I haven’t even brought a book. I rarely do for the flight to Montreal, so short there’s hardly time to finish a page without a pert stewardess interrupting with a buckle-unbuckle update or to stuff you with another canapé. While I wait at the gate, I do what I always do at JFK: watch the flow of close-shaven businessmen, triangulated teenagers in A-line dresses or the new bell-bottomed jeans, well-heeled wives with this season’s travel bags, exasperated fathers, preternaturally patient mothers with faded eyeliner, cranky children in tow.
Today the tide of travelers, like the rain clouds, has swollen and stalled. The gate is crowded and stuffy. Twin boys chomping Now and Later candy share the seat next to mine. Pan Am Flight 108 is delayed, ladies and gentlemen. And delayed. And we’re sorry to inform you that this flight has again been delayed. Due to weather—as though we ever don’t have weather. You might as well say due to clouds.
You’d think they would figure out a way. Man has been flying, after all, since before I was born. Even Antoine was far from the first, and he soloed in 1921. Maybe that’s him up there, hurling torrents from the sky.
Rain hits the tarmac nearly sideways and skids across, leaping over itself in its hurry to set the terminal afloat. I dig through my bag. As I do so, it catches the interest of a tony woman walking past in Balenciaga. Yes, miss, my bag is a Mignonne NYC. As are the dress and the hat—but not the shoes, which are Beth Levine.
She breaks stride slightly as she recognizes me, then continues, self-satisfaction adding a lilt to her gait. Thank you, miss, yes, I am Mignonne Lachapelle.
Equal parts gratifying and embarrassing. To conceal my habitual blush, I pull out the pamphlet for Expo 67, the world’s fair. The twins’ mother notices the pamphlet as she reaches across her boys to pin them to their chair.
“ ‘Man and His World.’ ” She says the name of the fair’s theme as though the words are sour in her mouth. “Can you believe that, in this age?”
“It suffers in translation,” I begin, but she goes on.
“I’m waiting for the day there’s a fair called Woman’s World.” She shoves the smaller boy into place with more force than his squirming demands. “Or better, a world called Woman’s World.”
Even Antoine might have balked at the translation of Terre des hommes
, the title of his novel that earned the Grand Prix du Roman
in France and the National Book Award here. Man and his world? I’m not sure he himself ever made a claim upon the earth. He used to say we don’t inherit the planet, but borrow it from our children.
Not our children. We had no children—except for that which we made.
They say that everything comes around again, to be borrowed, stolen, honored, adored, abused. That fashions—and politics and the songs tucked into babies’ ears—lie dormant until the time is right. Is nothing allowed to die? God forbid some of my first works are resurrected. We didn’t know how blessed we were to be spared greater notice in our early, earnest days—when I was plowing ahead as boldly as that Amazon strutting there (hip-slung fringe purse pulling up her mini-dress, exposing the muscle of her thigh). Or how lucky we were that the American fashion press was as new and naïve as we were. Or as was I. Clueless about man, naïve about his world.
I’ll sit and wait for this flight because in Montreal my mother waits for me. As does Star Pilot, my retrospective collection on short-term display at the fair. Tomorrow, if the heavens dry up, I’ll give a talk in the United States Pavilion. “Inspiration and Antoine,” I plan to call it—but that’s all I have written so far. The studio has been so busy. I haven’t had a moment to myself, no time to think.
My toes tap, impatient, unused to being made to stay still. I take out my notebook and my favorite Cartier pen.
I settle the notebook on my lap and gaze at the rivulets that stream down the windows. They undulate, come together, separate. They are sequined snakes. They are runnels, seashores, racing cars, spittle, piping, phone lines, falling jets, falling stars. Let’s not point out the obvious: being raindrops, they are tears.
Beyond the glass, an intrepid swallow swoops through the rain, turns sharply at an edge that only it can see, and returns to inscribe its back-and-forth trajectory, measuring the width of a sheet of water, embroidering the span of a panel of sateen.
Let’s say it draws a story: of a flower, a little prince, Antoine, and me.
In April 1942, I returned to New York. Not to the apartment that had been home to Papa, Mother, Leo, and me, but back to the city after a year in Montreal. Back to stake a claim in the Garment District, where everything had its place: the design studios and showrooms, the fabric, bead, and notion stores, the furriers, the milliners, the shops selling equipment to the trade, the pushers hauling racks of swaying garments, the loading docks holding clues to the concerns of the floors above. And New York Fashion School. The building reached for me with its brass handrails as I passed.
Alma mater. Class of ’41. I tried to draw confidence from the thought. It had been a year since I had presented my final portfolio to Madame Professor Véra Fiche and she had ravaged my work. Her performance had been convincing. I had taken it to heart in a way I would never have done had she offered equally vehement praise. It had shaken me deeply. I had been hopeful until then. I had been twenty-one.
A flustered student hurried up the steps and through the doors, likely rushing to his own portfolio ordeal. I would rather have been in his shoes than do what I was about to do.
I walked on, turning the wrong direction automatically before conceding that Madame’s building must, in fact, be the other way. Why would she have taken a studio so close to the Hudson River, when just a couple of blocks over she could have been in the heart of the district? Promising designers didn’t locate here— among merchants hawking shelving units, pressing machines, and dusty mannequins—and Atelier Fiche was said to be a fashion house to watch. At school it had been rumored that, before coming to teach at NYFS, Madame had had several shows without making even the smallest splash. But if those unremarkable and unremarked-upon collections had existed, they had been excised: Women’s Wear Daily
designated Madame’s January ’42 collection a notable “debut.” At fifty, the designer was no debutante. Still, Véra Fiche’s aesthetic, and therefore mine, had been noticed. The American fashion press, obliged to come up with some sort of news in the wake of the vacuum left by Paris—for France had fallen to the Nazis—had begun focusing for the first time on the offerings of domestic designers. The industry had no choice if it was to survive. I suspected the press was pulling at straws or suffering delusions as it found its way.
Regardless: they had anointed Atelier Fiche, if only by dint of a single column inch and one grainy photograph. If Madame hadn’t already made plans to find a more desirably located studio or a properly impressive salon, no doubt she would do so when her end-of-school-year tasks were complete. Then, of course, she would give up teaching for good. I was keenly aware that it would take everything she had in her to advance from aspiring to arrived. I was determined to make the same commitment myself.
At 315 West 39th, as if in imprudent solidarity with Madame Fiche, a hat designer had set up shop several blocks from the Millinery District. His street-level storefront displayed miniature masculine hats of the sort ladies were pinning atop their up-dos and rolled tresses in those wartime days—a jaunty, tongue-in-cheek look that managed to simultaneously salute and belittle the men who wore the corresponding full-size versions. There were five-inch top hats like sleek black corks, teacup-sized bowlers, a tiny officer’s cap with an optimistic V-for-victory brooch glittering from its band. A pancake-sized beret was adorned with a wide-eyed peacock feather. Its lashes quivered as it watched me.
Beside the display, set back from the sidewalk, the green paint of a metal door was peeling to reveal older and paler green layers. I pulled it open and climbed low steps to the lobby, avoiding the handrail; its varnish was black with grime. At the elevator, I closed the grate behind me and prayed for a swift ascension and a swifter return to ground. The box shuddered upward.
On Madame’s floor, walls of brick and dismal plaster disappeared into murky corners and passageways. Industrial whining came from behind closed doors, drowning out the creaking of the floorboards. A heavy, oily smell intensified with each step. Surely Madame doesn’t bring clients here, I thought. But here was her studio, “Atelier Fiche” hand-lettered in black ink on a golden card with elegant corner flourishes. Classic and carefully adorned—as expected. At NYFS, Madame had been a fanatic for hand-finished details, fine embroidery, and expensive gilt applied to suits with nipped-in waists or to respectable dresses with long, straight skirts. She had imposed her preferences with a rigid will. I had not managed to stand up to Madame that entire year; what made me imagine I might be capable of doing so now?
“Relax, Mig,” my brother Leo had said this morning. “Know your problem? You’re still thinking of Fiche as your professor. All she is to you now is a thief and a cheat. What you do is, you surprise her. She opens the door. Bang: lay it on the line. Tell her what you want. And make it good. She owes you big time.”
“All I want is an apology.”
“You want cash in hand. And a cut of what she gets, now until kingdom come. Think of the future. Future sales.”
But what sort of sales could Madame expect? The country had changed since I had designed the line. One minute, the U.S. had been committed to withholding military involvement; the next minute, we’d declared war. Four months later, we were still gearing up for mobilization, but I was certain that soon Americans would be fighting on the European front. Who would wear anything like those flamboyant designs then?
I told Leo about the new fabric use restrictions. I tried to explain how Madame’s collection would be hamstrung by patriotic constraint.
“Temporary setback,” he said. “Any day now, Roosevelt’s going to raise his little finger and start sending in our boys. Bam! Hitler wets his pants and runs home bawling. And just like that, old Fiche goes back to selling whatever fancy clothes she wants.” He pointed his cigarette at me. “You got to look out for yourself. Take a lesson from me. When I was building popcorn machines, everyone knew the boss was knocking the bottles off the shelves with his secretary. Good for him; better for me. I figured it was fifty-fifty the guy would promote me out of his way instead of throwing me onto the street.”
“You blackmailed him?”
“I just asked him if his wife would like to see some interesting photographs.”
“You were bluffing.”
“It cost him nothing to give me a better job. But believe me, people will do a lot to save their reputations. Remember that, Miggy. This lady’s got a lot to lose. She’d be nowhere without you.”
If Leo could see this hallway, I thought as I stood poised to knock on the studio door, he might just wonder whether Madame Fiche was still nowhere. Maybe the designs she cop- ied from my sketches hadn’t brought success to Atelier Fiche after all, despite what I had read in the magazine Mother bor- rowed from the Ladies’ Auxiliary of Montreal: “Debut collection takes wing . . . Emerging from the cocoon of NYFS, professor Madame Véra Fiche sets Manhattan society a-flutter . . .”
The Women’s Wear
article had astounded me: it meant I could succeed in fashion. But I couldn’t be proud that my designs had been noticed. I couldn’t be angry that the credit went to Madame Fiche. It wasn’t right that she had taken my ideas for her own, but neither was it right that this collection was being lauded as acceptable, even exceptional.
All I wanted from Madame now was the chance to see the Butterfly Collection in person, to face it in the flesh, before let- ting it go and putting it behind me. If it was true that I had talent, I would find a way to make fashion a force for good.
I knocked. The studio was large: faint, sharp footsteps sounded for some moments, growing louder until the door opened. A flicker of emotion sparked briefly in Madame Fiche’s eyes.
She still had the same smooth brow plucked entirely bare, the same severe hairdo, the black strands—with some new grey filaments—pulled tight into a flawless bun. Her thin forearms were chalky and damp; they bore the clean heavy smell of plaster of Paris. She still wore the same sort of tailored black dress as always, but in place of her customary belted jacket was an unbleached cotton apron. In an accent even loftier than her usual, she said, “You have interrupted my work.”
I squeezed my hands together to stop their shaking. If only I could do the same to my words. “I’m Mignonne Lachapelle.” “Oui.”
“I’ve come about the butterflies. The collection. My designs.”
She eyed me, her lips pinched, until my stomach grew so nervous as to almost heave. “Entrez.”
This was Madame’s studio? I had been expecting a space confined and controlled, not a careless expanse that was messily meadow-like in its broad sweep, its glow, its random flowerings. Overstuffed racks dripped garments, two or three to a hanger, with more strewn over the rods. On the floor, bolts of material— some rolls fat with fabric, others just covering their cores—were stacked like colorful, mismatched plates. Long, curling rectangles of butcher paper were fastened to the walls and to the pipes that passed overhead, their surfaces filled with sketches in char- coal or in chalk. From some, silver strings of cobwebs swayed. An oversized sketch pad lay open on a table that was awash in natural light. Sunshine spread across the golden floor. I stepped into it.
Excerpted from Studio Saint-Ex by Ania Szado. Copyright © 2013 by Ania Szado. Excerpted by permission of Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.