Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Chanelling Coco...

Picture via www.bartboehlert.com
Last week I finished reading Justine Picardie's Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life. It is a fairly comprehensive biography of the legendary couturier, presenting as complete a history of Chanel's life as is possible (she was renowned for adapting her stories to suit, so sometimes fiction is hard to separate from fact). She is a fascinating woman and one I find myself drawn to, not only for the fashions she created, but for the way in which she lived her life, in particular her attitude towards the established order, which ultimately led to her fame and fortune.

So this morning I watched Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tatou and Alessandro Nivola. It tells her story from her beginnings through to the end of her love affair with Boy Capel at his death in a car accident. The film really captures the spirit of Chanel, and Audrey Tatou is a perfect fit to play the great woman herself.

One of the things that I love about classic Chanel is the combination of simplicity and opulence. Classic Chanel designs are simple, chic, but with an understated elegance and opulence conveyed through the use of luxurious fabrics and perfect detailing. I stopped at the Chanel store in Vienna the other week and just had to linger a while to drink in the beautiful items in the window display.

But it is Chanel's attitude that draws me to her. When she started out as a couturier, it was a man's world. All the great designers were men. Women at the time wore elaborate dresses with corsets to nip in the waist and embellishments that would feed a family for a month. Chanel's simple, unrestricted silhouette afforded women more freedom of movement (indeed Chanel was fastidious about women being able to raise their arms when wearing shirts and jackets, and that waists allowed for eating) and thus more freedom to enjoy life. Her garments, originally tailored from men's suits and shirts, caused a stir, but quickly became a resounding success, following on from the success of her millinery line, a business that started life with simple straw hats embellished by Chanel for her own purposes.

She was famously proud - her lover Boy Capel put up the initial capital for her business without realising what freedom he would create for her, but she became cross when she discovered that she was still indebted to him after some time in business. This fierce independence almost certainly ensured the businesses survival, through two world wars and the odd scandal.

Interestingly, the perfume and beauty side of the business have never really been a part of the business per se - Chanel struck a deal (which she later realised wasn't a fantastic one) with the Wertheimers who owned Bourjois (a long established Parisian beauty company) to produce perfumes and make up using the Chanel name. This is an arrangement that has continued to this day. The perfume and beauty side of the business is so successful that in times of difficulty it was this that allowed the business to stay afloat.

I don't think I'll ever be able to afford anything from Chanel. I would love a pair of sunglasses one day, I think that might be within my reach. And to be honest, as much as I admire the clothing and ethos of Chanel, like with any other designer, I'm not really interested in buying their clothes. But I am a sucker for Chanel beauty lines, although my Chanel make up is rather thin on the ground since the decision to discontinue the lightest shades of foundation!

I finally had an opportunity to smell the new fragrance Coco Noir yesterday. A separate post about that coming up!!

As a final thought, I leave you with Stravinsky's Easy Pieces for Piano. The story is that Stravinsky wrote these for Chanel. See what you think.


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