The Woman Behind The Legend

The Woman Behind The Legend

Who was the woman behind this name? One of those unlucky ones as they came to the world! One of those who tasted poverty and downtrodden but refused to surrender... An angry woman; building her own world instead of trying to adapt to the world she lived in! A talented, creative, arrogant and ambitious person is in question here... She never belonged to the 19th century in which she was born, but instead she was a woman of the 20th century! And she made everyone repeat the motto “Chanel is living the present in every era”. She became a legend when she was still alive. Her personality, her life, her relationships and the past she wanted to be forgotten, in books... She reformed women: “I chose this profession not for turning the things I like into fashion, but for turning the things I don’t like out of fashion”. Coco, had always been keeping her childhood as a secret. She never talked much about her parents, especially about her father. The reason why she was being picky about people could have been her past. She wasn’t actress but she made her way into the world of art: she made costumes for stage plays, ballet recitals and movies… Hollywood wanted her, but she didn’t want Hollywood.

The first time I entered into her world was when we were visiting Paris through a press invitation. I was very close to her when I stopped for a few minutes at her private flat on the upper floor of her boutique at 31, rue Cambon. I was finally face to face with the woman behind the luxurious brand Chanel!

Every corner has been furnished with a typical style of the zodiac sign Leo, the room is untidy but this untidiness is tidy in its own way. Objects of various sizes have been placed to the different corners around this saloon, filling it up and diminishing its size. And the famous Coromandel dressing screens… these were almost a mystical form of protection for her, it is said that she owns 32 different screens. The host of the invitation had said during our visit: “While she held a meeting here, she used to get these screens pulled in front of the door to prevent people from stepping outside. Nobody could move out of the room until the end of the meeting!”

It is known that Coco Chanel attach much importance to two locations in her boutique. One of these locations is the staircase where she could watch what’s going on downstairs by looking at the reflections of the numerous mirrors, without being noticed by anyone… The other is the famous sofa on which she is known to lie down on and relax... If only this leather couch could talk and tell her story! It has listened to the secrets of Gabriel Chanel and witnessed her anger...

But in reality, who was this stern, intelligent, bossy woman that would reshape the world to her own whim? Cocteau, Colette, Claude, Delay, E. Charles Roux are just a few among many people telling her story… Journalist Paul Morand, one of her closest friends, defines her as “A woman made of ice and fire who defined the style of the 20th century”. As for Claude Delay, she was an “ambitious person, full of youthful vigor, always wanted to draw all attention on her”. But Chanel herself said “Throughout my life, I never found anything but loneliness” as if replying all the things told about her… During her last years, indeed, she was a legend, she was strong and she owned a fascinating world to which she gave her own name; yet, she was a lonely woman.

Saumur is celebrating the summer festival in 19th of August, 1883. Jeanne Devolle, lover of the peddler, went to the hospital on her, running through the crowd hastily, and give birth to a little baby girl. The following day, she went to town hall again, on her own and told them that the father of the girl is Albert Chanel. They believed her. One year after this event, she and Albert Chanel got married. According to what Gabriel used to tell on rare occasions, her father was a strange man, who had made more kids than he could feed and lived by spending more than what he earned! When Gabriel was 12, a week after her mother was dead, he handed her and Julia over to the monastery orphanage in Brive and dissappeared. Nobody heard Chanel uttering the word “Orphanage” throughout her entire life…

Who knows how the little girl could picture the images of men and women while being raised under the pressure of the sisterhood? I could only guess how ambitious a clever girl like her could get for freeing herself from the situation she is in. As she became a teenage girl who had to wear old clothes donated to the church, maybe the only thing she gained from this monastery was the sewing skill she learned here. Thus, she learned to fix and renew every outfit she would wear.

As she was being educated by the monastery, the only thing Gabriel had in her mind was getting away from the clutches of her fate and freeing herself from the villager’s life by making her leap. She tried all she could to start a career at the theater stage, when she was a sales assistant an ornament store in Moulins, just like all the other 18 year old orphans. She took singing and dancing lessons. She appeared on stage as overture and was highly acclaimed with one of the two songs she sang in Rotonde: “Qui Qu’a vu Coco”. From that day on, she was nicknamed as Coco.

She couldn’t make a strike anywhere, so she abandoned hopes about becoming a performer and returned to the country life. She was beautiful and 25 years old, she had a different aura, wearing clothes and hats she made herself. It was during these times when she met a gentleman from the bourgeois social class: Etienne Balsan. She proposed Chanel to follow her so that they would live together. This was not a marriage proposal, and it looked like it would never be! But this was the shortest way out of the country for Coco, so she followed Balsan. So a brand new life started for her in Chateau Royallieu near Paris.

Living in the Royallieu required to be a joyful, sporty woman, always ready to take a hike in the forest. Balsan was fond of horses, so Chanel adapted to this life pretty soon and became a fine horse rider herself. But it appeared like Balsan’s milieu couldn’t accept her wholeheartedly, thus Chanel used to watch the races at the hippodrome separated from the group of other high class ladies. It took some time for her to enter this group. Later on, she met the high society people of Paris and she earned the favor of some who have been impressed by her uniqueness and natural look. Her habit of rearranging men’s clothes for women started during these times as she was fiddling around the wardrobes of men that she was together, and making new clothes for herself using these. When the ladies around started to show some interest in the hats she designed, Balsan – even though he thought that this is a passing fancy has gave his penthouse in Paris to his young mistress. There, Chanel sold the hats she bought from Galeries Lafayette and redesigned, to the ladies visiting her in the penthouse because they were curious about her.

One of Balsan’s friends had an apartment in the same street where the penthouse was located and this man could not hide his affection for Chanel. Thus, a ladykiller British man entered into Chanel’s life after Balsan: Arthur, or Boy Capel as his friends called him… He was the greatest, and perhaps the only love of Chanel in her entire life but he too, just thought of living together with her and not getting married.

Boy Capel quickly noticed Chanel’s ambition and desire for success, so he did what Balsan couldn’t and opened a business place for her. It was the end of the year 1910. A flat in rue Cambon was rented and a sign saying “Chanel Modes” was hung outside of it. Chanel started presenting her hats to the fashionable ladies of Paris.

Was she happy? At least she appeared to be. She never showed her emotions. It was only years later when she would confess that her past was full of misery. In fact, just like every woman, she must have dreamed of having her own family home and living with the man who chose her. This dream of her never came true but she was chosen and loved by a lot of men… Every man was a new source of inspiration for her, they were reflected in her creations and made her rich... The death of Boy Capel in a car accident in 1919, was a great source of grief for her. For the first time, Coco couldn’t hide her misery and was detached from life. But later on, she lived her life to the fullest. She was everywhere, in Paris, Deauvile, Cannes…

She opened her first real boutique in summer of 1913 in Deauville, again, financially supported by Boy Capel. The Chanel style was being formed in the boutique. Chanel went out of the fashion boundaries of her time and started dressing more and more women of Paris with her beautiful and comfortable clothes and accessories that don’t hide their natural lines. Then, she started living life in the fast lane as if trying to take vengeance from her miserable past. She interpreted the world as she wanted. She was criticized for getting a tan under the sun like a construction worker, but it was through her that the fashion of tanning was introduced to the world and a whole new commercial sector was born. And her walks in the countryside like a man, wearing pajamalike pants; her skirts revealing her ankles, sporty attires, beachwear, sailor’s outfits... she wore and made worn all of these. Even the World War I couldn’t slow her down. The most prominent noblemen of the era entered her life between 1918 and 1940, at the PostWar Europe. The extraordinarily handsome but bankrupted Russian noble: Grand Duke Dimitri; then the richest and most influential man of England: the Duke of Westminster. Coco Chanel benefited much from either of these relationships…

The duke who was the nephew of the last Russian Tsar Nicolas 11 made her love warmer fabrics and thus she met the Byzantine style. The jewelry Chanel received as gifts from him, enriched the style of Chanel accessories. In those days, Chanel worked with the expatriates who ran away from the Russian revolution. The richly embroidered Russian style clothes of Chanel were so fondly liked that she had to open up an embroidery workshop and appoint Grand Duke Dimitri’s sister to oversee it. Her relationship with the duke was shortlived but her friendship with him was longlasting. British style was dominant on Chanel’s fashion between 1926 and 1931. She started using tweed fabric during her relationship with the Duke of Westminster and made suits with jersey blouses. She sailed with the duke, wore and designed sailor’s outfits.

World War II was commencing. Coco Chanel immediately closed her salon in Paris under German occupation and sent her models home. When her secret relationship with a German officer was found out after the war, she was heavily criticized. The years of loneliness started for Chanel. She never opened her fashion house again and started a secluded life in Switzerland. This silence lasted for thirteen years. And Paris forgot about her. One day, the news that spread out were about a new fashion designer working wonders in Paris. The whole fashion world was talking about Christian Dior and New Look. This was what made Chanel get back on track and the old lioness was determined to put Dior out of business. She returned to Paris. She was 71 years old… She made her new creations by working day and night and sometimes spending an entire day without eating anything and drinking just a cup of water. She was never pleased with anything and made problems out of even the smallest details. The lioness was roaring tremendously. She ran her fashion show on February the 5th, 1954. The foreign press was gathered curiously to watch it. The next day Chanel was hugely disappointed. French Press was largely indifferent and they found her just “old” and the foreigners –especially the British were very mean on her. But strangely, her new creations were very popular in the USA. Thus, Chanel found her way back into the fashion world. She couldn’t put Dior out of business but probably she disturbed him.

At the end of the 60’s Chanel being 75 years old was considered obsolete by the public. Though this is the time when the Chanel style was proven distinct. Chanel left her mark upon the fashion world where the expectations were more than just modernity and finery, by saying “Fashion is temporary, style is permanent”. She had less customers then but there were always those who are loyal to her. Coco Chanel, who reshaped the 20th century woman, tasted freedom to the full extent and competed with men in the business world. Unfortunately, she could never find what she was looking for in her love life and she tried to forget about her loneliness during her old age. She passed away in the room where she used to stay during the last days of her life at Hotel de Ritz on 10th of January, 1971; at the age of 87.

Chanel belonged to the 19th century but always lived as a 20th century woman. Even though she paid the price of transgressing the boundaries of fashion and the era by being imprisoned to loneliness, she reshaped her life and the world as her heart pleased. She set other women free of the clutches of boring stereotypes and made them follow her style. The only aim that she followed through her entire life was to create permanent styles instead of temporary fashion. She wasn’t satisfied with just being a successful woman, she tried her hand at everything. She couldn’t be a performer, but she put her creativity to use in the world of stage performance, she also found the time to live as a lady. The proof of her success is how she managed to carry her name into the 21st century as a luxury brand!

She wished a perfume to be created for her name in 1917… At that time she was having a relationship with Grand Duke Dimitri who was eleven years younger than her. Duke made her meet his father Ernest Beau, the perfumer of the Tsar’s palace. Thus, the legendary Chanel No. 5 was born. It was revolutionary because the perfume was inside a flagon with totally straight lines and this flagon was presented inside a black framed white box. And with Chanel 5, for the first time in history, synthetic notes called aldahytes were used in perfumery. In those years, aldahytes was referred to as “laboratory flowers” in a sarcastic tone.

British lines entered her creations while she was in a relationship with the Duke of Westminster. Due to the Duke’s love for sailing, low hats, striped sweaters (we should call these t-shirts but such a term was not used back in the day) and comfortable trousers found their way into Chanel’s creations. During the years when women were seeking equal social rights with men, Chanel started wearing trousers and men’s shirts, and she shocked everybody once again by declaring the unisex fashion. There was a time when she achieved elegance with black designs, and there was another when she made women wear fine white satin dresses. Both colors stormed through the world of fashion. “The nature gives you beauty at your age of 20, but it is possible to be beautiful even while you are 50” said Mademoiselle Chanel. She opened her cosmetic business in 1917, inviting all women to take care of themselves. She had face bleach products during the 20’s, and her Lotion Eau Fruits was available with its fruit essences, in 1928. There were over twenty different products in the Chanel catalog in 1929 and these included sun block products.

Starting from 1917, we see Chanel surrounded by artists, painters, writers and dancers. The wife of the painter Jose Maria Sert, and the most charming personalities of the era such as Misia, Diaghilev, Nijinski, Stravinski and Cocteau were her closest friends. She found a place for herself in the show business through these friendships. After Stravinski passed into French citizenship in 1920, he had to leave Switzerland and live with his family in the Chanel villa for 2 years. Within the same year, Chanel saw that his close friend Serge de Diaghilev was in hard times and he supported Diaghilev financially for him to stage Stravinski’s Spring Ritual ballet performance. In 1930, Chanel was introduced to Hollywood’s most influential man, Sam Goldwyn, through Grand Duke Dimitri, while they were all in Monaco. Goldwyn asked Chanel to visit USA twice a year to dress up the stars in his movies, so that the women of the USA – which was going through the years of great depression would be more attractive to them. She was welcomed in Hollywood not unlike a queen because she was an avantgarde fashion designer. Indeed, a lot of movie stars were seen wearing Chanel’s clothes in both their movies and actual lives. However, this world was on the contrary with her conceptions of grace and elegance.

There were numerous movies which she designed costumes for: 1938: Marcel Carne: Foggy Quay, Renoir: Marseillaise, Renoir’s censored movie in 1939 “La Regle du Jeu” and various others. Her work in the show business continued until the last days of her life. Lastly, she passed away before she could see the movie by Jacques Deray named “Un peu de soleil dans l’eau froid”, which she designed the costumes for... She was one of the women who became a living legend, her life was the theme of a Hollywood musical in 1969 and Chanel was played by Katherine Hepburn.

Reference: Le Temps Chanel, E. Charles-Roux

Source: QPlus 1. issue

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