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


  1. Just read your very interesting blog the chapter about Chanel. Amazing! In a few lines, it gives us a good insight (more than a certain book I had read concerning her) about her life and work and surely makes us impatient in investing at a clasical suit or an iconic handbag. Keep on with it.
    Looking forward to seeing your book published.

  2. Thank you for your encouraging Georgia from Greece? So please that you saw that my text had more than other books contain. I just posted Nancy Cunard. Cheers Polly

  3. I love to see the chanel which present interesting programs related with fashion, movies, tv programs, soupopera. i really love this kind of entertainment .
    But most of all i love the erotic movies or romantic movies because this movies stimulate me a lot and my husband who buy viagra replay very well.