Tag Archives: Coco Avant Chanel

Unravelling the Fabric of Chanel

 

The inscrutable Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, 1936, (c) Lipnitzki/Roger-Viollet

 

Journalist and author Justine Picardie was in Edinburgh last week to launch Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), and to discuss the iconic French designer’s secret love affair with Scotland. I caught up with her for a chat about her elegant expose of the first lady of fashion.

AK: Why did you feel the time was right for a new biography of Coco Chanel?

JP: Well, I suppose there hasn’t been a proper full-scale biography with new material since Edmonde Charles-Roux’s  and that was written in the early 1970s, pretty soon after Chanel died. At that point, a lot of archival material wasn’t even available .. I was given greater access to the Chanel archives than previous biographers, and certainly nobody had looked in the British archives for anything Chanel-related before.

AK: You must have been thrilled to turn up so much British material.

JP: It was amazing finding out stuff about her time in Britain – in London, Cheshire (where her lover, the Duke of Westminster’s mansion was), and in Sutherland in Scotland – where Westminster had an estate, Lochmore.  I knew that there would be a Scottish connection because of Chanel’s use of Scottish tweed. From the 1920s on you see Scottish wool and Scottish tweed in her collections but no-one had ever worked out where that began. I just had a hunch that if I started with the Duke of Westminster it might lead me to interesting places – and it certainly did! It was through her relationship with the Duke of Westminster that she came to Scotland in the first place.

I went to the place where she fished and to the fishing lodge where she stayed with the Duke and Winston Churchill, and when I found those fishing records which listed their names –  you see Mademoiselle Chanel, the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill all listed – that was one of the most exciting moments in the book, because it proved how much time she’d been spending in Scotland. And it confirmed the closeness of the relationship with the Duke and also with Winston Churchill.

AK: How well had her friendship with Churchill been known before you turned up these records?

JP: It wasn’t at all known – it was purely speculative. And by looking at those fishing records you could see that she was spending several months at a time in Scotland in the summer and that coincided with her introducing Scottish tweed and so on.

AK: The men in her life really did furnish her with what turned out to be significant sources of inspiration, didn’t they?

JP: They really did!  You can see from those old photographs which I’ve used in the book, and found in private archives here, that she’s using Scottish tweed – these are the Duke of Westminster’s jackets that she’s wearing to begin with.

AK: Boyfriend jackets, then?!

JP: Yes, literally boyfriend jackets. Then you start seeing tweed in her collection. And that, again,  that to me, was the most exciting discovery  – those pictures alone, among them a fantastic picture, which is one of my favourite pictures in the book,  of her with this big salmon that she’s caught …. You know, this was the summer of the little black dress, the Jazz Age, and the story told thus far is that Chanel was shimmying around Paris and the Riviera, which she undoubtedly did, but, as it turns out, she was also spending a lot of time in Scotland – with a fishing rod, playing cards with her boyfriend and his friend, Churchill. And then of course Churchill – that relationship was to prove so important during the Second World War …

 

Chanel & the Duke of Westminster on his yacht, 1928, (c) Chanel - Collection Denise Tual

 

AK: So, after doing all this research, do you like Chanel – I ask because I didn’t much like her as a woman, after seeing the recent films about her ..

JP: What I felt at the end of it was that I did like her and I felt there was a kind of heroism about her, that there was just something really, really brave and independent, and she just never gave up, she never stopped. I ended up feeling this emotional attachment – partly because I felt that she had somehow kept me going during a difficult time …

She was an icon to me before I started. I was fascinated, I was an admirer. What changed over the course of the book was that I began to feel much more sympathy for her. I went to the convent where she was abandoned by her father. To have endured that, to have escaped that and then to have made it in Paris where she would have had to be so strong to keep going against the ins and outs of fashion. You know, one minute you’re a success, and the next, you’re out of fashion. But she kept going.

AK: You almost have to check your sums when you work out what age she was when she launched some of her most famous creations, don’t you?

JP: I know! She was designing her last collection when she died. She was 87. That’s just extraordinary – and what’s even more extraordinary is the fact that she went into business in 1910, in a world where women were so dismissed, and had no autonomy.

AK: In terms of her personality, what did you find to empathise with?

JP: I spent time with two women who were really close to her – her great-niece, also called Gabrielle (who, as you’ll see in the book, is possibly her grand-daughter), and one of her friends, Claude Delay, who was reasonably young when she met Chanel in the 1960s. They were incredibly warm, instantly sympathetic  women and they spoke with such tenderness and warmth about her that I thought if they really loved her, then she must have had something that could form a very powerful connection.

 

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel by Horst, 1937, (c) Conde Nast/Corbis

 

AK: From the films Coco Avant Chanel and Coco & Igor, I got the impression that she was one of those women who gets on better with men than with other women – did you sense this?

JP: Yes, from the films you’d think she hated other women but that is not the impression that I had having talked to Gabrielle and Claude. I mean, yeah, you probably wouldn’t want Chanel to fall in love with your husband – as happened in Coco & Igor – but that’s such a tiny, specific chapter.

AK: Being able to write in Chanel’s own apartment and to spend the night in her room at the Ritz must have helped you to feel a connection ..

JP: Oh my God, yes. Sitting and writing at her desk, that desk with the leather top where you can see the score marks from her pen, was amazing. Her pen was so firm that it went through the paper into the leather. I was allowed to work there late at night when there was nobody there, just a security guard down on the street, that was it – the rest of the house of Chanel had emptied out. Working there definitely helped me feel a connection: her presence is so powerful in the house that it’s impossible not to feel it … you’d be made of wood if you didn’t feel a ghostly but also very potent and inspiring presence. And then when I spent the night in her room at the Ritz, the lights kept going on and off – which was a bit spooky!

AK: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

JP: You know, the first time I went to the apartment and interviewed Karl Lagerfeld was 1997, the end of 1997, and it was then that I thought:  “I wish I could write a book about Chanel”. So I started doing research then but it took quite a long time for me, as British writer, to feel that I had amassed enough new material to take to a publisher … All the previous biographies have been written by French writers. There have been picture books by American writers but they didn’t have new stuff. I’ve done archival research in the past for my previous book about Daphne du Maurier, and I started out as an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times, so I felt I had to know that I had amassed a body of new material.

AK: Some of the other books are really superficial, aren’t they?

JP: They do skim the surface… Also, the same pictures have been circulated over and over again so it was also imp0rtant to me that I find some new ones – which I did.

AK: And of course your book features some beautiful illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld ..

JP: Yes, they were done specially for the book.  that was interesting because Chanel have no editorial control over the book – I mean, I couldn’t have written it if they did have editorial control. I needed access to the archives but I said from the start – as did they – that without independence, the book wouldn’t stand as a serious work. As I went on I did uncover some fairly dark things, especially about the Second World War, but, actually, the truth is not as bad as the rumours.

AK: Did you think it might turn out to be worse?

JP: Well, I did think, having seen the stuff in the Churchill archives, that this isn’t as it’s been told before. But yes, I’m half-Jewish – I’ve got a Jewish father – and I wanted to know the truth and tell the truth. I certainly wasn’t going to give her any sort of leeway. In any case, some of the most interesting creative characters of the 20th Century had very bad wars, and I think that the two are not mutually exclusive: you can be a kind of creative genius and a pretty terrible person at the same time. But if she was a pretty terrible person I would have told that. She did make some serious errors of judgment. This plot she got involved in was always doomed but nevertheless it was to try to bring the war to an end.

AK: Has your Chanel research thrown up any other subjects whom you’d like to investigate?

JP: Well, there are  some fascinating characters. Misia Sert, Chanel’s closest female friend, was a fascinating character but I don’t think that her story would have such broad appeal .. And Hardy Amies I got really interested in – he was a special agent during the war as well. The other incredibly fascinating character of course is Karl Lagerfeld but that book will only be written after his death. The story of Chanel couldn’t be told while she was alive because she made up so many different stories.

AK: Do you have a theory about why she did that?

JP: I think she felt intense shame and humiliation about her childhood and her youth. She was born illegitimate so there was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of poverty and then the stigma of being in this orphanage. And then ,of course, her being not only a seamstress but also a demi-mondaine was further stigma. Actually,  where the Audrey Tautou movie worked was in capturing that milieu, that terrible humiliation of being a kept woman and not knowing what your status was. Where that movie is historically inaccurate, I think,  is that Boy Capel [Chanel’s lover] is presented as rather honourable – he’s already engaged to an English girl and if it wasn’t for that he would have married Chanel. In fact, he’d been with Chanel for eight years when he decided to consolidate his social standing within the British upper classes by marrying the daughter of a lord.

AK: So, what’s next now that you’ve finished this labour of love?

JP: I’ve got to clear up my house. It’s piled high with archival papers and photocopies.  I finished writing in February but then I did endless, endless corrections on final drafts.  I managed to see inside La Pausa, her house in the South of France, and I found more stuff in Scotland in May, so I had to go back to the publishers and say:  “I have to add these bits..”.

1 Comment

Filed under Style, Uncategorized

Paris on Film, Je T’aime

I was in Paris a couple of weeks ago, to hear about a new skincare launch by Chanel and to do some research for a forthcoming piece about the new biopic Coco Avant Chanel.

As we traced the great couturiere’s dainty footsteps across the quartier where she lived and worked, I was struck by just how many great films I’ve loved have been set and filmed there. And how, any time I need a fix of my favourite city, I have any number of wonderful movies available to me for an instant Parisian pick-me-up.

Filmmakers just love Paris. It’s little wonder, given the possibilities that it offers. Its spectacular scenery has lent itself to unforgettable musical numbers in everything from Vincente Minnelli’s Gigi (a whirlwind tour through the parks of Paris if ever there was one) to Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You (who could forget Goldie Hawn dancing in the air on the banks of the Seine as she sings “I’m Through With Love”?).

Its buildings, squares and streets have added atmosphere and authenticity to historical epics and period dramas (think Dangerous Liaisons or A Very Long Engagement) and so much of the city is unspoiled that actual locations – the scene of the attempted assassination of General De Gaulle, at the corner of the rue de Rennes and the boulevard du Montparnasse, as featured in The Day of the Jackal, for example – can be used in their cinematic recreations.

You don’t need to be a director to be able to visualise clearly what the scene must have been like in the vast place de la Concorde when Madame La Guillotine was entertaining the crowds, or to imagine the misery of life in the Conciergerie prison where Marie-Antoinette and hundreds of others were held before they lost their heads: they have been preserved for posterity.

Similarly, legendary Parisian institutions – such as Maxim’s restaurant (as featured in the sumptuous Art Nouveau extravaganza Gigi as well as the tres chic sixties caper comedy How To Steal a Million), the Moulin Rouge, and the Chartier brasserie, where Jodie Foster lunched in A Very Long Engagement – have barely changed in decades, and so lend themselves beautifully to films set in any period since they opened. The Ritz will undoubtedly play its part in Coco Avant Chanel, as it was here that she enjoyed trysts with her lovers before nipping across the rue Cambon to her boutique.

The world-famous metro system and its iconic, labyrinthine stations have played host to nail-biting chases in such great (and very dissimilar) movies as Diva and Charade, and the Eiffel Tower has played a pivotal part in everything from Ealing comedy (The Lavender Hill Mob) to James Bond thriller (A View to a Kill). A moonlit Bateau Mouche cruise on the Seine is where Cary Grant and a Givenchy-clad Audrey Hepburn fall in love in one of the most evocative of all Paris films, the super-sexy comedy-thriller Charade.

The many facets of the city’s personality are reflected in the range of films that have been set there. The threatening side of Paris – especially to hapless American tourists – was exploited to great effect in the Roman Polanski thriller Frantic, in which Harrison Ford’s wife disappears without a trace from their hotel bedroom.

The often deserted platforms and empty corridors of the metro evoke the eery, unsettling side of a city with its fair share of nutters. Just ask Steve Buscemi who, in the recent portmanteau movie Paris Je T’aime, has an unpleasant (and not entirely unusual) experience while waiting for a train in the Tuileries station. Equally, the sordid and tacky parts of Paris have been shown in a diverse range of films including Amelie, which views the sex shops around the Faubourg St-Denis with characteristic bemusement.

Few films have evoked the quixotic, magical side of Paris as well as Amelie, which portrayed the city as a big adventure playground for romantics and underlined the fact that it’s the sum of its many parts, of which the pretty, whimsical, self-contained Montmartre area is just one.

Meanwhile, such Parisian passions as American jazz have produced some superior jazz movies, including Paris Blues and Round Midnight. And the city’s status as the capital of style has inspired a string of fashion films, among them Pret-a-Porter, Robert Altman’s chronicle of the catwalk shows, and the gloriously chic Funny Face.

Indeed, Funny Face is probably the greatest of all the cinematic billet doux from Hollywood to Paris. A gorgeous, colourful, joie-de-vivre-exuding movie, it highlights how one person’s Paris can be entirely different from another’s – because of all these separate, but overlapping, facets to the city’s character. While Fred Astaire’s urbane photographer character is drawn to the grandeur of the Champs-Elysees, the fashion editor played by Kay Thompson wants to hit the shops around the rue St-Honore, and our bookish, beatnik heroine, Audrey Hepburn, can’t wait “to philosophise with all the guys in Montmartre – and Montparnasse”, and explore cafe culture. .

Paris Je T’aime cleverly used this all-things-to-all-people idea to highly original effect, by gathering together 18 different stories, each set in a different part of the city. It’s the ultimate Paris film locations-wise, but, of course, the love affair between Paris and the movies isn’t dependent on complete authenticity. The most famous romantic movie of all time, Casablanca, was partly set in Paris and although filmed entirely in California, it captured the city’s romantic personality by suggesting that Paris was more than a place; it is a state of mind.

After all, as Bogey says to Ingrid Bergman as they separate forever: “We’ll always have Paris.”

9 Comments

Filed under Movies