and the programme has a lot going for it. Whether the high production values can make up for some of the more laughably schlocky dialogue and overblown plot points remains to be seen.
Episode 1 of The Collection premieres exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 2nd September. New episodes are then available every Friday, as part of your £5.99 monthly Prime Video subscription. A 30-day free trial is available.