Saturday Storytime: La beauté sans virtu

I don’t often repeat authors for Saturday Storytime, but oh, I do like what Genevieve Valentine does when she’s writing about fashion. Though, maybe, “like” is not quite always the right word.

The Old Baroque Concert Hall is on the edge of town, and only the House of Centifolia’s long history and Rhea’s name could get anyone from the industry crowd to come out this far.

The runway snakes across most of the derelict space, weaving back in on itself in a pattern that came to Rhea in a dream—it reminded her of the journey through life, and of the detox trip she took to Austria.

The narrow walkway crosses itself at different sloping elevations to mimic the mountain trails; the oily pool sliding beneath it all reflects the muted tones of this season’s collection, and pays homage to the foot-buckets of cold and hot water in the Austrian spa that drained lipids and negative thoughts from the body.

With thirty-five looks in the fall collection and six points of varying heights across which the meandering runway connects—“It’s more of a maze than a trail,” Rhea explains to potential choreographers, “it’s very spiritual”—the timing has to be precise, but there are only two windows in which the girls are available to practice: once during the fitting the day before, and once mere hours before the show.

Three of the models have to be fired for having scheduled another show the day before this one, which makes them traitors to the House (you don’t book something else without permission, rookie mistake, Rhea cuts them so fast one of them gets thrown out of a cab), and the three alternates have to be called up and fitted. It means six hours of all the girls standing in the unheated warehouse, loose-limbed and pliant as they’re ordered to be for fittings, while assistants yank them in and out of outfits and take snapshots until the new assignments emerge and they’re allowed to go rehearse.

The choreographer—he has a name, but no one dares use it when speaking of him, lest he appear before they’ve corrected their posture—thinks carefully for a long time.

He paces the length of the runway, hopping nimbly from one level to the next at the intersections. He doubles back sharply once or twice in a way that looks, horribly convincingly, as if he’s actually become lost and someone will have to risk breaking ranks to go get him. Then he reaches the end, nods as if satisfied, points to six places on the stage, and shouts, “The girls, please!”


There were two girls—there are always two, so one can be made an example of.

The one who was kind to an old beggar woman was gifted with the roses and diamonds that dropped from her mouth with every word; the one who refused to get water for a princess to drink spent the rest of her life vomiting vipers and toads.

As a girl, Rhea listened and understood what she wasn’t being told. (It’s how she climbed to the top of a couture house. Rhea hears.)

The one who was kind married a prince, and spent the rest of her life granting audiences and coughing up bouquets and necklaces for the guests. The one who refused was driven into the forest, where there was no one who wanted anything fetched, and she could spit out a viper any time she needed venom, and she never had to speak again.

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Saturday Storytime: La beauté sans virtu