Amazon Prime’s new series The Collection shares an ominous, intriguing intensity with the streaming service’s The Man in the High Castle.
The Collection, whose first season is now available, revolves around a Paris fashion house in 1947, as France is trying to dust itself off from the wartime Nazi occupation.
The problem, The Collection reminds us, is that it was not only the Germans who made that dust so toxic. It was also many of the French, whose moral bargains during the occupation have dark, enduring consequences.
Paul Sabine (Richard Coyle, top, left) heads the family fashion house that now bears his name. He cuts a deal with a businessman who wants to reestablish Paris as the fashion capitol of the world and needs a glamorous, eye-catching collection to do it.
Paul loves that challenge, though he faces a couple of X factors. One is that Paul isn’t a fashion designer. The designer in the family is his brother Claude (Tom Riley, top, right), who is, let’s say, less focused than Paul.
Claude also has serious personal issues, which further tangles matters because making Paris matter in the fashion world with a Sabine collection requires glamorizing the house of Sabine itself.
Life magazine has already sent a jaded older reporter and an eager young photographer to write an “inside the House of Sabine” story.
The reporter immediately wonders what the Sabine family did over the last eight years to keep themselves in business. Did anyone collaborate with the occupying Nazis and, if so, what did that collaboration entail?
The photographer, Billy (Max Deacon), is fascinated with the rebirth of Paris and wants to document its everyday face.
He spots a woman who works as a seamstress at Sabine, Nina (Jenna Thiam, right), and photographs her privately in a Sabine dress. Paul Sabine sees the same combination of innocence and freshness in Nina that Billy sees, and he hires Billy to be Sabine’s fashion photographer.
Billy doesn’t fully get Paris yet, despite his enthusiasm, and this sets up a powerful scene where he takes Nina into a street setting with disastrous consequences.
That scene underscores what makes The Collection more than just another high-fashion soap opera with delicious eye candy.
In some ways its core lies in the relationship between Paul and Claude, and while this is hardly the first complicated sibling relationship in a TV series, this one has the overlay of unspoken things both men apparently felt extraordinary circumstances had forced them to do.
At the same time, beyond a tangled family story, The Collection contemplates the larger role of the high fashion industry in national culture.
In 1947 Paris, where regular people were still on bread rationing, should some disproportionate amount of resources be spent on expensive fabrics and labor for clothing that would only be worn by the ultra-rich?
Paul Sabine argues yes, absolutely, that the purpose of high fashion is to make dreams tangible, to reassure everyone that beauty and glamour have survived the darkness and will bloom again. It is a vision of hope.
Not everyone agrees.
The eight-part series, a French-British production, naturally provides some pure fashion moments. More often, it uses the fashion world to illuminate a time when the desire to embrace a brighter future can’t obviate the need to examine a darker past.
The large cast, first-rate from top to bottom, also includes Mamie Gummer (above) as Helen, Paul’s American wife, and Irene Jacoby as Marianne, Nina’s mother and an executive at Sabine.
The Collection differs considerably from The Man in the High Castle in that the Castle world is enslaved where the Collection world is nominally liberated.
In both worlds, though, no one can escape the “what you did in the war” question, which has nothing to do with whether you wore a uniform and everything to do with the person you can be in that nominally brighter future.