Still crazy about Coco
By Susannah Frankel NZ Herald Thursday Oct 7, 2010
A new book about Coco Chanel captures the spirit of the
great designer. Here Viva explores how Chanel revolutionised
women's fashion, and why, even 25 years after Karl Lagerfeld
took over, the label remains as iconic as ever.
Ask Karl Lagerfeld to sum up - in only 10 words - the power of
Chanel and it's no great surprise when the great couturier, who
- let's face it - is far from a shrinking violet where his dealings
with the media are concerned, comes back with a rather longer answer
Chanel encapsulates the idea of "modernity" first and foremost,
he says. It embodies "a contemporary attitude - whatever the time
or the decade". Chanel also stands for "luxury" and "the power
of the logo". The iconic double C branding is surely the most instantly
recognisable in fashion history.
Also, for Chanel, read "the power of the handbag - the most famous
in the world". Lagerfeld speaks here of the "2.55" in particular,
named after its date of birth in February 1955, quilted, to keep
its shape and echoing the texture of classic British outerwear,
originally favoured by jockeys.
(Chanel, for her part, favoured jockeys in return, but more of
that later.) Suspended from a gilt shoulder strap, this was the
first purse designed for a woman ensuring her hands were free.
The white camellia, too, says Lagerfeld, is an integral part of
the story. It was Chanel's favourite flower and her successor has,
in the past, coloured it every which way - on one particularly
memorable occasion, even casting it in diamonds the size of boiled
sweets as the single closure to a perfectly cut Chanel haute couture
"I also love camellias," Lagerfeld goes on to confirm, "and gardenias.
But I love old-style-looking roses too, like the ones you can only
find in Paris at Odorantes in Rue Madame." The black ribbon bow
- today a staple of every couture catwalk and no longer just Chanel's
own - is treated with similar diversity. "We do this in all kinds
of shapes, colours and materials," Lagerfeld says.
Perhaps more significantly, the Chanel
name stands also for "timelessness,
but for fashion at the same time" - while the recipe may be updated
each season in line with the mood of the moment, the main ingredients
remain the same - and for "the two-tone shoe, not only the pump
but also "the ballerina' and so forth". Chanel gave this to the
world in 1957 - the first pair had a sling-back - in beige with
a black tip, which has the miraculous effect of foreshortening
the foot and lengthening the leg. Then, continues Lagerfeld, there's "the
magic address: 31 Rue Cambon". Chanel set up shop as a milliner
in that street in Paris for the first time in 1910. The plaque
on the door originally read "Chanel Modes". Although now significantly
expanded, it remains the company's headquarters.
Lagerfeld goes on to cite "the mystery of the Coromandel screens
she loved and which have inspired her": it is the stuff of fashion
folklore that Chanel was always surrounded and indeed shielded
by particularly fine examples of these. Finally, the world has
Chanel to thank for "the mixing of real and fake jewellery and
the invention of fashion costume jewellery", enjoying something
of a resurgence just now, incidentally, as seen at the most recent
round of international collections everywhere from Balenciaga to
Lanvin and from Louis Vuitton to, well, Chanel.
True to her unusually democratic stance, Chanel herself thought
nothing of mixing diamonds and paste, real pearls with great ropes
of more reasonably priced approximations. She wore them well and
today Lagerfeld embellishes everything from sunglasses to handbags
with more of the same.
"You see," Lagerfeld argues with an energy and enthusiasm that
belie his years, "here are already 12 reasons and you asked for
10 ... That shows the power - and the staying power - of Chanel.
The image, the fashion and the idea of the woman herself as the
first modern one. It is the idea of modernity, a life and a lifestyle
that women can identify with."
It is now over 25 years since Lagerfeld took to the helm of France's
most famous fashion house. Chanel died in January 1971 and it seemed
only decent that a good decade should go by before anyone dared
to step into her supremely influential shoes. It is worth noting
that Chanel has remained unswervingly faithful to Lagerfeld - by
now the greatest couturier still practising the craft - and Lagerfeld
has stayed true to Chanel - today fashion's best-known name.
Although Lagerfeld is the man at the helm of the Chanel brand
today, it all began in the hands of the house's namesake, whose
life story is as much a part of the label's many signatures as
a gilt chain is to the hem of the jacket of a Chanel boucle wool
suit. After all, if anyone might reasonably be described as an
autobiographical designer, it is Chanel.
Equally important is that Chanel's desire
to create clothes sprang above all from her wish to dress herself
in a manner she saw fit. She was nothing if not reactionary. "If I embarked on this profession
it was precisely to make everything I didn't like unfashionable," she
once said and she lived and worked by that rule tirelessly. Whichever
way one chooses to look at it, the romance of this, perhaps the
ultimate rags-to-riches tale, is unprecedented. With this in mind,
it is small wonder that, 40 years after her death, not one but
two Chanel movies have been made in the past couple of years: Audrey
Tautou played the young designer in Coco Avant Chanel which
was devoted to her young life; and Marina Hands appeared as the
lead in Coco & Igor which told the story of Chanel's
relationship with the composer Stravinsky.
Gabrielle Chanel was born on August 19, 1883, in the French province
of Saumur. Her father, Albert Chanel, was a market trader. Her
mother, Jeanne Devolle, was of humble origins, bore several children
and died young in 1895, leaving her daughter to be educated by
the nuns at an orphanage in Aubazine. Gabrielle was taught how
to sew there and, when holidaying with her sisters, learned the
art of millinery - they loved hats. Aged 20 and based in the garrison
town of Moulins, Chanel worked as an assistant in a shop specialising
in trousseaux and layettes and then as a seamstress. By night she
sang for her supper in cafes and bars and it was there the slim,
slight, dark-haired, black-eyed figure first became known as Coco.
In the early years of the 20th century,
Chanel moved in with Etienne Balsan, a famous horse breeder,
and although not accepted by the elevated echelons of society
in which he circulated, she became an accomplished horsewoman
and among the first of her sex to dare to wear jodhpurs. In order
to deflect the received ideas of a mistress, dressed in the requisite
frills and furbelows of the Belle Epoque style, Chanel set to
adapting the staples of menswear to her needs, often scandalising
others in her entourage by actually wearing men's clothing. "A woman is always over-dressed and never
sufficiently elegant," she said later and few did more to correct
that fact than Chanel.
Her uniform of strictly tailored, unembellished garments topped
with nothing more frothy than a straw boater caught on and it wasn't
long before she was making hats, in particular, for her friends.
In her mid-20s Chanel was befriended by
an English industrialist, the renowned polo player Arthur "Boy" Capel,
who duly installed her in an apartment in Paris where she became
his lover and began making hats on a more professional basis.
By 1910, interest in her minimal and profoundly modern designs
was such that she had outgrown this space and opened the shop
at Rue Cambon. It wasn't long before she had expanded her operation
to include a store in Deauville selling clothes as well as hats,
and then a fully fledged couture house in Biarritz where, by
1916, she was responsible for 300 employees all dedicated to
the task of creating naturally feminine and relatively simple
clothing, favouring freedom of movement and rejecting anything
even remotely ostentatious or superfluous.
Across the Atlantic - and the American market was as important
then as it is today - US Harper's Bazaar picked up on
her success, publishing a picture of what they described as "the
charming chemise dress", again borrowed from menswear - this time,
specifically, a man's shirt. A year later, Chanel cut her lustrous
dark hair into a neat bob, the better to suit her naturally androgynous
silhouette and sun-tanned skin. Although it is often said that
she invented the swimsuit - and it's certainly true that she went
on to craft stretch clothing in jersey, formerly the preserve of
nothing more haute than men's underwear - here Lagerfeld begs to
"There are no images of Chanel in swimsuits
and we know only the heavy bathing-suit costumes she designed
for the Ballets Russes' Le
Train Bleu," he says. Jean Cocteau also worked on the 1924
production and the collaboration between the fashion designer and
the artist, who later also introduced her to Picasso, was to continue
for more than 10 years. "But Chanel embodies the idea of the
modern women and so she inherited that image too. People think
she was the first. In fact she was not, but she is remembered that
way. Now sportswear is all over the world and is not only worn
for sport. Some sportswear and some sports did not exist in Chanel's
time, but they represent something she would have liked if she
had known it."
In 1919, Capel, described by Chanel as "the love of her life",
was killed in a car crash and she threw herself into her work creating
many of the looks that remain the staple of the contemporary woman's
wardrobe to this day. In 1926 she designed her first "little black
dress"; in 1928 she came up with her first tweed suit.
That is not to say that her personal life
was anything but colourful. Over the years she was linked to
the exiled Russian Grand Duke, Dimitri Pavlovich, related to
Tsar Nicholas II, and he introduced her to Ernest Beaux (the
perfumier with whom she created Chanel No. 5) and to the sparkling
beauty of baroque jewellery. She was also the lover of the second
Duke of Westminster, Hugh "Bendor" Grosvenor,
who shared her life for 10 years, and whose aristocratic English
wardrobe inspired her work continuously. Despite the longevity
of their relationship, Chanel refused to marry the Duke. "There
have been several Duchesses of Westminster," she would say. "There
is only one Chanel."
By 1935, Chanel owned five buildings in
Rue Cambon, employed 4000 people and was at the height of her
power. In 1939, however, and just before the outbreak of war,
she closed her couture house, saying: "I thought there wouldn't be any more dresses." She
would, of course, have been able to live out the rest of her
days in splendour, profiting from the sale of accessories and
fragrance alone. Throughout the Occupation, Chanel spent most
of her time at the Paris Ritz where she conducted an affair with
a Nazi officer. At the end of the war she was arrested - though
not charged - for collaboration and spent the following years
in relative obscurity based in Switzerland. And that could have
Some things are not to be, however, and
in 1954, at the grand old age of 71 and spurred on at least in
part by her rancour at the immense success of Christian Dior's
proudly people-pleasing and retrogressive New Look, she began
designing couture collections once more. Dior, she said, was "a madman" for
wanting to put women back into corsets and overblown skirts.
Though the French - by then in thrall not only to Dior but also
Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Jacques Fath - were less
than effusive over Chanel's new designs, emancipated American women
were more quick on the uptake, viewing her softly tailored jackets,
silk blouses and wrap-over skirts as more fitting for women in
the latter part of the 20th century than anything her competitors
had to offer.
It wasn't long before what was described
as "The Chanel Look" was
restored to its former glory. It upholds its position as purveyor
of all that is quintessentially understated and chic to this day.
"I don't remember the first time I saw the Chanel logo," says
Lagerfeld - in its original form, the double C was the fastening
on the 2.55 bag. "But I noticed it when I took over Chanel, when
real logo power started all over the world. For a company it is
very important today because, much more than in the past, we all
sell in parts of the world where they cannot read our writing or
understand our languages. In one part - a very big part - of the
world it is all about signs when they write. They can memorise
perhaps the famous 'CC' but they have difficulties reading the
name first. They find out later. In the past we sold mostly to
people who knew our culture and could read English or French. Now
it is only a part of our clientele. Logos are the Esperanto of
marketing, luxury and business."
And there is perhaps no more potent signifier of luxury than
the name of Chanel - from the logo itself to the cosmetic and fragrance
lines, accessories and, of course, clothing.
Lagerfeld says that these - and he is
speaking of the Chanel jacket in particular - have "a staying-power that is difficult
The secrets of its success are manifold but inextricably linked
to the life, times and pioneering spirit of the late Coco Chanel.
"Many of Chanel's private dicta have entered into the unspoken
rules that still govern fashion," wrote Cecil Beaton in The
Glass of Fashion, published in 1954. "Though Chanel herself
echoed the theory that fashions are never revived, it is a tribute
to her rare and remarkable practicality, and an anomaly in the
annals of recorded fashion, that few of her innovations became
More than 50 years on, his words continue
to resonate, and of that, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel herself would
Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life