The Allure of Chanel
Paul Morand first met Gabrielle Chanel at a New Year's Eve party in 1921 at her salon in the rue Cambon, Paris. She was almost 40 by then, and for a decade had created her own, and then other women's, clothes more by appropriation and elimination than by design. As a provincial kept woman, she had worn adaptations of male sportswear; later, opening a hat shop with her English lover standing surety, she extended her sculptural experiments in millinery into bold new outfits: lean, mean suits and dresses in cheapo jerseys, black, beige, greys. Modernism was her métier, and also her milieu - among the other guests who foraged that evening at the buffet in her fitting rooms were Picasso, Cocteau, Braque, Satie and Lifar.
Morand prefaced this book, first published in French in 1976, with a paragraph that dated the night as the start of a future in which perfumes would not be called Autumn Dream, but assigned a number. The fitting rooms were sprayed with Chanel No 5, blended in 1921 from abstract synthetics, more modernism.
The short preface described the little black bull Coco, nostrils flared with vengeful anger, better than anyone had. He called her the exterminating angel of premodern fashion, a Eumenides, Nemesis herself, albeit Nemesis with a camellia corsage. Morand's judgements weren't just based on that distant midnight among the pins and canapés, but on many evenings at a hotel in St Moritz, circa 1947, when Chanel had summoned him as amanuensis, perhaps to polish her pronouncements for publication, although more likely she just used him for talking therapy.
Nobody else was listening to either of them. Both he and she, anti-Semites and passionately Francophile collaborationists, were unemployed and in deserved exile, given that Morand had backed Vichy during the Occupation, while Chanel had shared her wartime suite at the Ritz with a German officer lover, only to be released by a French cleansing committee three hours after her 1944 arrest because she threatened to reveal a hot secret about her old friend Churchill. The fury of Chanel's boredom and isolation snorts through Morand's prosy transcriptions of her speech; she lived for work - not fashion, she despised the actual frocks - but work itself, the strict obligation to maintain women in the simplicity, mobility and dignity to which she had reduced them in the 1920s. Naturally, Chanel lied to Morand as she had to everyone else, mostly about her bastard, pauper origins and her grands amours: she was fairly accurate about Boy Capel and the Duke of Westminster, but mocked Igor Stravinsky and the artist Paul Iribe, and kept silence about the surrealist poet Pierre Reverdy, whom she had adored.
Chanel's aggression, her bullishness that roared into bullying - wear this, don't wear that; whatever they wear, women are contemptible, confused, not worth befriending; they all get old and ugly; they are manipulated by couture's repellent "inverts" (1946 parlance for homo sexuals) - make it knackering to read Morand's interview. What an ego she must have had, even for couture, to interpret a 1936 strike of her seamstresses as a cry for her personal attention, rather than a demand for a minimum wage: how she must have resented her youthful poverty to slap her financial largesse so hard in the faces of the rich. Her analysis of her close yet loathly amity with Misia Sert, serial wife, muse and patron to artists, is disturbing and sounds like Colette about the period of that bitter novella, Julie de Carneilhan; Chanel and Misia practised malice and spite on each other for decades to avert the ennui of being senior arbiters of taste.
But such few pages of Chanel's dictation to Morand that are not directly about herself are swell, because, as a born outsider who defended her renegade status to the end, she saw the arts and society with the eye of an Auvergnate convent floor-scrubber. No surprise that when she costumed Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Règle du jeu, she reserved the wittiest outfits for the lady's maid, who is worth ten of the demanding mesdames she serves. Chanel was early to understand that the imperial Russianness of the Ballets Russes was for export only (she had bankrolled Serge Diaghilev, and remembered that he kept his trousers up with safety pins). She was also amused that Westminster's huge fortune was disbursed less on his yacht than on maintaining multiple homes, each with a full staff, a hothouse to ripen out-of-season fruit, and libraries stocked with dozens of magazines on subscription, none read, few even flicked through.
She had stared right into the superchilled core of fashion and remained unimpressed. Then she despatched minions to socialise on her behalf, and retreated alone to her atelier to wrangle the easy fit of an armhole, on which the physical freedom of modern women depends
Paper magazine Jan 7, 2009
A New Book Explores The Softer Side of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
It's neither a confidant, a former muse, or dedicated biographer who has published the most touching book on legendary designer Coco Chanel to date. Instead, it's photographer, Douglas Kirkland who was none of these, yet so much more to Chanel in the brief time he knew her. His latest book, published by Glitteratti is titled simply, Coco Chanel: Three Weeksand chronicles in pictures and words, the time Kirkland spent with Chanel in Paris in 1962. At the time he was a bright-eyed 27 year-old who had been sent to Paris to spend three weeks with Chanel by his employers, the new defunct Look Magazine. In twenty-one days Kirkland shadowed and photographed the 79 year-old wherever she went, from fittings with house models to personal moments of reflection. The level of intimacy and access he enjoyed was unparalleled , especially considering how private Chanel grew in her old age. By the end of the trip, the unlikely duo had grown so close that Chanel invited Kirkland to travel with her on a ski holiday. Kirkland relayed the good news to his editors at Look who promptly asked him to decline the offer and return home. Time passed and Kirkland moved on to become an award wining photographer shooting other legends such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich. Yet as we sat down recently to discuss his memories of Chanel it was clear that only one captured his heart as completely as he captured hers.
Zandile Blay: You took these pictures about forty-six years ago, so what compelled you to publish them as a book now this book at this point?
Douglas Kirkland: Well, there are a number of reasons. This is my thirteenth book, but this is one that's the most special to me. And why? Because it's Chanel, it's a special period in my life, I grew up a great deal. I mean, my eyes were opened in a way that they never had been before. By Mademoiselle, she did that. And she guided me in an amazing way. Why this time? Well, among other things we sort of discovered in the process of putting it together that it was a hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of her birth. So there's that reason, but also, I had the material obviously all these years, original negatives, and I kept looking at them and thinking...I mean, I felt that there was something very special there, and the more I looked into it the more special they seemed.
ZB: The photo you took of Chanel as she is walking through a garden by herself simply grabbed my heart.
DK: You just picked the most important picture in this book to me. You did. It's the last picture in the book, it's also the last picture I took of Mademoiselle. I'd been with her three weeks, and my editors at Look had mixed feelings within the publication whether this story should be done or not. Myself and the fashion editor really wanted to do it, we pressed to have it done, and we arrived in Paris and I was able to do it. I was able to shoot, and Mademoiselle opened her world very much to me and the story of course is: this is the last day I spent with her. It was a Saturday, and she knew the time was winding down but she said to me, "Why don't you come on Holiday with me to Switzerland and keep photographing?" I thought, this is just getting bigger and better! I mean, I was ready to explode I was so happy. I knew this coverage was rich because she had opened herself so much to me and I just thought it's gonna be bigger and better than ever. I could barely wait to get back to the small office we had in Paris and type up what was called the telex in those days, which was a very clunky machine. I sent a message to New York and I told them, "Mademoiselle has asked me to come to Switzerland with her," and I got a two word reply, "Come home." And that was it; they didn't want me to go anywhere.
ZB: Do you regret it? Do they regret it?
DK: Oh, they don't regret it, they're gone. In fact, that's a whole other story. Now, let me talk about this picture specifically. So on, um, what seemed like the last day, Mademoiselle asked me to have lunch with her at the (some French word I couldn't understand). It was very elegant, and as usual she pointed out things to me. She was becoming, in some ways, a part-mother, part caring sister, I don't know how to refer to her, and I never fully understood the dynamic. Here I am a twenty-seven year old, slightly ungainly boy from the country, and here is Mademoiselle, the essence of elegance and chic, but she was interested in me, and she wanted to help me. So we had the lunch, and we rode out of the city to Versailles, she wanted to show it to me. She'd asked me if I'd ever seen it and I said no I haven't, she said, "OK, I'm going to show it to you," and we went out. It was a cold day, amazingly, even though it was July. It was probably 17 degrees Celsius or something that day and it started to, sort of a misty rain, very light rain and I gave her my raincoat, my Burberry, and she put it over her shoulders to protect herself from the rain and she went walking on her own. Sort of a quiet time, a private time, and it was a time I felt I shouldn't bother her. Something else was in her head. But at a certain instant, I couldn't restrain myself. I saw her there, and I felt maybe it wasn't appropriate, but I'm glad I did it now. I lifted the camera up, with a tele-lens, took this one click, and that was the last picture I took. That is it. As she walked in Versailles, you'll see that I'm sort of looking through a fence here, that's because I didn't want to be seen, but also it framed her in a beautiful way. So that's the essence of that picture. It's so meaningful to me because that's my memory, my ultimate memory of Mademoiselle. She was physically small, but as an individual in business, and the world of fashion and everything else, one of the greatest giants of all time. So that's what this picture means to me.
ZB: Did you get the sense that she was lonely, at that point in her life?
DK: I never did get the sense that she was lonely. It's possible, but I don't know, because she was so surrounded by a sea of people and she was always occupied, always busy. I think she was quite driven, she was raised from poverty. In fact, she was literally born in a poor house for the destitute. When she was 12, her mother died, and her father disappeared. She was raised in an orphanage by nuns, which is where she first learned to sew, and she later learned a more sophisticated way of sewing from some of her relatives when she was off in summertime. She lived an incredible life. She lived in England and the Duke of Westminster asked her to marry him, and she refused. She had many opportunities to be with a man if that's what she wanted, but she seemed to be surrounded by everything and her life seemed full. The mannequins, the models, the girls working for her, they surrounded her and she enjoyed being in their world. She loved to gossip with them, and you can see it in some of these other pictures. They're playing together. That's who she was. So they were, in many ways, her family. That was part of her world. Isn't that amazing?
ZB: What do you think makes this particular book on Chanel different from the myriad of books about her?
DK: Well, that's very simple. What makes this book different than any other? Frankly, and honestly, this is a very personal story. It's this personal story told from an individual whose life was changed. I saw something on the internet about the book which read, "There are many Chanel books, with a lot of facts and figures in them, and very significant information, but this is the most personal one." This is an easy read, it's a personal story, and I'm literally telling a story to the reader. So that's the essence of it. I'm talking to you, the person holding the book.
ZB: So do you think that 50 years from now, she'll still continue to be relevant?
DK: Chanel is here forever. She changed fashion, she changed culture, and she changed how people dress. In her early life, before she had any command of fashion, when she was just a young woman, women were wearing tight corsets and they couldn't move around and it was very uncomfortable. Fashion was like a cage. Like a prison. She opened it up so people could live comfortable, like this classic suit she created. And it all came together. Shorter hair, shorter skirts, it became the essence of what people wanted, and what we're comfortable with. And that's not going to go away. And, today, in 2008, when Francoise, (my wife) and I travel, when we step out, whether it's Shanghai or in Moscow or in Los Angeles, we keep seeing the name Chanel. In the airports, everywhere. Chanel is everywhere. Pick up a magazine. You'll find Chanel all over it. That's the imprint that she had. I mean, she did so much. So that's what Chanel means to me.
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