LA GRANDE MADEMOISELLE We trace the en­dur­ing legacy of Coco Chanel through Bazaar’s trea­sure-filled archives

El­e­gant, enig­matic, eter­nally al­lur­ing… Gabrielle Chanel was the great­est de­signer of the cen­tury, yet also the most elu­sive. Jus­tine Pi­cardie ex­plores the trea­sure-trove of Bazaar’s archives, in search of lost pearls of wis­dom and long-hid­den se­crets

Harper's Bazaar (UK) - - News -

In the ta­pes­try of Bazaar’s his­tory, myr­iad threads have been wo­ven to­gether – the count­less sto­ries and im­ages con­trib­uted by vi­sion­ary writ­ers, ed­i­tors, artists, pho­tog­ra­phers and de­sign­ers – but one of the very few con­stants in this in­tri­cate pat­tern is Gabrielle Chanel. Her name first ap­peared in the pages of the mag­a­zine in the Fe­bru­ary 1915 edi­tion – nearly five years af­ter she had set up her busi­ness in Paris, ini­tially as a milliner, and then as a cou­turière. Harper’s Bazar (as it was still known at the time; the sec­ond ‘a’ was in­tro­duced at a later date) re­ferred to Gabrielle Chanel as ‘a canny lit­tle French woman and very ex­clu­sive’, whose fur-trimmed white sweaters were as de­sir­able as her blue-striped jersey coats. In Novem­ber 1916, the mag­a­zine in­cluded an illustration of Chanel’s ‘charm­ing chemise dress of grey silk jersey’; and in Oc­to­ber 1920, she re­ceived sev­eral pages of cov­er­age for her lat­est cou­ture col­lec­tion, ac­com­pa­nied by a se­ries of grace­ful draw­ings. One is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing: a lead­ing French ac­tress of the day, Cé­cile Sorel, is shown in a black satin and lace evening gown de­signed by Chanel, worn over what Bazaar de­scribed as ‘black crepe de Chine pan­talets’ (in other words, trousers, an item of cloth­ing that Chanel had pop­u­larised, at the same time of rid­ding fash­ion of corsets).

At this point, Gabrielle Chanel was recog­nised for her skill as a cou­turière, but was only be­gin­ning to be fa­mous in her own right. She had been born into poverty and ob­scu­rity in 1883, the il­le­git­i­mate sec­ond daugh­ter of an itin­er­ant mar­ket trader who aban­doned his five chil­dren when their mother died. The 11-year-old Gabrielle was sent with her two sis­ters to live in an or­phan­age that was run by Catholic nuns at Aubazine, a me­di­ae­val abbey in the re­mote moun­tains of ru­ral France. By the time she es­caped to Paris in her twen­ties, she had al­ready nav­i­gated her way through the un­cer­tain life of a demi-mondaine, as the mis­tress of a rich play­boy, Eti­enne Bal­san, who she had met while work­ing as a seam­stress. Af­ter sev­eral years with Bal­san, Chanel fell in love with one of his polo-play­ing friends, a wealthy English­man named Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. It was Capel, the son of a self-made man, but also a suc­cess­ful in­dus­tri­al­ist in his own right, who en­cour­aged Chanel to set up in busi­ness; and he was un­doubt­edly the love of her life. Yet even be­fore his tragic death in a car ac­ci­dent in De­cem­ber 1919, he had al­ready be­trayed her by mar­ry­ing an aris­to­cratic young English­woman (Diana Capel, who was preg­nant with their sec­ond daugh­ter when Boy was killed, driv­ing in the South of France).

Chanel’s ro­mance with Capel had not ended with his mar­riage, and she was heart­bro­ken when he died; but her dis­ci­pline and ca­pac­ity for hard work were undi­min­ished, and she in­vested the money that he left her in his will (£40,000 – a for­tune at the time) in her ex­pand­ing busi­ness. And though her mourn­ing for her lost lover was pro­found, she sub­se­quently be­gan an­other re­la­tion­ship, with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, a first cousin of Tsar Ni­cholas II, who had man­aged to es­cape Rus­sia be­fore it was con­sumed by the vi­o­lence of the Rev­o­lu­tion, and ended up (more or less pen­ni­less) in Paris in the early 1920s. Chanel was also a loyal friend and gen­er­ous pa­tron to Sergei Di­aghilev, sup­port­ing the Bal­lets Russes, along with a num­ber of avant-garde artists, writ­ers and mu­si­cians (in­clud­ing Igor Stravinksy, with whom she may have had an af­fair). None of this was men­tioned in the pages of Bazaar, other than a pass­ing ref­er­ence to the ‘Rus­sian in­spi­ra­tion’ of her ‘pret­tily pat­terned tri­cot blouses’ that were be­ing worn by fash­ion­able women in Cannes and else­where. But Chanel’s rise to the up­per ech­e­lons of smart Parisian so­ci­ety was ev­i­dent in the in­creas­ing fre­quency of her ap­pear­ances in the mag­a­zine.

In Fe­bru­ary 1923, the lead­ing ar­ti­cle in Harper’s Bazaar was an in­ter­view with Gabrielle Chanel, by the pho­tog­ra­pher and writer Baron de Meyer. (De Meyer – a flam­boy­ant fig­ure dubbed ‘the De­bussy of pho­tog­ra­phy’ by Ce­cil Beaton – had joined the Paris of­fice of Bazaar the pre­vi­ous year.) This was the first time that Chanel her­self had been the fo­cus of such in­tense in­ter­est in the mag­a­zine, with DeMey­erde­scrib­ingth­eiren­coun­ter­afew­month­spre­vi­ously:‘Ihad sat at din­ner next to a lit­tle lady with dark curly hair. She had worn a white gown, sim­ply made, an em­broi­dered white coat trimmed with Rus­sian sable, and a quan­tity of the most lus­cious pearls about her neck.’ Aside from her beau­ti­ful out­fit, he had been im­pressed by ‘her bril­liant mind, pre­cise and ac­cu­rate, ab­so­lutely orig­i­nal’. It was this re­mark­able orig­i­nal­ity, he sug­gested, that made her such a com­pelling sub­ject for his read­ers’ at­ten­tion: ‘Her name is Gabrielle Chanel. In­ci­den­tally, she hap­pens to be the de­signer and per­vad­ing spirit of the Mai­son Chanel, one of the most ex­clu­sive spots in Paris, where women gather to have gowns de­signed, and where el­e­gance, real el­e­gance, reigns supreme.

‘It is, how­ever, not my at­ten­tion to speak to you of Chanel the dress­maker – you all know of her, and as such she is fa­mous – but to present to you Gabrielle Chanel… the woman of re­fine­ment and fault­less taste.’

Chanel would turn 40 in 1923, and had been in busi­ness for 13 years, though De Meyer pre­sented her as an al­lur­ing blend of youth

‘To my mind,

sim­plic­ity is the key­note of all true el­e­gance’

and ex­pe­ri­ence: ‘The quin­tes­sence and in­car­na­tion of our mod­ern times… with a ge­nius for com­mer­cial en­ter­prise, which has made this al­most slip of a girl be­come in a few very short years an ar­biter of fash­ion and the owner of one of the most in­di­vid­ual dress­mak­ing es­tab­lish­ments in Paris. She is mod­ern to her pink fin­ger­tips, goes straight ahead, ruth­lessly dis­lodg­ing ac­cepted tra­di­tion, should she find tra­di­tion to have out­lived it­self !

‘In her many en­ter­prises, for be­sides her maisons de cou­ture in Paris, Cannes, and Biar­ritz, she di­rects her own fac­to­ries of per­fumery and keeps an ac­tive eye on the weav­ing of her own tex­tiles, she re­mains her own man­ager. Ev­ery­thing un­der­taken by her, and she says she is only be­gin­ning her ca­reer, is un­der­taken from a novel and un­bi­ased an­gle. She never hes­i­tates to use her as­sertive brain in­tel­li­gently and with ever in­creas­ing re­sults.’

Thus Chanel be­came the em­bod­i­ment of fe­male strength and in­de­pen­dence for the read­ers of Bazaar, as well as a sar­to­rial leader. And for all the ex­clu­siv­ity and lux­ury that cloaked her cou­ture house, she also ap­peared to of­fer hope to a wider au­di­ence that might not have been quite as af­flu­ent as the elite who peo­pled the so­ci­ety pages of Bazaar. As Chanel her­self ob­served to De Meyer: ‘A woman with few gowns and a small al­lowance for her clothes can be, and of­ten is, much bet­ter dressed than some of her richer friends. It is not nec­es­sary to have sables and chin­chillas and many strings of pearls to be re­ally el­e­gant… Dis­crim­i­na­tion, taste, re­straint… those are the es­sen­tials of real el­e­gance… To my mind, sim­plic­ity is the key­note of all true el­e­gance.’

The fi­nal sen­tence has sur­vived the en­su­ing decades, be­com­ing one of Chanel’s oft-quoted apho­risms; but it is in­trigu­ing to see her words in their orig­i­nal con­text. There­after, Chanel was a main­stay of Bazaar, as fre­quently cited for her good taste, in­tel­lect and artistry (in­clud­ing col­lab­o­ra­tions with her friends Jean Cocteau and Sal­vador Dalí) as she was for her cou­ture, jewels, ac­ces­sories, per­fumes and beauty prod­ucts. As a bi­og­ra­pher of Chanel, I con­tinue to be end­lessly fas­ci­nated by the clues to her life that are hid­den within the Bazaar archives. Here, for ex­am­ple, is one that emerges from an­other ar­ti­cle by the in­de­fati­ga­ble Baron de Meyer, in the Au­gust 1925 is­sue, which in­cludes a let­ter from Chanel, ex­plain­ing that she is ‘in Scot­land, knee-deep in wa­ter, catch­ing sal­mon’. This un­likely scene came about as a con­se­quence of her re­la­tion­ship with the Duke of West­min­ster, who she had first met in Monte Carlo at the end of 1923. Their long af­fair took her to his sport­ing es­tate in the Scot­tish High­lands, where she proved to be as adept at sal­mon fish­ing as she was at the art of cou­ture, and it was in Scot­land, too, that she came to know Win­ston Churchill, one of the Duke’s oldest friends. (Churchill grew fond of Chanel, and ap­proved of the re­la­tion­ship; dur­ing a sub­se­quent fish­ing ex­pe­di­tion, in Oc­to­ber 1927, when he was stay­ing with her and the Duke – who he af­fec­tion­ately dubbed Ben­nie – he wrote to his wife Clem­mie that ‘Coco fishes from morn till night, & in two months has killed 50 sal­mon. She is vy [very] agree­able – re­ally a gt [great] and strong be­ing fit to rule a man or an Em­pire. Ben­nie vy well & I think ex­tremely happy to be mated with an equal – her abil­ity bal­anc­ing his power.’)

More ev­i­dence of her time with the Duke ap­pears in Bazaar, in glow­ing re­ports of the ‘ex­cep­tion­ally good tweeds’ that ‘Mademoiselle Chane lh er­self ’ had dis­cov­ered on vis­its to Scot­land, and her un­sur­passed skill in us­ing th­ese to de­sign the most ap­pro­pri­ate sport­ing out­fits. ‘My style in clothes is the re­sult of life as it is lived to­day,’ she tells the read­ers of Bazaar in 1925. ‘It is prac­ti­cal, sim­ple, but el­e­gant.’

As time passed, it be­came clear that Chanel’s ap­proach not only

re­flected Bazaar’s idea of Parisian chic, but was also an in­te­gral ele­ment of the wider life that the mag­a­zine pro­posed for its read­ers. Chanel rep­re­sented in­de­pen­dence – the free­dom to go fish­ing, work for a liv­ing, fall in love, fall out of love, dance un­til dawn, travel where­so­ever she chose – and th­ese were the lib­er­ties that were also cel­e­brated in Bazaar. In the words of Carmel Snow – one of the mag­a­zine’s most in­flu­en­tial ed­i­tors, and a friend as well as an ad­mirer of Chanel’s – Bazaar epit­o­mised ‘el­e­gance, with a dash of dar­ing’, a phrase that might equally well be ap­plied to Gabrielle Chanel.

Hence, Chanel was in­te­gral to the iconog­ra­phy of Bazaar ; for ex­am­ple, when Carmel Snow first spot­ted Diana Vree­land (who was to be the mag­a­zine’s iconic fash­ion edi­tor for nigh on 28 years), she was danc­ing in a night­club, wear­ing a white lace Chanel dress with a rose in her black hair. As far as Vree­land was con­cerned, Chanel was the great­est de­signer of all time; in her words: ‘Chanel saw the need for to­tal sim­pli­fi­ca­tion. Corsets, high heels, skirts drag­ging in the dust had to go. She an­tic­i­pated the women of the 20th cen­tury.’ But it was not just her skill as a cou­turière that Vree­land ad­mired: ‘The art of liv­ing was to Chanel as nat­u­ral as her im­mac­u­late white shirts and neat lit­tle suits.’ This, added to a sharp wit and ques­tion­ing mind, said Vree­land, made Chanel ‘the most in­ter­est­ing per­son I’ve ever met’.

And Bazaar re­mained loyal to Chanel, de­spite the vi­cis­si­tudes of fash­ion. Af­ter she closed her busi­ness at the out­break of World War II, she faced sav­age crit­i­cism in Paris with her come­back col­lec­tion in 1954; yet Carmel Snow, Diana Vree­land and their col­leagues at Bazaar of­fered sup­port, and a real en­thu­si­asm for what they recog­nised as Chanel’s time­less qual­ity. New pho­tog­ra­phers, in­clud­ing Richard Ave­don, were com­mis­sioned to cap­ture Chanel’s clothes in mo­tion – mod­elled by lithe young women, danc­ing and leap­ing along the streets of Paris, Lon­don and New York. It is tes­ta­ment both to Chanel’s ex­per­tise and Bazaar ’s cre­ative vi­sion that th­ese im­ages from the Fifties and Sixties look as fresh and com­pelling to­day as they did when they were first pub­lished; just as Cocteau’s il­lus­tra­tions of Chanel are as en­tranc­ing now as ever be­fore.

When Chanel died at the age of 87, in Jan­uary 1971 – still hard at work on a new cou­ture col­lec­tion – Bazaar’s obit­u­ary of the woman they called ‘La Grande Mademoiselle’ was sim­ple yet heart­felt. ‘Her se­cret motto was “To thine own­self be true” and she was true to her­self and to her friends… Coco will re­main within our hearts. She is, for us, an ex­am­ple of courage and lead­er­ship.’

As she was then, so she is now; for Gabrielle Chanel con­tin­ues to be a spirit of in­spi­ra­tion, and a re­minder that, as she her­self ob­served, ‘fash­ion passes, style is eter­nal…’

A new edi­tion of Jus­tine Pi­cardie’s ‘Coco Chanel: the Leg­end and the Life’ (£22, HarperCollins) is out now.

This page: an illustration of a Chanel gown by Jean Cocteau from the July 1937 is­sue of Bazaar. Op­po­site: a Chanel look pho­tographed by Erik Madi­gan Heck for our

Fe­bru­ary 2016 is­sue

Above and op­po­site, in­set: con­tem­po­rary Chanel jew­ellery

Coco Chanel at the Ritz in Paris, as fea­tured in Bazaar ’s Oc­to­ber 1937 is­sue

Por­traits of Coco Chanel by Jean Cocteau from the June (right) and April (op­po­site)

1937 is­sues

Chanel looks in Bazaar, clock­wise

from be­low: an illustration from the

Septem­ber 1935 is­sue. Lily Don­ald­son pho­tographed by David Sli­jper for Oc­to­ber 2015. A Pa­trick De­marche­lier

shot from the Septem­ber 1996 is­sue

Chanel pho­tographed ‘af­ter Wat­teau’ by Ge­orge Hoynin­genHuene for the Novem­ber 1939 is­sue

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