For the week of December 23 thru December 29, 1998  

Mademoiselle Chanel

Cocotte and couturier

Express Staff Writer

Coco Chanel, the embodiment of style, grace, and feminine power led an unparraled life – glamorous, morose, the lover of important, rich men and later women, the designer of dresses, suits, the first to push pants for la monde femme, and a pioneer in an industry dominated by men.

No single designer has had as tremendous a hold on style as Chanel or has been able to hold the interest of women generation after generation. To celebrate Chanel is to celebrate life in the 20th century, and in particular the independent life that is not so much ahead of its time but of its time.

Chanel: Her Style and Her Life by Janet Wallach is a photographic journey through the life of this modern icon.

Born into poverty in 1883, orphaned and disciplined by denial, she longed for luxury, wealth and independence. She showed a talent for sewing early on and a flair for fashion that extended from the original outfits she created for herself then created for others later on.

She borrowed copiously from her many lovers, among them the Duke of Westminster and Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia. She took trousers, tweeds, riding clothes, cuff links and even neckties and transformed them into elegant women’s wear. Her genius lay not in the fanciful but the functional and her mesmerizing energy and strong statements did not dictate la mode but rather implied a style. Chanel offered liberation, without sacrificing femininity, firm in her conviction that women could be free.

The book begins with a dinner party n Paris in the autumn of 1970. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor arrive and Chanel, wearing a white silk suit moves quickly toward the door.

"Reaching out to the Duke, she trained her dark eyes on him and welcomed him inside, excluding everyone else from her glance," Wallach writes. "Steering the former king past the Coromandel screens and into the drawing room she sat down beside him cozily on the cocoa-colored suede sofa. Their eyes now locked their voices low, the twosome chatted almost in murmurs, their monotone stopped only by an occasional spurt of laughter."

The party continues. The two seated side-by-side at table finally acknowledge the other guests at the urging of Chanel’s butler. Diana Vreeland at dinner that night said: "I have never seen such intensity in my life. Obviously they once had a great romantic hour together."

Chanel was 85.

Wallach tells how after a childhood scarred by poverty, Chanel set out to heal herself through wealth but not through marriage. Calvary officer Etienne Balsan invited her to join him at his estate in Compiegnes, not far from Paris, where he kept thoroughbred horses and racy women. Here she met other powerful men and their demi-mondaines dressed in ruffles and corsets and silk satin gowns.

The gamine Chanel could not compete with the beautiful buxom women. She held her own through irony and quick conversation and then by dressing differently, draping her diminutive figure in pared-downed clothes.

Two other courtesans at the estate, the actress Gabrielle Dorziat and opera singer Marthe Davelli, asked Chanel to do up styles for them. When their photos appeared in the paper wearing original Chanels, the seeds of the first fashion empire were firmly planted.

Her next paramour Boy Capel, said to be the love of her life, encouraged her fashion passion and set her up in business in the flat of a friend on the Boulevard Malesherbes.

Wallach writes: "Later on, she would boast a bit crudely ‘I was able to start a high fashion shop because two gentlemen were outbidding each other over my hot little body.’"

Capel also introduced Chanel to society. She had neither the manners or the culture of the courtesans who paraded in the Boise or dined in the smartest cafés. When Capel took her out to dinner, she ate too much, popped her stays and he had to help her close her dress so they could leave.

As his mistress, people took a second look and her unusual loose, knit dresses and hats brought people, first out of curiosity then as devotes, to her store. Within a few years she was a success opening a second store in Deuville and moving to the current Parisian location of the house of Chanel on the Rue Cambon.

The book follows her pursuits in Paris with a circle of friends that included Picasso; who would reject her as a lover, Stravinsky; who would not, Cocteau, Matisse and Diaghilev.

Her affair with the Duke of Westminster, "the richest man in England," inspired the signature Chanel pearls and costume jewelry designed after the costly creations he bestowed upon her. Prince Dimitri helped her with the creation of her fragrance and inspired her use of furs.

Just prior to Paris occupation, she closed the doors to her salon and took up residence in the Ritz where shortly thereafter she began an affair with Baron Hans Gunther von Dicklage, an aristocratic intelligence officer and gigolo, 10 years her junior, and a Nazi spy.

She was arrested after the liberation for the von Dicklage liaison but escaped public humiliation and imprisonment, Wallach suggests, due to a friendship with Winston Churchill. About her Nazi lover she said: "At my age, when a man wants to sleep with you, you don’t ask to see his passport."

After the war, in 1947 at 70 years of age, she reopened her business determined to show the world what she knew. In February 1954, she launched her new collection to a European lack of acclaim and conversely to American applause.

Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 88 yet has remained the arbiter of style.

"She empowered women through clothes, changing the way they saw themselves by changing the way they moved, the way they felt, the way they dressed," opines Wallach in the epilogue. "Her clothes made a woman aware of her own body as Chanel was aware of hers. She cut tactile suits for a woman’s comfort, fluid jerseys that allowed a woman’s body to move without restraint; she designed neat shoulder bags that freed a woman’s arms, sling-back shoes that offered easy walking with sex appeal. As for her own sex appeal, she had a way with men. Yet if she flirted unrelentingly, she still managed to concentrate uncompromisingly on her career. The results were romance without binds and a business that knew no bounds."


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