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The Cut of Coco

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George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast Archive/Corbis
Gabrielle Chanel, 1931

“I…am an odious person,” Coco Chanel declared. Not many would have begged to differ. Chanel’s tongue was quite as sharp as her shears and she treated everyone who worked for her harshly, playing one against the other. No one escaped her malice, not even a trusted friend like the poet Jean Cocteau, whom she described to one interviewer as nothing but a “snobbish little pederast who did nothing all his life but steal from people.” She held her own customers in contempt and said, “A woman equals envy plus vanity plus chatter plus a confused mind.” But no one ever built an empire by being nice, and Chanel, by simplifying, lightening, and eliminating the corset, invented a new way of dressing women.

By so doing, she created both an empire and a legend. In the Thirties, she was the wealthiest woman in France—even more important, she owed that wealth to nothing but her own hard work. This success story drew biographers. The catalog of the New York Public Library records more than eighty-five books about her, compared to twenty-four about Christian Dior. The most recent entry is Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History by Rhonda K. Garelick. Do we really need another biography of Coco Chanel? Actually, yes, we do.

Chanel had a life that was both complex and complicated: a miserable childhood, a series of men each different from the others. While her earliest lovers would shape her and help her secure entrée into the greater world, the ones who followed were probably more hindrance than help. In any case, none of them made her happy in any lasting way. She also had a profitable partnership with Pierre Wertheimer, the man who made Chanel No. 5 a world-renowned perfume, but the story behind that partnership was one of constant court battles, with a deplorable wartime chapter followed by an unexpected return to success and fortune. A particularly difficult life story to tell because Chanel dodged all direct questioning and constantly reinvented her own past.

What’s more, she intimidated everyone who met her. And so those biographers who knew her were unable or unwilling to view her with the necessary detachment. Though she agreed to open herself to her writer friends such as Jean Cocteau, Louise de Vilmorin, or Michel Déon, she quickly grew to regret it, lost her temper, and ultimately forbade them to publish. Edmonde Charles-Roux persevered nonetheless, but Chanel denied her access to her archives. Paul Morand contrived to have his subject speak in the first person, an approach that failed to produce any great accuracy. The psychoanalyst Claude Delay, who was very close to Chanel in the last period of her life, was willing to echo her statements without raising any questions. As a result there is frequently a hagiographic tone to the earliest French biographies, a quality that is exacerbated by the fact that the French didn’t particularly like to explore subjects such as collaboration with the Germans or how Chanel’s milieu made its own separate peace with the occupiers. On a different plane, the important part that America had in her success is frequently airbrushed out of the story as it is told by her compatriots.

That Rhonda Garelick is an American of another generation, that she has a thorough understanding of the history of the period, and that she was able to take advantage of the opening of German, French, and Russian archives are all factors working to her advantage. In addition, Garelick has an evident zest for ferreting out the telling detail. However, writing an exhaustive biography of Chanel is a challenge comparable to racing a four-horse chariot. Chanel had a long, varied life that cannot be easily sorted into distinct chapters, particularly because her work, her love affairs, her artistic and political passions, and her commercial instincts are invariably intertwined. This makes the assured confidence with which Garelick tells her story all the more remarkable.

People often attribute the harshness of Gabrielle Chanel’s personality to the brutality of her childhood. Actually, she escaped the sordid world of her birth with surprising speed. Born in 1883 in Saumur, orphaned of her mother at the age of eleven, abandoned by her father, she was deposited in a religious orphanage where she wasn’t taught much else than how to sew. At age nineteen, turned out into the small Auvergne town of Moulins to fend for herself, she logically found work as a seamstress and discovered freedom and young men.

Moulins was a garrison town and the junior officers were quick to notice the pretty girls who mended their uniforms in the back rooms of the tailoring shop, Moderne Tailleur. The officers spent their evenings together in one of the town’s numerous café-concerts and Gabrielle decided to perform. She didn’t have much of a voice but she managed to get a laugh out of her audience when she sang “Qui qu’a vu Coco sur le Trocadéro” (Who’s Seen Coco on the Trocadéro?). The song won her her nickname Coco and her first protector, Étienne Balsan, the heir to a large textile fortune. When Balsan suggested she come live in his château of Royallieu, not as his titular mistress but as just one of his many gigolettes, she cheerfully accepted, eager to escape the poverty in which she’d always lived.

Coco was bright and observant, and she became even more so as she came in contact with the grandes horizontales—Émilienne d’Alençon and Liane de Pougy, for instance—who frequented the château. Skinny, flat-chested, and without an expensive wardrobe or fine jewelry, she had no way to compete with the glamorous courtesans and so she began to develop a personal style of her own. She borrowed Balsan’s shirts, tweed suits, and riding breeches and cut them down to her size. She’d also begun wearing very simple straw boaters, which had the advantage of not flying off in a gust of wind because she wore them tugged low over her forehead. Soon, all Étienne’s girlfriends wanted hats like hers for themselves.

It was at this point that her life took another sharp turn. She fell in love with one of Balsan’s friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel, an English businessman whose mother was French. Unlike Balsan, Capel was not a playboy. He understood work, finances, and had grasped the scope of Coco’s talent and ambition. Very quickly

she turned from courtesan into something almost unheard-of for the era: a self-supporting businesswoman. At the same time, he was collaborating with her on an even more surprising venture: the birth of the couturière-celebrity, a fashion designer whose life as well as work would be accepted into society.

He made it possible for her to set up her atelier and boutique in Paris at 21 rue Cambon. They openly lived together, even as Capel carried on his social life as a bachelor, unconcerned with maintaining any pretense of fidelity. As an adviser, he remained unbeatable. And so, at his recommendation, she opened a boutique at Deauville, the most fashionable beach resort in Normandy, on the eve of World War I. That is where she stayed throughout most of the war.

The war changed women’s attitudes toward clothing. Proust has one of his characters say that it’s no longer a matter of parading around in a dress made by a great couturier, but rather of obtaining “charming results in the realm of fashion, without ill-considered and unseemly luxury, with the simplest materials, [and creating] prettiness out of mere nothings.” That is exactly what Chanel was offering and, by so doing, she attracted the notice of the American press. An article in Women’s Wear Daily in July 1914 praised her sweaters and her jersey suits. Two years later, the same publication hailed the opening of her boutique in Biarritz. But just as she was becoming increasingly successful she was struck by twofold misfortune. In August 1918, Boy Capel, the only man she seems ever to have loved, married a young Englishwoman from one of the best families in society and then, even worse, he was killed in a car crash a year later. “1919, the year I woke up famous and the year I lost everything.”

That was when she became a cynic, according to Garelick, and when she developed her passion for her work:

When I realized that my business had a life, my life, and a face, my face, a voice, my own, and when I realized my work loved me, obeyed me, and responded to me, I gave myself over to it completely and I have had since then no greater love.

Colette described her as a small black bull, a bull that lowered its head, charged into adversity, and just kept coming. Even as she mourned the loss of the man of her life, she started collecting lovers, by preference handsome, wealthy, or famous; among them were the most renowned playwright of the time, Henry Bernstein; a Russian grand duke; Igor Stravinsky; and finally the Duke of Westminster, with whom she had a lengthy affair. Even more important, in 1920 she launched the most significant of her innovations: her perfume, the famous Chanel No. 5.

To create it, she hired Ernest Beaux, the onetime perfumer to the Tsar: she told him exactly what she wanted, or to be more accurate, what she didn’t want: “I don’t want hints of roses, of lilies of the valley.” She wanted her perfume to smell like “a bouquet of abstract flowers.” Beaux did what she asked by combining “impossibly expensive” jasmine essence with a synthetic compound that “added a note of clean northern air.” A final stroke of genius: instead of giving her perfume a romantic or Oriental name, she named it after herself and her lucky number. The spectacular success of the scent cemented her fortune. But part of the credit for that success was due to her partnership with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, two Jewish brothers from an Alsatian family, owners of the Parfumeries Bourjois, the biggest cosmetics company in France.

Chanel lacked the resources to produce and market her perfume on a large scale. Théophile Bader, the owner of Galeries Lafayette, one of the largest department stores in Paris, put her in touch with the Wertheimer brothers. They got on so well that both parties to the contract decided to use the same lawyer. According to the terms, 70 percent of the Parfums Chanel company went to the Wertheimers, who took responsibility for making and distributing the perfume; for his role as middleman Bader was given 20 percent; Chanel kept 10 percent. That 10 percent would make her one of the wealthiest women in the world. Of course, the Wertheimers, in spite of risks and investments, made more money than she did, which set off her fury against them.

Still, the first few years of their collaboration went smoothly. Chanel savored her success. Beginning in 1923, she became the mistress of the Duke of Westminster and discovered the pleasures of high life; her friendship with Misia Sert threw open the doors to the world of the avant-garde. She was dazzled by the Ballets Russes and became one of Diaghilev’s greatest supporters. When Chanel asked him about his financial situation, he explained that each season he was forced to go begging for funds. The Princesse de Polignac, née Winnaretta Singer, a wealthy heiress to the Singer sewing machine fortune, had just given him 75,000 francs. Chanel replied on the spot. “She is a grand American lady, I am only a seamstress. Here’s 200,000.”

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Douglas Kirkland/Sygma/Corbis
Coco Chanel, 1962

Soon, she was not only a patroness of the arts but also an active member of the Parisian artistic milieu. Her costumes for Cocteau’s Antigone won acclaim. The press sang her praises. Did she hope to crown her triumph by marrying the Duke of Westminster? Most likely. But once again, she was cast aside and the duke married a young noblewoman in 1930, just as Boy Capel had done. She didn’t brood over her loss for long. A new lover, Paul Iribe, an illustrator and designer of jewelry, came into her life, but her greatest new amusement was supplied by Hollywood.

Samuel Goldwyn was still reeling from the effects of the stock market crash of 1929 and came up with the idea of offering Chanel $1 million to create costumes for his female stars, with the sole condition that they be allowed to wear them oncreen six months before the collections were presented. Goldwyn wanted American women “to see in our pictures the newest Paris fashions—sometimes even before Paris sees them.” So Chanel set off for Hollywood where she was treated like a queen, but the deal ran into an obstacle. Chanel’s style was too understated for the movies. A New Yorker article suggested that Chanel “made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies.” All the same, a stopover in New York on her way back home opened her eyes to the phenomenon of pret-à-porter. During a visit to S. Klein on Union Square, a decidedly low-end department store, she found that not only were copies of her style being sold, they were actually very accurate copies of entire ensembles, but made with cheap fabrics and sold at popular prices.

Far from being upset, she immediately saw the advantage of being copied as a form of free publicity, especially for her perfumes. Once she returned home, she organized a private runway presentation in London and specified in the invitations that her guests were welcome to bring their dressmakers, who would be free to make sketches and take notes. This innovation underscored not only Chanel’s intelligence but also her ambition.

Chanel wanted to create women in her image. All her fashion models were narrow-waisted, small-breasted brunettes who looked like her. She would have liked to dress Elizabeth Taylor but during a visit to her atelier, Richard Burton butted in: she’s too big, he said, “getting hold of her bosom in both hands under her silk blouse.” Her dream was to impose her style in the street. And thanks to the countless copies of her creations, she was successful. “In 1933, a profile of Chanel for [a French magazine] announced: ‘Gabrielle Chanel imposes fashion upon the feminine world like a dictator…all women listen to her as if to an oracle,’” while Elsa Maxwell went even further, imagining Chanel as the “miniature female Stalin of the Rue Cambon.”

In the meanwhile, toward the end of the Thirties, she discovered that her authority had its limits. In 1936, her employees went on strike, and though she tried to break the strike with a lockout, she was ultimately forced to give in to their demands. Moreover, an attempt to renegotiate her terms with the Wertheimers ended in such bitterness that she was forced out as chairman of the company. Last of all, in the personal sphere, she once again found herself alone: in 1935 Paul Iribe collapsed and died on a tennis court just as she was walking toward him.

With the outbreak of war and the surrender of France, a new chapter began in the life of Coco Chanel. The chapter might have been merely shameful if it had been limited to her affair with a German officer, Baron von Dincklage, a Gestapo intelligence operative—a liaison that allowed her to spend the entire war in the luxurious safety of the Ritz—but that turns darkly sinister when it comes to her active collaboration with the occupiers.

That Chanel would be at her ease in occupied Paris certainly comes as no surprise. She’d always moved in the sphere of the extreme right. Among her lovers, the Duke of Westminster and Paul Iribe in particular stood out for their anti-Semitism. Her friends—Jean Cocteau; Serge Lifar, the ballet master of the Paris Opera; the writer Paul Morand—and her lawyer, René de Chambrun, the son-in-law of Pierre Laval, prime minister under Marshal Pétain, all welcomed the new regime without a fuss. Within her circle, the only exception was the poet Pierre Reverdy, a member of the French Resistance from the very outset.

Perhaps to take revenge for her employees’ strike, she shuttered her atelier from one day to the next. What was left to her? She “had restricted,” Garelick tells us,

her professional life to her stake in the lucrative Parfums Chanel and her new affiliation with the Nazis. Perhaps this is why those two elements came together to form her next project: to wrest control of the perfume business from the Wertheimer family using the…“Jewish” laws.

These allowed takeovers of Jews’ businesses by “Aryans.” But the Wertheimers proved to be formidable adversaries.

They had fled France and found refuge in New York, where they had started a new company, Chanel, Inc., having first “Aryanized” the French company through a sale to a French aviation engineer named Félix Amiot. All of Chanel’s efforts to win back her company by arguing that the sale was fictitious were in vain. Amiot had German allies of his own: he had been in business with Hermann Göring, and he had supplied war equipment to the Luftwaffe.

It is impossible in the space of a short article to summarize Chanel’s very close connivance with the Nazi occupation government. Garelick, relying on Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping with the Enemy and her own research, does so with a wealth of detail. Suffice it to say that Chanel had a dossier as a spy in the German archives, with an official serial number and a code name, Westminster. She was sent to Spain on two separate missions, the second time with the improbable goal of using her English contacts to persuade the British ambassador, Sir Samuel Hoare, to take seriously Himmler’s wishes to make arrangements with Churchill for a separate peace. Of course the English didn’t bite and Chanel had to leave quickly for Paris. A few months later, in August 1944, the city was liberated by Allied forces.

How was Chanel going to get out of this one? There was no doubt about her guilt and no mercy was being shown to women who had slept with the enemy. In fact, she was arrested immediately by young Resistance fighters but managed to win her release after just a few hours of questioning. Had she actually been given protection by Churchill, as she claimed? It’s more likely that Pierre Reverdy intervened in her favor. Or had she, for once, played up her age instead of claiming to be younger as she so often did? However she did it, the minute she got back to the Ritz she opened her shop for business and announced that any GI who came in would be given a free bottle of Chanel No. 5. Then she packed her bags and headed for Switzerland where her lover Baron von Dincklage had taken refuge. She remained there for ten years living off a fat bank account that had been steadily filled by the proceeds from perfume sales over the preceding years.

But she was bored by her life of endless vacation. The success of Christian Dior got on her nerves. “Dior? He doesn’t dress women, he upholsters them,” was one sarcastic dart she launched. She had made up with Pierre Wertheimer, but without a fashion house, the perfume sales languished. In 1953 he offered to help finance her return. Chanel’s commercial instincts remained as sharp as ever and before accepting the offer, she turned to Carmel Snow and asked the all-powerful American fashion editor to put her in touch with a “first-class ready-to-wear manufacturer.” Snow complied with her wishes and soon Chanel had reopened her atelier in Paris.

On February 5, 1954, she showed her new collection, which was sober and understated, the diametric opposite of Dior. The critical response was a crushing pan: “[These] are phantoms’ dresses…very expensive for so much self-effacement.” But Paris was no longer dictating the law and the New York buyers came running. The ease and simplicity of these classic outfits were what American women wanted. Chanel applauded them for rejecting “idiocies that made it impossible to walk or run.” Reassured, Chanel, at the age of seventy-one, went back to work, and Wertheimer—in spite of the initial losses, in spite of Chanel’s age—made an audacious bet. He bought the maison de couture outright, along with all her properties, for a sum he never revealed and agreed to underwrite all her personal and professional expenses. She no longer had to pay for so much as a postage stamp! He never regretted that decision.

After that first Parisian debacle, Chanel won back her place in the industry and kept it until she died at eighty-seven. Nonetheless, her life did not end on a triumphant note. Without a man for the first time in her life, she came to rely increasingly on her butler, François Mironnet, and ultimately she proposed marriage. Terrified, he vanished for days; later he disappeared again and when he came back announced that he’d gotten married. He kept his job: she couldn’t live without him.

She fought loneliness while working with ever-increasing intensity. The very way she worked—no longer sketching but instead cutting the fabric right on the model, sometimes piercing the skin of the poor girl who was forced to stand there for hours, motionless and with a smile on her face—reflected a savagery that was intrinsic to her nature. By the time an outfit was done it was often slashed and tattered. She had a destructive perfectionism: a chief tailor recalled, “You’d arrive with a dress or a coat…and then a half hour later there’d be nothing left, everything demolished.”

She died on a Sunday, the day of the week she hated most, the only day her atelier was shut. The memorial mass was held in the Madeleine, all the women dressed in Chanel or faux Chanel. On the casket, a spray of white flowers in the shape of a tailor’s shears. Out on the street, on that January 13, 1971, young women came and went dressed in slacks or miniskirts. The liberation movement that Chanel had started no longer recognized any limits.

—Translated from the French by Antony Shugaar