Forgive me, for I have sinned, my sin is one of ignorance and I am now converted, Chanel, Coco Chanel – I finally understand the reverence in which she is held by the fashion-flock and ordinary mortals alike. For I have read Justine Picardie’s book: Coco Chanel, The Legend and the Life. All hail.
Shall we just look at her…
‘Iconic Chanel’ photographed by Horst in 1937 (the cream fauteil is one of only two additions to her apartment after her death)
‘Candid Chanel’ caught by Cecil Beaton giving Christian Berard ‘what for’, alluring, confident in her eternal ‘effortless chic’.
After all this is the woman who quipped: ‘A girl must be two things fabulous and classy’
Chanel was both of these and more – an extraordinary self-made woman, on an epic scale – she re-defined womens’ code of dress and beauty, starting from the knowledge that: “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself.” Chanel understood “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only, Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas , the way we live, what is happening”. She took the 20th Century fashion-pulse and made it her own, so that in the end she could truthfully declare, “I want(ed) to create classics… (why?)Fashion changes, but style endures“.
‘Serene Elegance’ photographed in 1936 by Boris Lipnitzki when she was 53 years old.
Chanel liberated 20th century women, creating a modern armoire which enabled them to move, breathe, eat and seduce- leaving a creative legacy still ardently worshipped today, “Arrogance is in everything I do. It is in my gestures, the harshness of my voice, in the glow of my gaze, in my sinewy, tormented face.” And tormented she was, Justine Picardie researched her book over 10 years and re-stitched our understanding of Chanel’s complex life in the process.
The abandoned orphan of rural France, brought up by nuns, who taught her to sew – became one of the most successful women of the 20th Century, creating her own life-story to both obscure and celebrate Gabrielle ‘Coco Chanel’, for ‘legend is the consecration of fame‘. Chanel is a fashion-deity and within her temple lies some understanding of the iconography of this Legend.
Cecil Beaton 1936: camellia’s in her hair, baroque cuffs, glittering beside a Venetian statue of a Moor
Her apartment, 31 Rue Cambon, is literally a place of pilgrimage. Maintained as she left it, warm and glowing, redolent with sophisticated beauty and gently polished symbolism. For she surrounded herself with touchstones from her life and lovers, talismans against the chill of loneliness which entered her later life.
A talisman-ic tableau: Gypsy fortune tellers’ balls, Chanel’s lover’s gifts and a mystery hand tempting you to turn the page … tempted? Shall we enter the inner sanctum one more time? for here Chanel still hovers amidst swirls of myth and legend.
You climb the infamous mirrored stairs…
Unmarked mirrored double doors to an entrance hall, cushioned in deep pile carpet, lined entirely in 18th Century Coromandel screens (Chanel owned 27 in total) accentuated by mirrors which concealed doors to a salon and dining room.
Now it’s at this point I wish we had one of those lovely ‘floorplans‘ by Inaki Aliste Lizzaralde,but maybe we would get lost anyway, many were overwhelmed when they first visited…
Marcel Haedrich quoted in AD said, “It was an Ali Baba’s cave with the treasures of Golconda, Coromandel screens, mother-of-pearl, ebony, ivory, deer and lions, gold and crystal, masks, rare books, spheres, magic, the scent of tuberoses. It was Byzantium and the Imperial palace of China, Ptomely’s Egypt, and in the mirrors above the fireplace, reflections of Greece, with a 4th Century Aphrodite beside a raging wild Boar, a metorite that had fallen from the sky on Mongolia thousands of years ago – everything agglomerated and conglomerated, mingled and mangled, ordered into disorder made harmonious by Chanel’s taste.”
Here’s the Horst chair in front of a mirrored wall where a Baroque ‘double-eagled’ 17 th mirror hangs. It’s an example of how Chanel skewered perspective, with mirrors on mirrors, she placed huge pieces in petit rooms and layered myriad treasures, which were all reflected over and over. The mirror is particularly famous – why? it’s the shape of the top of Chanel no. 5’s iconic bottle.
‘The Bottle’ placed in endless reflection on the mythical Rue Cambon stairs, reflecting both it’s bestselling status, and Chanel’s tightly (inter)woven brand imagery (US Vogue advertisement 1940).
The apartment’s scheme exactly reflects her personal style, monochrome beauty layered over with glittering baroque jewels, she herself said,’I take refuge in beige because it is natural, and red because it is the colour of blood‘. Chanel did not do pretty, she’s a Leo, powerful beauty was her statement, she herself noted, “all I do become(s) Byzantine”
We enter the living room, 22 coromandel screens obscure doors, which she hated as they reminded her of people leaving. Presiding over all is the chandalier she designed sparkling with stars, camellias and grapes, hidden within its wrought iron frame is a personal celebration: the double C, G for Gabrielle (her true first name) and her lucky no. 5.
Drawing back: a pair of bronze deer, a wheat sheaf table topped by a bouquet of crystal flowers echoing its shape. A wheatsheaf against the wall beside the most valuable items in the apartment (at current market values): bronze andirons created by Jacques Lichitz in the 1930’s.
Her desk – emptied of its most precious jewels and letters on the night of her death, with copious blood-red rare books behind on plain shelving.
That Leo lion, here prowling a gilded Regence table beside a crystal cross
The mirror opposite the mantelpiece mirror bounce images. Below this the famous suede sofa where she relaxed on diagonally-quilted cushions (copied from racing jockeys riding attire), for : Only those with no memory insist on their originality. And everywhere is treasure, particularly treasured pairs together and apart extending the mirrored arrangement.
Finally the view back out to hall, the doors had one large inset panel in gilt.
The living room exemplifies Chanel, items of beauty and refinement mixed fearlessly into a cohesive east-meets-west style spanning contintents and centuries, creating a highly original decor. The background is monotone, jute covered walls lacquered in matt gold, jute curtains, pale carpet and soft suede upholstery. This allows her treasure to glitter – the effect is spectacular – and has been copied ever since, much like Chanel herself.
For me these pictures capture the glories of the place – but not it’s entire spirit, the soft glow of the fire, the tuberose scent, the filtered and pooled lighting. But a photo of Chanel takes me some of the way, and that will have to suffice.
Reflective on the sofa
Glowing by the coromandel screens
Enter her dining room where a Louis XIII table and Louis XVI chairs covered in cream beige rest on a floral Savonnerie rug. The jute covered walls are hung with fantastically elaborate Spanish mirrors, the familiar coromandel screens once again punctuate the space and here Baroque console tables sprout from the floor.
‘She never bought anything she didn’t like and she didn’t buy because it was valuable, she hated furniture for furniture, jewels for jewels, precious stones as stones, She was a connoisseur by intuition” – said friend Hervé Mille. Her conoisseur’s eye was for the exquisite:
Which Karl Lagerfield used as inspiration for his beautiful perfume campaign with Vanessa Paradis
Inside her desk a fan decorated with stars an ‘eternal’ Chanel motif, tarot cards and a photo of Chanel insouciant in the Boy’s clothes she made her own. Rumour has it, her great love – Boy Capel, sent her to his tailor as she was forever appropriating his wardrobe.
Did you spot the only painting in her rooms? probably not, too much mirrored-treasure, it rests above the sofa. Chanel claimed she had no pictures as she needed glasses to see them, this rather poignant stalk of wheat against Chanel black, was painted by her friend Salvador Dali, wheatsheafs symbolise fertility and wealth, “I imposed black, it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around“.
Chanel acquired personal wealth, but wheat sheaf fertility eluded her, her only descendant a beloved niece. Chanel died alone, with her pair of scissors and nightly morphine phial at her side, a solitary space high up in the Ritz -opposite her apartment, where she retired each night. Everything contained – in its place- but connected.
Chanel in her roof top bedroom by her dressing table.
But for me Chanel’s living arrangements mirror her fashion, she declared ‘Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions. She learnt the power of architecture from the church, her years in Aubazine’s orphanage and Abbey. Here the geometric stained glass, the decorative alter, gilded shrines stood in powerful contrast to the austere, soaring architecture. The path she walked to prayers was a pebble mosaic, stars, maltese crosses, symmetrical flowers and abstract flowers guide you along. Chanel simplified women’s clothing, anchoring its architecture to women’s form and to this layered decorative treasure: stars, maltese crosses, pearls, her own invented double C, turning modern women and herself into a creation worthy of adoration. Amen.
Images of Chanel’s apartment and Ritz bedroom from Justine Picardie’s The Life and the Legend, from ‘The Covoteurs‘ photoshoot and AD’s Celebrity Homes published in 1981.
Images of Chanel from the 1930’s at the height of her mid-life fame from various photographers: Cecil Beaton, Horst to Roger Schall and Boris Lipnittzki.
Any amendments required please contact me.
All un-marked quotes from the high-priestess herself Coco Chanel.