The New Look on Apple TV+ review: haute couture gets The Crown treatment

Ben Mendelsohn in The New Look (Apple TV+)
Ben Mendelsohn in The New Look (Apple TV+)

Hot on the heels of Disney+’s evocative series charting the life and fashionable times of Cristóbal Balenciaga comes the next in a vogue for fashion-tainment. The New Look also features the Basque emigrée Balenciaga, but focuses acutely on the lives and rivalries of Christian Dior and Coco Chanel during World War II.

The lavish, sweeping drama is the brainchild of Todd A. Kessler, the show runner behind legal thriller Damages and Bloodline, Netflix’s Floridian family saga, which if you endured you’ll recognise Mr Dior from. Ben Mendelsohn, who played the errant elder brother in that series, appears as the couturier here.

If you’ve ever felt that fashion as a medium isn’t taken seriously, Kessler’s series blows that away entirely: it is given the full high-gloss The Crown treatment. The opening theme music utilises the sound of sewing machines (no one point out that haute couture is hand-sewn) almost as machine gun fire, with pacey crescendos. To bring a modern bang, each episode is sung out by an au courant star given an old standard. At the close of episode one Florence Welch hums out The White Cliffs of Dover, produced by Jack Antonoff. But don't let that put you off too much.

The series opens with Chanel (Juliette Binoche) holding court in 1955, chain smoking against a fireplace as she announces her comeback. What does she think about Dior being honoured at the Sorbonne today, the hacks gamely mew at her.

“I hear Mr Dior is a nervous wreck these days hiding from the world constantly miserable because he knows he doesn’t deserve this praise, and I feel sorry for all the students in prison at the Sorbonne having to suffer through him today. Dior ruined French couture and I’m coming back to save it,” she quips cattily. Binoche’s Chanel is great sport, if slightly hammy – bitchy, charming and entirely self-centred.

We flash across to impatient clapping at the Sorbonne, politely dressed students hailing their fashion rock star. Unfortunately he’s having a meltdown backstage, and having his Tarot cards read. His sister heads back to drag him out, “We agreed no more divination today”.

The models are released to entertain the students while Dior huffs and puffs tensely. Here the camera seduces some of his most famous looks, namely the black full skirt and cream waspishly waisted Bar jacket, the famed “New Look” as christened by Harper’s Bazaar editor Carmel Snow (who will appear later in the series played by Glenn Close). Once Dior is on stage he softens and relaxes. When asked what he thinks about Chanel’s comeback he offers with a wink, “I guess I will have to find somewhere else to sit.”

Maisie Williams as Catherine Dior (Apple TV+)
Maisie Williams as Catherine Dior (Apple TV+)

This scene, and the following interview Dior gives to a crowd of enthusiastic admirers, functions as the narrative device to flash back to the action in WW2, namely to consider the question of collaboration, something which this coterie of fashion icons all meandered in and out from. “I was a nobody working for Lucien Lelong,” offers Dior, “for those who lived through the chaos of war, [the] darkest days of our lives, and yes we sold and designed for Nazi wives and girlfriends. There is the truth and there’s always another truth which lived behind it.”

Then, we’re back in the streets of occupied Paris, menacing Swastika banners hung from the Haussmann boulevards. Dior might be working for Lelong (played by a rather smarmy, lispy John Malkovich) designing ballgowns for Nazi brides, but his sister, Catherine – the excellent and rather unrecognisable (a good thing) Maisie Williams – is part of the Resistance and the two worlds sharply collide when she is taken prisoner by the Gestapo, tortured and eventually carted off to Ravensbrück concentration camp.

Meandering against this bleak storyline comes Chanel, who played on her connections to set her nephew André free from the Germans. Living at the Ritz she soon becomes a Nazi plaything, embarking on an affair with the officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage (Claes Bang, most recently seen as the dodgy brother-in-law in Sharon Horgan’s Bad Sisters).

Embedded as a Nazi informant, Binoche plays the designer partly amused and mostly as if the whole thing is one big eye-rolling laugh; when she is commanded to undertake a mission to Madrid she laughs, “but I’m a fashion designer”.

There’s a rampage across to Spain to try and see Churchill, where Emily Mortimer appears as her English aristocratic friend Eva Colozzi, which plays out as a sort of SATC does WW2. “Shall we stop to have a drink” posits Colozzi as they traipse out of the Ritz. The story might seemed far-fetched – fashion designers as secret agents – but it is based on a version of true events.

The rather despicably-depicted Chanel apparently has no loyalty to anyone other than herself. As soon as it looks like the tide is turning she shops everyone she can to try and stay off the list of collaborators the Resistance are putting together. When the Allies roll into town, she’s waving outside her boutique handing out boxes of No 5 trilling “France loves you.”

Juliette Binoche and Emily Mortimer in The New Look (Apple TV+)
Juliette Binoche and Emily Mortimer in The New Look (Apple TV+)

Yet the show isn’t afraid to drill down on the horrors of the war. There’s no sentimentalism when it comes to showing Catherine Dior’s torture and subsequent incarceration and Dior’s desperate attempts to save her, pitifully haggling with stolen fabric (“this is the finest silk! This is fabric from Monsieur Lelong and it’s more valuable than gold”) in lieu of real money for information about her wellbeing.

The brotherhood of fashion – Pierre Balmain features alongside Balenciaga – rallies around a distraught Dior. There is a keen juxtaposition of the Nazis living it up with dinners at Maxims, and the French begging in the street for food; the couture houses entwined around it all, keeping going to get paid to live.

Predictably, the characters are all fairly highly strung and hysterical, there’s a lot of strained shouting and overly emotive language and gesturing. It is annoyingly let down by the strange insistence that the international cast adopt accented English – distracting overtures of ‘Allo ‘Allo abound. But in spite of this, it is compelling watching. By the time you get to the heart-rending end of episode three, even with the Dick-Van-Dyke-does-Nazis voices, you’ll definitely be poised to keep going.

The first three episodes are available to watch from February 14th on AppleTV+, with episodes dropping weekly until April 3rd. Watch here