On New Year’s Day, my mother parked herself on the sofa with her sister, my Tia Pili, and announced they planned to binge-watch “Velvet.”
“Oh, it’s this beautiful show that Tia Pili and I watched in Spain, and it’s on Netflix,” she said, which helped me decide that I should probably leave the house for a few years.
The pair spend summers in my maternal homeland of Spain, and during my yearly visits, I’ve logged significant TV-watching time with them.
And a lot of what they watch is no bueno.
But when my mother hit play on “Velvet,” the scene opened in an art deco-styled women’s department store. Women walked around in beautiful but modest dresses, and men in dapper suits exchanged pleasantries before sneaking off to the local bar, Pausa, for an afternoon Manhattan. It looked like early “Mad Men.”
I was instantly hooked.
The drama, which has English subtitles, is about the fictitious Galerias Velvet, the most prestigious women’s clothing store in 1950s Madrid. In the first episode, the owner commits suicide and leaves his hunky son, Alberto Márquez (Miguel Ángel Silvestre), to pick up the pieces, since the store’s gone bankrupt and is in desperate need of a cash infusion.
Salvation arrives in the form of wealthy businessman Gerardo Otegui, who offers to put up the money to save the iconic “galerias.” The only catch: Alberto must marry Rafael’s socialite daughter, Cristina (Manuela Velasco), who’s long been besotted with the handsome playboy. Cristina is beautiful, impossibly stylish, and knows how to soothe the growing tension within the Márquez family with her easy charm. Even Alberto himself admits she is the perfect woman.
However, he’s in love with someone else — Ana Ribera (Paula Echevarria), Velvet’s beautiful and talented seamstress.
The pair grew up together at the store after an orphaned Ana came to live with her uncle, Don Emilio (the store’s manager and most loyal worker). The show frequently flashes back to their childhood filled with stolen moments: secret trips to the store’s rooftop to throw paper airplanes, sneaking into the store windows to exchange Christmas gifts, and their pretend weddings in the store’s workroom. Ultimately, Alberto’s father forbids the union and sends his son to London to keep them apart. They reunite as adults, only to again be torn apart by Otegui’s offer.
Ana persuades her love to propose to Cristina, save the store, and hire a talented designer who’ll produce a blockbuster collection. The cutting-edge designs will revolutionize Spanish fashion and usher in a younger clientele along with the stodgy ladies who lunch. Of course, Velvet will then make enough money to pay back Otegui. Alberto will be free of his financial obligation to Otegui and, more important, free to marry Ana.
In addition to his lady dilemma, Alberto must fend off his conniving stepmother Gloria and coddled, entitled little sister, Patricia, who are both making power plays. Along with Otegui, their meddling complicates this perfect plan.
In a “Downton Abbey”-esque twist, Velvet really comes alive in the workrooms and modest workers dormitories under the grandly appointed store. Adorable seamstresses toil away and dream of love while trying to avoid the watchful eye of the tightly wound boss, Doña Blanca.
Perhaps the most endearing character is Alberto’s best friend, the mustached, mischievous Mateo (Javier Rey), the womanizing Robin to Alberto’s Batman, providing comic relief with sharp, witty dialogue.
The two of them drive cool sports cars, sip brown liquor in the executive office, and never seem to have a wrinkle in their gray, three-piece suits.
Though the men cut dashing figures, the central character of the series is the ladies’ fashion. Full skirts, cinched waists and beautiful fabrics are paraded in front of the camera like a deliciously retro catwalk.
Admittedly, I love any Spanish import, so I wondered if there were any non-Hispanophiles watching. And yes, the Internet is full of people saying they stumbled upon the show on Netflix. One girl named Cinnamon Joy offers a passionate but cringe-worthy YouTube review where she refers to “Doña Blanca” — Doña being a term of respect — as “Donna.” If someone like Cinnamon Joy’s doing YouTube reviews for this, I’d say there’s broad appeal.
By the end of the first episode, I knew I was in dangerous territory. There are 29 episodes total so far, each more than an hour long; I just finished all of them, the first two seasons. Netflix still hasn’t made Season 3 available, so I’ve tried to stay off the Internet lest I stumble across any spoilers.
And now I must offer a sincere apology to both my mother and Tia Pili. You were right. “Velvet” is beautiful.