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Coco Chanel

cocoOfficial records show that her mother, Eugénie, gave birth to Gabrielle on 19 August 1883 in the poorhouse in Saumur, a market town on the river Loire.
Eugénie (known as Jeanne) was 20, Chanel’s father Henri-Albert (known as Albert) was 28, and listed as a merchant, on Gabrielle’s birth certificate. They were not yet married but already had one daughter, Julia, born less than a year previously.

Chanel was born into poverty and was taught to sew by the Catholic nuns who raised her from the age of twelve. Gabrielle Bonheur, a nun in the hospice where Chanel was born, was made her godmother, and so, according to Chanel, ‘I was baptised Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel’. Gabrielle she stayed throughout her childhood - Coco was a creation that came later - although she invented a story that is revealing in its untruths: ‘My father used to call me “Little Coco” until something better should come along,’ she told Marcel Haedrich (editor-in-chief of Marie- Claire). ‘He didn’t like [the name] “Gabrielle” at all; it hadn’t been his choice.’ At times Gabrielle declared Coco to be an ‘awful’ name; and yet she was proud of its recognition throughout the world, evidence of her indisputable presence.

As a young woman, singing cabaret, making dresses, she was possessed of an unusual, extreme confidence - a quality that, no doubt, was key to the success she later enjoyed and the triumphs she celebrated over competitors. As she confided to her friend Paul Morand, the shortstory writer, “Arrogance is in everything I do. It is in my gestures, the harshness of my voice, in the glow of my gaze, in my sinewy, tormented face.”

Indeed, Chanel came of age as a designer during the Great War, and during this period of economic contraction her pared-down sensibility and use of economical fabrics seem to distill not just what women wanted but what they needed. She tossed out the over embellishment of Belle Époque fashion that stifled the body. Gone were corsets, too. Chanel and the women who wore her work reveled in its chic simplicity. She was the first to borrow from the boys, a concept that continues to be modern today.

The famous Chanel suit, for example, took its boxy form and contrasting braiding from a jacket belonging to the Vogue photographer Horst P. Horst; her taste for Slavic embroidery was inspired by one of her lovers; and from the Duke of Westminster, a longtime paramour, she gleaned an appreciation of the Eton schoolboy look. When she released her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5, she became rich; when she gave birth to the Little Black Dress in 1926 - incarnations of which are mainstays in the closet of today’s woman—she became a sensation. Once a man stopped her in the street because of it, Coco recalled to her friend Carmen Tessier. “As I was leaving the Ritz, I felt someone touch my shoulder. Before I could sharply brush off this intruder, he said, with an American accent: ‘Excuse me, I’m with two ladies who would like to know what perfume you are wearing.’ I told him, ‘Why don’t you follow me.’ And I took them to the Chanel boutique.” Place Vendôme was one of her sources of inspiration. The octagonal cap of her first perfume, Chanel N°5 recalls its geometry and proportions.

Later on, the Première watch equally reminds of this aesthetic. Chanel closed her atelier in Paris when France entered World War II. It was meant to be a patriotic gesture, but was roundly criticized. She remained in residence at the Ritz—and reportedly became embroiled in some unsavory dealings with the Nazi’s during the war—but in 1954, she reopened her doors and began showing collections again. At the age of 70, she still had it, and her popularity was set aflame once again (in America in particular).

Today, directly facing her suite at the Ritz is the Chanel Fine Jewellery Boutique which opened at number 18 in 1997. She never married, but she was often on the arm of powerful, handsome, wealthy men, who helped her finance early efforts and guided the cultivation of important relationships, particularly during World War I. Coco Chanel’s summer home, La Pausa, in Roquebrune which was built for her by her lover, the extravagant Duke of Westminster. She was actively involved in the design of the building which stands in 9 acres and lived here from 1929 to 1953. They used La Pausa, a 10,000-square-foot
house high on a hill overlooking the Mediterranean, to entertain with an abundance of servants and style.

She named it La Pausa after the legend that Mary Magdalene rested near here under the olive trees on her flight from Jerusalem after Jesus’s Crucifixion. La Pausa refers to the place where one “pauses.” (In 2007, Chanel’s master perfumer Jacques Polge created a powdery, irisbased scent called 28 La Pausa as part of his “Les Exclusifs” collection). Coco brought in ancient olive trees and planted “groves of orange trees, great slopes of lavender, masses of purple iris, and huge clusters of climbing roses,” American Vogue wrote about the house in 1930. The magazine declared La Pausa “one of the most enchanting villas that ever materialized on the shores of the Mediterranean.” The estate has a long and fascinating history involving artists, musicians, writers and painters, including Stravinsky, Cocteau, Picasso, Bonnard, Luchino Visconti, Somerset Maugham.

It was later bought by author, literary agent and art collector Emery Reves: during that time, Winston Churchill was a frequent guest and it is where he completed his memoirs and enjoyed painting the view. But the villa was also a social destination for other figures as Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, the Duke of Windsor, Noel Coward, Aristotle Onassis, Greta Garbo, Rose Kennedy, as well as Graham Sutherland, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace, Konrad Adenauer, Anthony Eden, and Paul Reynaud. The house draws its inspiration from Coco’s past.

The austere stone staircase curving up from the main entrance hall; the pillared cloister enclosing the courtyard; the arches framing doors and windows — all are modeled on the 12th-century convent-orphanage where she was raised. The design also pays tribute to Chanel No. 5 with patterns of five windows repeated throughout the house. Coco and the Duke wanted everything to be built with the finest materials. She ordered more than 20,000 curved tiles to be handmade for the roof, and furnished the house sparsely in shades of white and beige.

Each bathroom has a servant’s entrance so that one’s bath can be drawn and one’s clothes taken away for cleaning and pressing without any disturbance. There is an old tennis court but no swimming pool on the six-acre property. Chanel did not enjoy swimming. There is also a framed line drawing of her in one of the sitting rooms by Jean Cocteau, which he dedicated to her in October 1952 — apparently forgotten and left behind. So are her walk-in oak clothes closets. (The original structure of the building and its seven bedrooms, three living rooms, dining room, two kitchens and staff quarters essentially unchanged). The closest I got to Coco were the electric call button servant stations that alerted servants with Coco filled the house with artistic types like Igor Stravinsky, Pablo Picasso, Paul Iribe, Salvador Dalí and Luchino Visconti.

coco2Mademoiselle Chanel is believed to have owned 32 folding screens. Her apartment at 31 rue Cambon had eight of them, which she freely used in ways other than for what they were intended — she dressed her walls with them, like wallpaper, or used them to give structure to her private space. It is also said that she used them to hide the doors. That way, she was sure to keep her guests when receiving them for dinner. The Coromandel screens embody her taste for Chinese art, which she discovered together with Boy Capel.

The Coromandel lacquer technique emerged at the end of the Ming Dynasty (1368- 1644), in the Hunan province, in the heart of China. The major themes include mythology, scenes of imperial life and love of nature, which bestow a spiritual dimension upon the art form. At the end of the 1920’s, Gabrielle Chanel had a love affair with the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England. Sitting on the table of her apartment are three vermeil boxes given to Gabrielle Chanel by the Duke. The metal which adorns them is less precious than the one concealed inside: a gold interior. It was thanks to the Duke of Westminster that Coco Chanel discovered this characteristic of luxury which she made her own: something which remains hidden, which exists only for oneself.

This notion of luxury found an immediate echo in the fashion world because, according to Coco Chanel: ‘Elegance comes from being as beautiful inside as outside’. Coco Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz. She never married, having once said “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” Hundreds crowded together at the Church of the Madeleine to bid farewell to the fashion icon. In tribute, many of the mourners wore Chanel suits. A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins at her company to continue the Chanel legacy.

Today her namesake company continues to thrive and is believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year. So great is Coco Chanel’s legacy that fans make pilgrimages to her Paris apartment (although she also lived in the Paris Ritz for 30 years), which is preserved as she left it and endlessly referenced for style - as is every image of her and every tiny thing she ever designed. From her use of monochrome to her oversized ‘costume’ pearls and cuffs, everything is still sublimely, continuously referenced. In addition to the longevity of her designs, Chanel’s life story continues to captivate people’s attention.


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