Fashion design is big business. Whether you’re a fan of a certain designer, or you couldn’t care less what name you’re wearing, it’s hard to deny the influence designers have. The most successful designer houses make billions each year; and buyers for large and small companies know that at least some of their profits depend on having the latest creations. The fashion design business is highly competitive, too.
With that tension, and with so much at stake, it shouldn’t be surprising that fashion designers and design houses would play a role in crime fiction. Fashion design’s a very effective context, and there’s plenty of opportunity for conflict and worse.
In Agatha Christie’s Three Act Tragedy (AKA Murder in Three Acts), we are introduced to successful fashion designer Cynthia Dacres. Always alert to the newest trends, she’s built her business on cutting-edge clothes. Her fashion design company, Ambrosine, Ltd., seems on the surface to be doing quite well. One evening, she and her husband, Captain Freddy Dacres, attend a cocktail party at the home of famous actor Sir Charles Cartwright. All goes well until another guest, Reverend Stephen Babbington, suddenly collapses and dies of what turns out to be a poisoned drink. Hercule Poirot is also at the party, and takes an interest in what happened. Not long afterwards, there’s another, similar murder. This time, well-known specialist Dr. Bartholomew Strange is murdered at his home in Yorkshire during a dinner party. Several of the same guests (including the Dacres) attended both parties; and it’s very likely that the murders are related. Cynthia Dacres becomes a suspect when Poirot takes an interest in this case and works with the police to find out who the killer is.
Margery Allingham’s Fashion in Shrouds features fashion designer Valentine ‘Val’ Ferris, sister of Allingham’s sleuth, Albert Campion. In this novel, Campion discovers the body of Richard Portland-Smith, who disappeared three years previously. The trail leads to Portland-Smith’s former fiancée, famous actress Georgia Wells. Since Wells is good friends with Campion’s sister, and her best client, Campion asks his sister for an introduction. That meeting takes place at a major event during which Ferris’ newest designs are to be revealed. The evening is ruined when it’s discovered that the design for the main creation has been leaked. Then, there’s a murder. And another. And Ferris is implicated. So Campion works to find out who’s really responsible.
Ellery Queen’s The Fourth Side of the Triangle introduces readers to successful fashion designer Sheila Grey. She’s passionate about creating new clothing designs. She’s not just talented; she also has strong business skills. So she’s not dependent on anyone, and she has no desire to marry and have children. In fact, she’s gained a certain amount of something like notoriety for her series of affairs. Dane McKell meets her when he discovers that she’s in a relationship with his father, wealthy business mogul Ashton McKell. Then one night, she is murdered, and Inspector Richard Queen investigates, as does his son, Ellery. The most likely suspect is Ashton McKell, but he is soon cleared of suspicion. Then, McKell’s wife Letitia becomes a suspect. So does Dane. It turns out that the victim’s fashion designs contain an important clue to her murderer.
There’s another sort of look at the fashion design industry in Rhys Bowen’s For the Love of Mike, which takes place at the very beginning of the 20th Century. Molly Murphy has emigrated from Dublin to New York City. There, she’s decided to continue operating the PI business her former mentor left behind when he died. Most of her cases consist of following adulterous spouses, and she can’t stomach that for much longer. Then, in one plot thread of the novel, she gets a different sort of case. Clothing designer Max Mostel has determined that someone’s been stealing his designs and selling them to his biggest competitor, Lowenstein’s. Mostel and Murphy put together a plan for finding out who’s guilty. Murphy goes undercover briefly at Mostel’s, to learn the trade and get to know some of the people who work there. Then, she goes undercover at Lowenstein’s, so she can catch the guilty person. Among other things, this novel gives a ‘behind the scenes’ look at what it was once like to produce those design creations and sell them to shops.
Fans of J.K. Rowling/Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike novels will know that, in The Cuckoo’s Calling, Strike gets involved in the death of supermodel Lula Landry. She fell (or was it pushed? Or did she jump?) from her balcony three months previously. At the time, the police claimed it was a case of suicide, and the victim did have a history of depression. Still, her adoptive brother John Bristow hires Strike to find out the truth about her death, claiming that he’s not convinced it was suicide. Part of the trail leads to Guy Somé, a well-known fashion designer whose creations the victim modeled. She and Somé were close friends; in fact, she’d recently signed a lucrative contract to model his clothes. It’s hoped that he can provide some insight into why she might have died. At the very least, Somé can help Strike trace her last days and weeks. It’s an interesting look at the world of today’s high-powered fashion designing.
And then there’s Sophie Littlefield’s Hanging By a Thread, a YA standalone featuring fledgling clothes designer Clare Knight. At the beginning of the novel, she and her mother have just moved back to her home town of Winston, California, a quiet beach community. There, she sets up a business with her best friend, Rachel, selling the one-of-a-kind vintage clothes she designs. On the surface, life in Winston seems idyllic. But the town has had its share of tragedy. For the last two years, a young person has disappeared during the July Fourth celebrations. One was ten-year-old Dillon Granger. The second was a high school student, Amanda Stavros. Gossip has started that someone else will disappear this year, but Clare doesn’t believe it, and tries to enjoy life in Winston. Until she discovers a denim jacket that Amanda owned. Clare is a synthaesthete, who senses people’s pasts when she touches clothes they’ve worn. When she finds the jacket, Clare knows that Amanda was murdered. Now she looks into the reason why, and uncovers some dark secrets about her home town.
See what I mean? Fashion design can be exciting. For some very lucky and talented designers, it can also be lucrative. But it can also be dangerous…
*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice’s Rainbow High.