Christopher D’Arblay stalked the Hôtel Costes’ darkened foyer, his monogrammed patent Gucci slippers glinting in the dim corridors. He paused by his favourite velvet loveseat to take in the opulent scene of what he now considered his home from home. He was, as he liked to pronounce loftily, artiste en résidence, a role for which he was gifted a toile de Jouy-lined suite four times a year at Paris’s hippest hangout.
D’Arblay was there to sketch fashion’s great and good. He held court nightly at a table with a plum position for locating his next subject among the fiendishly chic crowd. That evening he was taking on his biggest commission to date: live drawing guests at a gala at the Ritz to celebrate the Légion d’Honneur of the city’s greatest – subtext oldest – living couturier, Angelo.
Just five years earlier, D’Arblay had been studying millinery at the Royal Academy of Arts, where instead of creating dazzlingly avant-garde titfers, he’d spent three years scribbling under-the-radar caricatures of Yohji-clad lecturers. His obvious “eye” meant his tutors bestowed on him the best internships and stellar marks. A glorious career beckoned. Until, that was, his graduation celebration, held in the Kensington penthouse of the course’s most loyal benefactor, at which D’Arblay downed copious amounts of Krug, released the hostess’s beloved Maine Coons into the W8 wilderness, and then corralled the guests into an impromptu search party. Worse, in an exuberant celebration of the cats’ return, he filmed a spoof of the hat world’s holy trinity and uploaded it to YouTube, where it went viral in seconds. After that a future with Treacy, Jones or Stewart was no longer possible and he graduated with little hope of designing anything more than mother-of-the-bride hats at a down‑at-heel department store.
So D’Arblay took a job as manny and “creative consultant” to Cosima, the gifted four-year-old progeny of a fashion mogul and his model wife Valentina. And as he tutored Cosima in Bouché, Erickson and Erté and transformed the nursery into a muralled Narnia, he realised his true calling was illustration, not headgear, and poured all his creative energy into developing a signature quick-draw style, blending the sinuous lines of René Gruau with the exuberance of Antonio Lopez.
Soon Valentina started showing D’Arblay’s sketches to her friends in Paris, including Cosima’s godfather Carl, who invited him to paint his entire summer couture collection and simultaneously anointed him the world’s hottest fashion illustrator. Now he was fashion royalty himself, with a column in Vogue Nippon, a contract with Estée Lauder and his number on speed-dial for Hollywood starlets seeking to be immortalised by his lightning penstrokes.
He’d barely touched alcohol since his Krug-fuelled downfall, but now he felt like celebrating. He headed to the Hemingway bar at the Ritz, where he joined a trio of his couture clients for a champagne cocktail – or was it two? – before taking his seat on a plinth where his materials had been laid out. He started to draw, his hand darting skittishly across the paper, sketch after sketch.
D’Arblay barely acknowledged couture legend Angelo, who was the colour of a clementine and coiffed with his signature silver candy-floss bouffant, when he took his seat. Manically he continued, detailing the ghoulish features of the octogenarian designer in garish caricature. A crowd gathered and the more D’Arblay sketched, the louder they gasped.
Early the next morning, a handwritten note arrived from Hôtel Costes’ owner – another victim from the previous evening. D’Arblay’s residency was withdrawn with immediate effect. He gathered his things mournfully as the events of the night came to him in flashes of shocking clarity. Making his way along Rue Saint-Honoré towards an uncertain future, he knew he had blown it again. His phone rang. It was Valentina. Not her as well. “Darling!” he thought he heard her say. “Carl just called. You must go to the studio now,” she cried. “He’s delighted. He never did like Angelo and his ludicrous overblown clothes – he wants you to draw the couture collection again.”
And just like that, he was back in the game.