Felicity Dawkins had fashion in her blood.
She had been born above her modiste mother's shop, Madame Follette's, and raised among the bolts of silk and lace, picking buttons off the floor and fetching thread for the seamstresses as soon as she could toddle along and name her colors. By the time she was six, she had her own tiny pincushion to tie to her wrist and a small pair of scissors, so she could learn to make little dresses for her doll from scraps of cloth. When she reached ten, she was responsible for mending her own clothing and that of her younger brother Henry, and when she turned thirteen, she began making their clothes as well. Their father had died soon after Henry was born, and both children were expected to help in the shop, from necessity as well as to keep them out of trouble.
Her mother, Sophie-Louise, made her an apprentice at fifteen, and taught her not only how to cut and stitch a gown that fit properly, but also how to coordinate colors and embellishments for a harmonious and tasteful finished ensemble. At eighteen she became a seamstress and began taking on clients of her own, learning how to steer every client gently but surely toward a style, color, and fit that would flatter her, regardless of what the client came in wanting.
And Felicity loved it. The neat little shop in Vine Street was her world, filled with gorgeous fabrics and opportunities to create something beautiful each and every day. It was difficult work, to be sure; bending over a dress for hours at a time made her back ache and her eyes burn, as the candles burned low. But it was all worth it when the customer returned and put on the gown for the first time. Felicity lived for the moment her client's eyes would widen in delight as she saw herself in the mirror, and turn from side to side, exclaiming at the line of the skirt and the fit of the bodice.
Unfortunately, at some point those moments started becoming more infrequent. She wasn't sure when; the end of the war, perhaps, when Paris and its styles were accessible again, rendering London's dressmakers a shade less vital. Or perhaps it was the changing shape of women's gowns, away from light and elegant frocks toward gowns of heavier fabrics with more elaborate decoration. Madame Follette's excelled at the Classical silhouette, crafted of fabrics so fine they were almost sheer. Thick silks didn't drape the same way, and Sophie-Louise clucked her tongue at the puffs and ruching that seemed to sprout like mushrooms on bodices and hemlines.
"No gown needs six rows of ruffles and a tall lace collar," she vehemently declared, tossing aside the magazines filled with fashion plates of beruffled skirts and lace collars that hid the wearer's ears. "It looks ridiculous. I won't have it!"
Felicity might have agreed with her mother on some of these points of fashion, but she did not hold with Sophie-Louise's disregard for the financial impact of this decision. Women who had patronized Madame Follette's for years stopped placing their usual orders after Sophie-Louise scoffed at the trimmings they wanted. Even worse, younger women, new brides and heiresses making their debuts and country ladies finally able to come to London for a Season, did not choose Madame Follette's. To her dismay, Felicity began to see the difference between the gowns from her shop and those from rival shops. While Follette's still excelled all others in the quality of work and fit, now their gowns began to look … plain. Simple. Old-fashioned, even.
This sparked deep alarm in Felicity's breast. Follette's was everything to her, not merely her home and employment, but her heart and soul. She tried to persuade her mother to adapt to the changing styles, but Sophie-Louise was having none of it. "Not as long as I am at Follette's," she vowed.
But eventually facts must be faced: Follette's income had fallen to dangerous levels. Henry, who kept the shop's books, confided to her that they would have to ask for credit from the silk warehouses as well as from the lace makers—and there was no good prospect that they would be able to pay everyone back once they lost their top dressmaker, who decamped to another modiste's shop after a fierce argument with Sophie-Louise about embellishing sleeves with puffs at a customer's request.
Henry didn't say it aloud, but Felicity could read the books well enough. They were in debt, and their income was declining. If things went on this way much longer, they would be in danger of losing Follette's, and Felicity refused to contemplate that. She told her brother they must convince their mother of the danger she was courting. After her children, Sophie-Louise loved nothing more than her shop, and Felicity prayed they could overcome her stubborn refusal to change.
To her relief, Henry agreed with her. "I've been worried about this for a little while," he admitted, and agreed to come to dinner that night for the delicate conversation.
"Mama, we are worried about Follette's," Felicity began after the meal. "We have lost five customers this year"—she held up the letters they had sent in response to her queries about orders for the upcoming Season—"and gained only one."
"Faugh." Sophie-Louise made a face. "Witless fools chasing after styles that make them look ridiculous."
At this point, Felicity would make any outrageous gown a client wanted, provided it was paid for in ready coin. "That may be, but we need customers. It's well and good for you to frown on the current mode, but that is what people want now."
Sophie-Louise waved her hands irritably. "I won't have my name associated with it. We will get by with our current customers until this madness for fringe passes. Fringe! Puffs! Rubbish. It cannot last more than a year or two, and then everyone will come back."
Felicity and Henry exchanged a glance. "We aren't getting by that well, Mama," said Henry.
Immediately their mother's face softened. In her eyes Henry could do no wrong, which was why Felicity needed him to do this with her. Sophie-Louise would overrule and ignore her daughter's arguments, but she listened to her son.
"Don't worry, Henri," she told him soothingly. "I know what I am doing. Almost thirty years I have been a dressmaker. The styles will change."
"And that is why we must change with them," Felicity pointed out. "Please, Mama. I am worried, even if you are not."
Her mother frowned at her. "Worried? Do not be silly, Felicity. I built this shop from nothing—my designs and styles created the reputation of Follette's, and I will not allow it to be transformed into a pale imitation of Madame de Louvier's." She sniffed at the mention of a rival modiste. "She is not even French! And has no taste or restraint at all. I do not understand why she is still in business."
Felicity understood. Madame de Louvier embraced the style of the moment; whatever her customers wanted, she gave them. Her designs were not inspired or clever, and were often copied straight from the fashion plates of La Belle Assemblée without regard for the individual charms of the woman ordering the gown, but she delivered gowns in the latest styles. And for that, customers were leaving Follette's and going to her.
She turned a stern look upon her brother. He didn't like to get in the middle of arguments between the two of them, but this time he had no choice. Henry nodded. "Mama, we are surviving on credit."
"Everyone lives on credit from time to time. We have accounts at all the suppliers for this reason. When the commissions come in, we will be fine."
"No, Mama, we won't." Henry didn't blink as she looked at him in surprise. "We have been using credit for a while now. The commissions are not coming in at the rate we need. We are in danger of losing Follette's." He glanced at his sister. "Felicity is right. We need to change."
Sophie-Louise subsided, her expression troubled for the first time. Felicity tried not to feel annoyed that it took Henry's word to persuade their mother that she was right. "I don't like it."
"These are our options," Henry went on. "We could sell this building and take cheaper premises elsewhere—"
A faint grin touched his face, and Felicity bit back her own smile. Neither of them wanted to sell Follette's, either. "Very well. We could retrench—cut back on our stock, dismiss Mrs. Cartwright and perhaps Sally."
Privately Felicity wanted this option to be aired and then rejected, for the most part. Mrs. Cartwright had to go, no matter what. She had been at Follette's for many years and was a competent seamstress, but she had no imagination for design. Imagination was what Follette's lacked. Felicity needed another seamstress like Selina Fontaine, whom Sophie-Louise had hired only a few years previously, a young woman with a fresh modern vision of fashion. Sally, the fifteen-year-old apprentice, was a harder decision. If they dismissed Sally, Felicity had a sinking feeling she herself would end up sweeping the floors and stoking the fires. They could reduce the fabrics they kept in stock, but that would hurt their productivity, as they would have to visit the warehouses more frequently and pay higher prices for each order.
But the one thing they could not do was move to cheaper premises. While Vine Street had grown a little shabby, it was still very near Piccadilly and Jermyn Street, and only a few minutes' walk from Bond Street. If they relocated, it would have to be farther away from, not closer to, those fashionable shopping areas, where rents far outstripped what they could afford. Moving would announce to all the world that they were no longer a leading source of fashionable garments, but just an ordinary dressmaker. They would have to lower prices, which would compromise the quality they could offer, and then they really would be ordinary. Felicity would stoke the fires and sew every dress herself before she agreed on this path to ruin.
Sophie-Louise puffed up angrily, as hoped. "Dismiss Mrs. Cartwright! She has been with me since you were a child, Henri! How can you suggest such a thing?"
"Because we do not have the income to keep her," he bluntly replied.
"And Sally sends part of her earnings home to help her family," Sophie-Louise raged on, her accent growing stronger with each word, as it did when she was upset. "How can you be so heartless?"
"They would both lose their positions if we go out of business, Mama." Henry's sharp retort got his mother's attention. She fell back, blinking. Henry was rarely sharp with her, and indeed, his tone was considerably milder when he went on. "There is another option, but it will require some sacrifice from you, Mama … Are you willing to consider it?"
"For Follette's? Oui, I would consider anything to save it," declared his mother. "But we will not move premises!"
Henry cast a fleeting glance at Felicity, who nodded once. She all but held her breath as her brother explained. The idea was both their work, but Felicity knew it would be better received coming from Henry.
"You must step down, Mama."
Sophie-Louise's mouth dropped open in shock.
"Not forever, but for a few months—perhaps a year or two. Allow Felicity to run the shop," Henry plowed on. "She wants to bring Follette's back to prominence, but you and she are getting in each other's way."
"It is my shop!" cried Sophie-Louise. "Mine!"
"And it's failing," said Henry gently. "Felicity isn't trying to take it from you, nor am I. But Mama—we've lost so many customers. We are not gaining new ones. We must do something dramatic or we will slowly sink into impossible debt and end up losing everything."
"But why must I go?" his mother wailed. "I am the heart of Follette's!"
"For your own sake." Henry reached forward to take her clenched hand. "Follette's must change, Mama, and I know it will pain you to see it happen. Take a holiday to the seashore. You've spent your life working, you've earned a reprieve."
Sophie-Louise looked at Felicity with reproach. "You want to banish me from my own life's passion."
"No, Mama, not at all. Henry is right: You deserve a holiday."
"A year-long holiday," her mother said sourly.
Felicity ducked her head. "It will take awhile to turn things around."
Sophie-Louise looked between the two of them. "You are both against me. How can I win?" She sighed. "Very well, I will go. But I will be keeping an eye on each of you," she added as the siblings exchanged a glance of intense relief.
"Of course, Mama." Henry got to his feet and kissed her cheek. "No one expected otherwise."
Felicity walked him down the stairs, through Follette's main salon. They were fortunate to have a street-level shop, unlike many modistes. She and her mother shared the rooms above the shop, but Henry had taken his own lodgings years ago. "Thank you," she told her brother. "I wish she would listen to me and not require your persuasion."
He buttoned his coat and grinned. "Follette's is my concern, too. You shouldn't have to do it all."
"No, I—I want to do it all." She took a deep breath. "I have ideas, Henry. I can save Follette's, I know it. We only need an opportunity to prove ourselves again, refreshed and revitalized, and we'll be one of the top modistes in London."
"We have to make our opportunities," he pointed out. "Time is of the essence."
She sighed. "I know. But we'll find something." Somehow, she silently added.
"That's why I supported your plan to take over. I know you can do it; haven't I seen your determination up close every day of my life?" He put on his hat and gave her a grin in farewell. "I've got Mama out of your way, so step to it."
She laughed. Henry opened the door, letting in a blast of cold wind, and strode out into the January night. Felicity closed the door with a shiver and shot the bolt.
Her gaze traveled over the dark and silent shop. I will save this, she thought fiercely. Follette's was hers. Henry kept a keen eye on the books and was proud of Follette's, but he didn't love it the way she did. He had no interest in fashion, and he didn't want to run the shop.
And now that Mama had agreed, Felicity's mind raced. She had to dismiss Mrs. Cartwright and hire someone who could bring more flair to their work. She had to scrutinize the latest styles for elements that could be adapted and polished into Follette's own unique signature elements. She needed to refurbish, as economically as possible, the premises to reflect their new modernity. And most of all, she needed a significant event that would showcase her work and put Follette's name on the lips of every woman in London. Perhaps the Russian czar would visit again and spawn a frenzy of balls. Perhaps a handful of heiresses would make their debuts.
Ten days later, old King George died. The church bells tolled, the state funeral plans were in all the papers, and Felicity wrote one word on a piece of paper and pinned it to her wall for inspiration: