The Coco Chanel Style
July 27, 2011
My mother washed people’s clothes and died young in 1895 when I was twelve, and my food-peddling father deserted his five children. For six years I lived in a Catholic orphanage and learned to sew. The moment I turned eighteen they said goodbye and I escaped to sing in cabarets and thought I well did so but perhaps others sang better and I couldn’t earn much and needed to work days for a tailor. I assuredly was not a courtesan. I wasn’t really even a mistress. I kept working after Etienne took me to his estate and gave me elegant dresses and gems. I thought frilly clothes needed to be simplified and said I could do it. First I concluded I better leave Etienne for his British friend Boy. That’s what everyone called him. He was rich and handsome and paid for my first boutiques in lovely Paris and Deauville and Biarritz where I created clothes ideal for both sedentary and athletic leisure and said “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.” I made much money but suffered because Boy often strayed and after nine years left me to marry an even prettier woman. I still sometimes saw him till he died in a car wreck, and always loved him and later built a roadside memorial where he died and visited to give him flowers.
I continued designing clothes that “gave women a sense of freedom (and) gave them back their bodies (which) were drenched in sweat due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.” And when not creating I accepted many romantic overtures from rich and often royal men but could not subordinate myself in marriage since there was “only one Chanel.” The Great Depression and striking female employees threatened to ruin my paradise and World War II did as I closed all my stores and dismissed everyone. I needed at least to keep my suite at the Ritz Hotel where numerous high-ranking German officers also stayed. I treated them respectfully. I was almost sixty and frankly delighted that a much younger gentleman, Hans Guenther von Dincklage, wanted to live with me. I minded not that he was a German officer and spy.
I was much more concerned that for years Pierre Wertheimer and his family had not been paying what I deserved for what had been my Chanel No. 5 perfume, and to German authorities I petitioned that “Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews (and) I have an indisputable right of priority (to) the profits…from my creations (and) you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered…” Alas, those tricky Wertheimers had transferred control of the perfume to a French Christian businessman.
I took another quite young boyfriend, SS officer Walter Schellenberg, and agreed that the losing Germans and occupied French needed to get out of this war and tried to help him contact a relative of Winston Churchill and for that I was arrested but released. After the war I was charged as a collaborator, which I really wasn’t, and confidential British friends ensured I would avoid trial.
To Switzerland I moved to escape Parisian hostility. In 1954 I returned and was “fully financed” by Pierre Wertheimer who understood business superseded politics. The French ignored my new sartorial creations but the Americans and British loved them, and I worked till I died in the Ritz at age eighty-seven.
Sources: The movie “Coco before Chanel”; acelebrationofwomen.org; thefirstpost.co.uk; Village Voice article by Lynn Yeager, June 6, 2007; Wikipedia – Coco Chanel.