July 13, 2024

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‘The New Look’ chronicles the rise of fashion designer Christian Dior

7 min read

For the better part of the last century, the names Dior and Chanel were synonymous with luxury goods: custom-made gowns, stylish handbags, elegant fragrances and fine jewelry. But when most people think about these iconic fashion houses, they often don’t think about the historical figures whose names they bear: Christian Dior, whose debut collection signaled a return to ultra-femininity and opulence after the horrors of World War II, and Coco Chanel, who was credited for revolutionizing the way women dressed in the early 20th century.

“The New Look,” which premiered Wednesday on Apple TV+, focuses on the lives of Dior (Emmy winner Ben Mendelsohn) and Chanel (Academy Award winner Juliette Binoche) and offers an unflinching look at the decisions and moral compromises they made to survive during the Nazi occupation of France.

“The irony is that when you read about Dior, you end up running into Chanel over and over again,” executive producer Lorenzo di Bonaventura told NBC News in a joint video interview with series creator Todd A. Kessler. “She was the king of the world in fashion, and he became the king, so she was dethroned in reality by him …The duality that they represented with each other is what made it, I think, probably inevitable that the two of them were going to collide in this series.”

In the 10-episode first season, Dior, then a little-known designer working for couturier Lucien Lelong (John Malkovich), begrudgingly agrees to make dresses for the wives and girlfriends of Nazi officers in order to support himself and his French Resistance fighter sister, Catherine (Maisie Williams), who is later captured and sent to a concentration camp. Chanel, who decided to close down her couture house at the start of the war, begins an ill-advised romantic relationship with German officer Hans Günther von Dincklage (Claes Bang) and is later used as a Nazi agent to attempt to broker a secret peace deal with her old friend, Winston Churchill, in Madrid.

In 2017, a few months after wrapping up their three-season collaboration on the Netflix series “Bloodline,” Kessler visited Mendelsohn’s home and, while making Neapolitan-style pizzas together, began discussing the prospect of making a sumptuous show about the rise of Dior that would be set and shot in Paris.

“I mentioned to him that I was researching Christian Dior and told him 40 minutes of stories about Dior,” recalled Kessler, who went on to write, direct and produce the series. “He said, ‘Whenever you’re ready, let me know, and I’ll clear my schedule.’”

Ben Mendelsohn and John Malkovich in "The New Look."
Early on, Dior worked for couturier Lucien Lelong, played in the series by John Malkovich.Roger Do Minh / Apple

Mendelsohn kept his word. In a separate interview with NBC News, the Australian actor insisted that he agreed to sign on to the project, which would take another five or six years to come to fruition, as soon as Kessler told him about Dior’s internal struggle.

“He said, ‘I’ve read Christian Dior’s autobiography, and he talks in it about his loathing and his self-hatred, about the sense that he has an authentic self that he experiences when he’s alone and he’s at peace, and then he has this other self when he’s having to interact with the world and do what he does to survive in business and do what he does to be Mr. Dior,” Mendelsohn said of his initial conversation about the series with Kessler. “That’s all I needed, because that central idea is enough.”

Although he knew very little about Dior, Mendelsohn admitted that he only wanted to “know the rough outlines” of the legendary designer’s life story. Most actors, Mendelsohn said, can get bogged down in the details of the real-life people they are supposed to be playing. Instead, he chose to focus on the story that was being told in the scripts.

A scene from "The New Look."
Dior’s debut collection signaled a return to ultra-femininity and opulence after the horrors of World War II.Roger Do Minh / Apple

The limited research he did consisted of watching old footage of Dior, “because you get so much more of a sense of how people are holding themselves,” he said.

“You understand just how amazingly adept he was at his craft, because I watched him sketch,” Mendelsohn added. “You watch him with fabrics, you watch him with this and that. He’s not necessarily enjoying it, but his familiarity, his contact, the degree to which he’s completely immersed in his ability to speak through cloth and construction is profound.”

Dior initially used creation as a means of survival and an outlet to process his feelings, but in so doing he managed to rejuvenate the French cultural scene after World War II. 

“He just wants to bring beauty back into the world — what an extraordinary thing to say and what a thing to be able to attempt — and he does it,” Mendelsohn said. “These great achievements are made from very normal human situations and, in Christian’s sense, a very sensitive person who doesn’t like himself that much but finds a way to do some stuff which is really good.”

Juliette Binoche in "The New Look."
Oscar winner Juliette Binoche plays Coco Chanel in “The New Look.”Apple

Although “The New Look” features a number of other colorful characters, including fashion designers like Cristóbal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Hubert de Givenchy, they are largely defined by their connections to Dior and Chanel. Dior’s close relationship with his sister, especially as he fights to save her from the Nazis, forms the emotional core of the story. But the series also offers a more subtle depiction of Dior’s sexuality.

During his life, Dior had a number of discreet male lovers, the last of whom was Jacques Benita, a Moroccan singer three decades Dior’s junior. Dior had at least “four or five relationships with men named Jacques” — he was living in France, after all — so the Jacques in “The New Look” isn’t actually Benita, Kessler said.

“Balenciaga was someone who was in a very long-term relationship, and Dior had many friends who had relationships that were more open. But Dior, being very Catholic, there’s a lot of internal conflict for Dior around his sexuality. It’s not something that he seemed to be particularly comfortable with,” Kessler noted, adding that there could be opportunities to explore that part of his personal life further in future installments. “It’s part of the story, but we’re trying to depict it in a way that felt truthful to Christian Dior himself.”

Ben Mendelsohn in "The New Look."
Dior, who was Catholic, struggled with his sexuality.Roger Do Minh / Apple

In “The New Look,” Jacques is played by David Kammenos, who according to Mendelsohn is “the perfect match for Dior” because he is able to counterbalance Dior’s more “florid, neurotic” energy. He and Kammenos “would go for it” in every one-on-one scene that the lovers shared — “we had fights, we made out, we did everything” — but Mendelsohn said it was important that the show didn’t try to define Dior’s sexuality for the audience.

What Mendelsohn found arguably more compelling was the show’s depiction of the close friendships among the male designers of that era. For example, he pointed to a scene in the third episode in which Dior, still reeling from his sister being sent to a work camp, eats a bit of chocolate with Balenciaga (Nuno Lopes).

“That type of male closeness is not a type of male closeness that I’ve ever performed before,” he said. “To be able to look at each other in a way that is a different type of male togetherness and understanding and have it not be an event, and have it just be a type of a closeness or at ease with each other, was beautiful.”

Although “The New Look” could have been billed as a 10-part limited series, Kessler said the show was originally conceived to track the rise of the modern French fashion industry and, if Apple TV+ chooses to order additional episodes, could theoretically last five or six seasons.

A scene from "The New Look."
Series creator Todd A. Kessler said “The New Look” was originally conceived to track the rise of the modern French fashion industry.Roger Do Minh / Apple

The first couple of seasons would focus on Dior and Chanel, “and there’s a handoff at a certain point when Dior dies” in 1957 “to Yves Saint Laurent, because Yves Saint Laurent was Dior’s protégé. Yves Saint-Laurent was 21 when he took over the world’s most profitable, influential fashion house,” he said.

“Not only did Yves Saint Laurent have a personal life and an extraordinary story that even rivals Christian Dior’s story, but you then get the understanding of how these fashion houses were handed over to other designers that worked under the name of the founder, which up until that point hadn’t really happened,” Kessler added. “By following the life of Yves Saint Laurent for the latter seasons, it brings us closer to where we are today in the world of fashion.”

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