Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Modernist Designer: COCO CHANEL

My dear Coco: The last time I visited your Maison de Haute Couture at 31, rue Cambon in Paris, I was a neophyte reporter from the trade journal, the fashion bible, Women's Wear Daily. There I was sitting on the grand staircase viewing the latest fashion collection wildly taking notes and sketches. That did not last long before one of the Directrices of the house promptly asked me to identify myself and promptly scolded, "No sketching of Madame's collection." Alas I was allowed to remain, though my pad and pen had been taken away. Your creations were destined for that "new breed" of amazing Art Deco divas, those self-confidant women who demonstrated their new role in society driving through the era blazing new trails of independence.
COCO CHANEL...Haute Couture Designer Extraordinaire (1883-1971)
Cloaked in mystery and romance Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel is one of the most fascinating women in history. Her extraordinary influence on the way women dressed in the l920's and l930's evokes an image of elegant simplicity and a modernist approach to easy-to-wear fashions that were at that time innovative and provocative. Yes, she is best known for the iconic Chanel jacket, which has had many different revivals, but the authentic classic style was a work of art, the perfection of a genius Haute Couture dressmaker.
I have seen the original Chanel jacket on many occasions when as professor in the Merchandising and Management department at The Fashion Institute of Technology I took my students to visit the archives of the costume collection so that they could see first hand this treasure from the Haute Couture. Attention to detail made the classic Chanel jacket quite a different breed of garment from the traditional tailored jacket. For one thing, it was hand-made and the printed or plain colored lining matched the collar and cuffs and coordinating blouse. The delicate gilt chains sewn to the hem of jacket added a degree of weight so the the jacket stayed in place, did not ride up. The sleeves were another innovation. They were sewn in three pieces to provide a comfortable arm movement. Note the photo above of Coco Chanel wearing the iconic Chanel suit. The way she gestures (circa 1951) to photographer, Alexander Liberman with her right arm illustrates one of her fixations, a comfortable arm movement. It is said that she would rip off the sleeve of her suit time and again to get a perfect fit. Chanel an entrepreneur of amazing energy and determination promoted herself as the role model for other independent women to follow.
Yes, my dears, she was a perfectionist and the end result of her labors and that of her couture house seamstresses was a highly comfortable garment, a suit if you will, that would last for years of wear.
Her choice of wool and tweed fabrics for the Chanel suit was often attributed to the fact that her romance with a certain royal who had connections to the wool mills in Scotland. There was a men's wear influence on her fashions. The basic idea came from the concept of military uniforms. Take for example, the development of casual wear. As the mistress of the Duke of Westminster, she had taken many trips on his yacht. The idle hours did not stop Chanel's imagination. Noting the crew's uniforms she developed sporty jersey yachting fashions and sportswear, which she introduced in her boutique in Deauville, the famous tony resort in the South of France.
Chanel was known to reinvent her heritage and several versions of her early years have emerged and debated. However, if truth be told, she came from rather humble circumstances and when her mother died and her father left the family because he need to raise money to raise his children, Chanel was was sent to the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine where she spent seven years under the tutelage of the nuns learning a trade, that of a seamstress. Though the nun's technique was rudimentary Coco's ability was sharpened when she visited female relatives in Paris who improved upon her ability to sew with flair. The time to escape the confines of the orphanage came when Coco turned eighteen. She left the orphanage and took up work with a local tailor.
At that time the serendipitous hand of fate played a dramatic role in changing Coco's lifestyle. While working at the tailor shop she met Etienne Balsan, French playboy and millionaire who took her under his wing and introduced her with the world of the rich and spoiled aristocracy and their playmates. Picture this: While women of the era, circa 1900s were dressed with flamboyant hats and yards of furbelow's and exaggerated fashions Coco , on the other hand, borrowed Etienne's sport jackets and caps and looked like a 'garcon,' a young stable boy. This penchant for the menswear may well have influenced her designs in years to come. However, at this time, she became the darling of the demi monde of the era who were guests at Etienne estate. She began making hats for these women and one might say that her designing career took off when her hats were also worn by celebrated French actresses. With sharpened wits she soon wised up to Etienne escapades and took off for Paris herself, where she opened her first boutique. Although it failed, Chanel was not discouraged and fortuitously Arthur "Boy" Capel came into her life and they fell in love. Falling in love was a regular occurrence for Coco and each time it plummeted her forward to higher levels of business and social success. For one thing, Capel provided the financial backing to open her second millinery boutique in Brittany. Chanel introduced women's sportswear, an off shot of men's casual wear in easy-to-wear fabrics like the humble jersey knits. Her intention was to provide women with simple, comfort dressing in the modern age that had been ushered in with the Jazz Era.
A series of rich and powerful lovers paved the way to fame and fortune. The Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, counted among her many alliances, rates highest on the list of lovers. Chanel was hardly ever without a lover and was oft to say, "What is a woman without love." In 1939, fearing the wrath of her countrymen Coco closed her Maison de Couture and ensconced herself in the Hotel Ritz. During World War II, she scandalized Parisians by consorting with the enemy and having an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German intelligence officer and Nazi spy, who it appears made it possible for her to remain at the Ritz. In 1945 she fled to Switzerland to escape the wrath of the citizens of France who were appalled at her relationship with a Nazi spy. Remember, many a French woman, who had consorted with the enemy and who was not so well connected or revered, suffered a less than pleasant fate. Their heads were shaved and they were driven out of Paris or their villages to fend on their own, particularly if they were carrying a child fathered by a German. Not so for Coco Chanel, she had connections. The British Royal Family's intervention prevented her from being brought to trial and it seems the French population seemingly forgave her.
Eventually the hysteria subsided and in 1954 Chanel returned to Paris and the fashion world reopening her Maison de Couture at 31, rue Cambon. For obvious reasons, her first collection wasn't a huge success with the Parisians but she found new, more affable clients in the Americans and her reputation continued to soar well into the 70s. The iconic Chanel suit had staying power, but Karl Lagerfeld who since l983 has been the designer for the house of Chanel, has forged ahead with new concepts in both the Haute Couture and pret-a-porter collections. To see Chanel's apartment in Paris go to and click on rue Cambon.
Dear Coco: You've led a remarkable life. You've been portrayed in the musical "Coco" as well as in the movie "Coco, and you've been featured in literary depictions of your many splendid affairs evoluting as one of the most influential people of the 20Th Century (Time Magazine). You have been and continue to be an inspiration to aspiring designers and to women you have given them license to enjoy the "joie de vivre" of living to its fullest advantage and to keep love close to their heart. Your admirer Polly Guerin

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TAMARA DE LEMPICKA, Painter Extraordinaire

Dear Tamara: Art Deco painter extraordinaire, Russian Revolution refugee, bohemian, socialite, classic beauty, but I remember you best on the cover of the German fashion magazine, Die Dame, Auto-Portrait, Tamara in your Green Bugatti, chicly helmeted, your glove hand at the steering wheel driving forward as a free, independent woman paving the route for women of the century to follow in your footsteps. What an amazing life your carved out for yourself and despite being born into a wealthy and prominent Polish family, your steely personality was your strongest quality that fostered courage and determination to succeed in a life, which through twists and turns could have easily made you a movie star. You possessed a persona and beauty that rivaled Hollywood stars but your reputation as a famous Art Deco painter is legendary. It comes full circle today as your iconic paintings are rediscovered and sort after by new admirers.
A childhood of neglect did not curtail Tamara's amazing independent spirit. The core of her heritage is that of a privileged individual. Born on May 16, 1898, she was named Maria and later in life adapted the name Tamara. Her mother, the former Malvina Decler was a Polish socialite and her father Boris-Gurwik-Gorski was a Polish lawyer. As was the case in the privileged aristocracy her wealthy and prominent Polish family shunted her off to boarding school in Switzerland. However, her first exposure to the Great Masters of Italian painting came when she fortuitously spent the winter of 1911 with her grandmother in Italy. Another plum in Tamara's development was when her parents divorced in 1912 and she went to live with her wealthy Aunt Stefa in St. Petersburg, Russia.
Tamara must have been quite a beauty even then because at the age of fifteen she set her sights on marrying the man of her dreams and with her campaign to win him over, albeit abetted by her well-connected uncle, she married Tadeusz Lempicki in St. Petersburg. Rumor had it, however, that this bon vivant man, ladies man and lawyer by title only, probably was more seduced by Tamara's significant dowry.
Their privileged lifestyle came to a startling end during the Russian Revolution in 1917 when Tadeusz was arrested by the Bolsheviks. Escaping to Paris, as so many other aristocratic refugees did, the Lempickas lived for a while from the sale of her family jewels. Tadeusz, who was so used to his privileged ways, was of no help and he was either unable, but most like unwilling to find work. The burden was placed on Maria to become the breadwinner. The Lempickas' dire circumstances may have been the very catalyst that pushed Tamara into painting. Paris, the city of light and haven for artistic venues was the ideal place for Tamara's artistic development. It was also at this time that Tamara gave birth of her only child, a daughter named Kizette, who like own neglected childhood, Tamara rarely saw her daughter and sent her off to boarding school.
De Lempicka developed a technique that truly exemplified the Art Deco era. he lines had an architectural quality, sleek, clean and elegant, yet a certain curvelinear softness which was described as "soft cubism." Through her aristocratic connections she produced numerous portraits and the Lempickas' lifestyle significantly improved. During the Roaring 20's Tamara was a recognized celebrity. She knew the best of the Bohemians from Pablo Picasso to Jean Cocteau and her bisexual appetite was legendary and became the source of the gossip mongers. Tadeusz got fed up with it all and they were divorced in 1928. Perfectly timing because a long time patron, Baron Raoul Kuffner, commissioned her to paint his mistress but true to her winsome ways Tamara replaced the mistress when the portrait was finished.
Through Kuffner, who she married in 1933 (his wife had died), Tamara was re-established on the highly socially connected cognoscenti. The depression didn't seem to curtail her output and her painting continued its popular course of commissions. The Kuffner's eventually settled in Beverly Hills, California and began to socialize with the Hollywood stars of the day. She became known as 'the baroness with the brush' and cultivated a Garboesque persona, which wasn't too difficult to do, because Tamara was still a blonde haired beauty and was often compared to the legendary star.
However, her trademark style of angularity in figures of celebs and aristocrats, carved like sculpture in streamlined poses, were beginning to lose popularity. Tamara tried palette painting but this technique never took off. She retired as a professional artist in 1962 and after Baron Kuffner's death, the same year, Tamara traveled extensively, then lived with her daughter Kizette for a while in Houston, Texas and finally moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico in 1978 where she died in her sleep on March 19, 1980.
Dear Tamara, though your iconic style of painting lost favor in the 1970s, you are not forgotten, but rather adored again. Your fan's have rediscovered your oeuvre and in plays and music have paid homage to your amazing independent spirit, an Art Deco painter extraordinaire, who I will always remember racing into the future in her Green Bugatti.
Your admirer, Polly Guerin

Tuesday, August 11, 2009


Dorothy Parker: An Extraordinary Wit!!!
Dear Ms. Parker: We miss your witty repartee, the famous Algonquin Round Table compatriots Woollcott, Benchley, Kaufman and other notables. Yours was a decidedly magical circle of like minded authors, poets, theater critics and motion picture writers---all characters in their own right who live on in the collective memory of those who aspire to be writers. Your admirer, Polly Check SpellingGuerin
DOROTHY PARKER: What can we say about Dottie that you don't already know? Although her accomplishments spanned many venues she was most famous as a sharp tongued wit. Upon finding herself pregnant by a lover she merely remarked, "Serves me Right for keeping all my eggs in one bastard," or "Brevity is the soul of lingerie," and my favorite,"The two most beautiful words in the English language are 'cheque enclosed,'"One of the most successful things she did was to fall in with the likes of Robert Benchly and Alexander Woollcott. These three were the original founders of the Algonquin Round Table and other notable characters of the day joined in. As the cognoscenti listened and the newspapers quoted their every remark of witticism the fame of the round table participants escalated into heroic proportions.Dorothy Parker's celebrity was a self-made phenomenon, though her last name was Rothschild, there was no connection to the banking royals. She had a modest background residing in the summer in Long Branch, New Jersey and also on the Upper West Side in New York City. Life dealt some sad blows at an early age. Parker was orphaned at five years old when her mother, Annie (nee Marston) of Scottish descent died. She never liked her stepmother, Eleanor, and insisted on referring to her as "the housekeeper," and I wonder if she ever said that to Eleanor's face. Her father, Jacob Henry Rothschild of German-Jewish descent, did not fare any better as she quite frankly detested him as well. That did not last long because her stepmother died when Parker was nine and her father died when she was thirteen. One wonders how she managed, but legend has it that she played piano at a dancing school to earn her keep whilst she was continually working on her poetry. Poetry opened the door to other opportunities. She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair magazine in 1914 which caused the attention of Conde Nast magazine, Vogue, where she worked as an editorial assistant. As would have it in a fledgling but talented career Parker moved on to Vanity Fair and later to Vogue, where she no doubt wrote that editorial caption, "Brevity is the soul of lingerie." Parker's caustic wit caught on with national acclaim as did he feature articles, short stories and most notable among her vast output is "Enough Rope," and "Big Blonde." A stint in Hollywood as a screen writer with her then husband, Alan Campbell collaborated on the script for the 1937 film, A Star is Born, for which they were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Writing-Screenplay. Parker is noted for her celebrated love affairs, but notable are her three marriages, the first in 1917 to Wall Street stock broker,Edwin Pond Parker II was short lived, and although she divorced Campbell she did remarry him, making three marriages in a busy career. In Parker's later years she became politically active and when called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, she remarked to a startled audience, "Listen, I can't even get my dog to say down. Do I look like someone who could overthrow the government." Parker lived a long a productive life, accompanied in the end by her dog and her alcoholic dementia. After her death on a sunny day in 1967 at the age of 73 her will revealed that she had bequeathed her estate to D. Martin Luther King, Jr. foundation, and after King's death, her estate was passed on to the NAACP. Sadly, Parker's ashes due to some unexplainable flaw remained in her attorney's filing cabinet for l7 years. For a celebrated American writer and amazing wit this was an incredible ending. Righting this wrong the NAACP claimed Parker's remains and created a memorial garden outside their Baltimore headquarters. The Plaque reads:"Here lie the ashes of Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) humorist, writer, critic. Defender of human and civil rights. For her epitaph she suggested, 'Excuse my dust'. This memorial garden is dedicate to her noble spirit which celebrated the oneness of humankind and to the bonds of everlasting friendship between black and Jewish people. October 28, 1988."So adieu Dottie, dear Dorothy Parker, remarkable and original wit, poet, author, screenwriter and wordsmith par excellance. We sure do miss you.
Labels: Algonquin Round Table Wit, Poet, Author