On Tuesday, I had the honor of attending a Luncheon held in honor of Justine Picardie, the author of Chanel – Her Life. Tucked away in the private upstairs room of La Grenouille, “the last great French restaurant in New York”, the intimate setting and amidst gorgeous floral displays, it was the perfect place to spend an afternoon celebrating the life of Coco Chanel.
I read Picardie’s first edition of Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life while on vacation this summer and it is by far my favorite Chanel biography. In fact, Karl Lagerfeld himself loved the biography so much that he created illustrations and redesigned the layout of the book, including the font, for the second edition published by Lagerfeld’s long-time publisher Steidl. I’m so glad I had already read the book because the new edition – Chanel – Her Life – is so beautiful I would hate to cause any wear-and-tear to the edition. Having read the book only a month ago, much of it was fresh in my mind. But, to hear the author herself discuss the experience brought a whole new level of understanding.
Growing Up With Chanel
Though Justine Picardie started the process of writing Chanel – Her Life in 1998, her fascination with Chanel started as a little girl. Her mother kept Chanel N°5 on her dressing table and that was her mom’s signature scent. Though Picardie couldn’t read yet, the typeface of the Chanel N°5 bottle was so distinctive, she knew that is contents were “precious” and the bottle was off-limits to Justine and her sister. It seems Picardie’s mother was a Chanelphile herself and for her wedding she wore a little black dress – not a Chanel original but made from a Vogue Chanel pattern. Continuing in the rebellious spirit of her mother, Justine Picardie wore her mother’s wedding dress during her punk phase to see The Clash and The Sex Pistols (so cool on so many levels!).
Gabrielle Chanel, Convent Life and Chanel Iconography
I’ve often read of Gabrielle Chanel’s mysterious childhood growing up in the convent at Aubazine – mysterious because of the many versions of her childhood that Chanel recounted often replacing nuns with “severe aunts in black.” Justine Picardie is the only writer that was granted access to stay at the convent. The process of gaining access was a long one, but when one of Picardie’s letters reached the abbey on the Saint Justine’s Saint’s Day, the nuns saw it as a sign and allowed Justine Picardie to stay at the convent on the condition that she follow their routine. And so she woke at dawn, prayed, ate very little, prayed some more and sang. Not only was she able to walk the same halls that young Gabrielle Chanel had, but she got to experience what Coco Chanel had experienced.
In many ways, growing up at Aubazine was probably the biggest influence on Coco Chanel’s designs. From the stark black and white of the nuns’ habits, star patterns in the mosaic floor of Aubazine Abbey, iron crosses and patterns in the stained glass that are eerily similar to the interlocking C’s – all of this imagery plays a large part in modern Chanel iconography and provides the foundation for the house that Chanel built. In fact, she sent the architect of La Pausa to the Aubazine Abbey to replicate the staircase for the foyer of La Pausa.
Coco Chanel’s Activities During WWII
We’ve all read the vicious rumors circulating online about Coco Chanel prompted by Hal Vaughan’s Sleeping With the Enemy (review coming shortly but you can hear Justine Picardie and Hal Vaughan debate the topic in the mean time). Picardie would never speak ill of another writer’s work; she read the same sources that Hal Vaughan read and she came to very different conclusions. For Ms. Picardie, the situation was a “much more complicated story.”
Time has not been kind to Coco Chanel and her wartime activities. She closed her house because she thought that war was “no time for fashion.” Though it was seen as patriotic to stay in business, the French designers that did continue throughout the war only ended up designing for the wives and mistresses of Nazi officers – not very patriotic. Indeed, perhaps not selling to the Nazis was more patriotic, non? For example, Cartier designed a piece for Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propoganda, but you don’t see people exploiting that fact – or calling Cartier a Nazi. Picasso sold paintings to Nazi’s and even had some Nazi’s visit his studio. In fact, any French person who was not part of the resistance in some way or another had contact with Germans. Whether you were a barber, baker or banker – if you were in occupied France you had to work with Germans.
It’s sad, but Coco Chanel may be the victim of sexism – a “convenient scapegoat”. She was a strong, financially independent business woman – something very rare back then (and still scary to some today). Her relationship with a half-English half-German low-level spy was complicated – as were all of her relationships with men. The lowest act she committed was trying to get control of Chanel Fragrances – a company whose name she shared but only shared in 10% of its profits – through the use of anti-Jewish laws. Not respectable at all, though there is much more to the story (read the book for information on all wartime activities).
The 1954 Comeback
Coco Chanel re-opened her house in 1954 to awful French review – the kind that would make anyone else quit. That Coco Chanel continued is a “measure of her strength”. Her reason for returning to Fashion? Dior. In 1947 he popularized the “New Look” and managed to bring back corsets, virtually un-doing Chanel’s life’s work. She had done so much to liberate women and she wanted to free them from the tyranny of the corset one more time. (It appears the rivalry between Dior and Chanel is not a new one).
The afternoon started with champagne and hors d’oeuvres followed by a sumptuous meal – the kind that I could see Coco Chanel herself enjoying amidst the company of her artist friends. As we dined, Justine Picardie recounted stories of her stay at The Ritz in the suite that Coco Chanel died in (not the pre-WWII Coco Chanel Suite). It seems Mlle. Chanel may have paid Ms. Picardie a visit the night of her stay. Over a hushed table, Justine Picardie told us how after turning in for the night and shutting the lights one of the bulbs shot out of the wall sconce, lights flickered and lights turned on without her help. The luncheon ended with Ms. Picardie signing my copy of Chanel – Her Life and I received a box of Chanel N°19 Poudré compliments of Chanel.
Coco Chanel – Living in Black and White
If I took away one thing from reading Chanel – Her Life and hearing Justine Picardie speak – it would be that Coco Chanel is shrouded in mystery because she was a woman of contrasts. From the diametrically opposed staircases in her life – the dark, austere Aubazine Abbey to the glimmering, mirrored staircase at 31 Rue Cambon, to her at-once loving yet litigious relationship with her business partner of sorts Pierre Wertheimer, Chanel was a complicated woman. She hid the darkest parts of her past like the shame of growing up in poverty and from that she created light – beautiful creations that look as modern now as they did seventy-years ago. And from the mystery of her life, the contrast of darkness and light, the simplicity of the signature black and white Chanel branding make all the sense in the world.
Chanel – Her Life is available now in bookstores and online.