Monday, February 22, 2010

Power Designers: Coco Chanel

by Isabella E. Isbiroglu

1883-1971, portrait by Douglas Kirkland late 1960's

The article, “L’Allure de Chanel: The Couturiere as Literary Character”, written by Lourdes Font reflects on the relationship that Gabrielle Chanel shared with writer Paul Morand. Morand wrote the book L’Allure de Chanel, published in 1974, recounting the story of Chanel’s life. There are plenty of Chanel memoirs written, but his version is so appealing because he tells Chanel’s story including fact and fiction. Font states, “Morand’s Chanel is the Chanel we think we know. For this reason alone, it is worthwhile to learn more about him and their relationship.” The article centers itself around the bond that Chanel and Morand shared and how this affected both of their professional careers.

Morand contributed to what is now the myth of Chanel and the many stories surrounding her.

Font explains how Morand and Chanel met, but pointing out that the exact date is unclear for several reasons. The first reason being that “nothing that concerns Chanel is simple or clear”, referring to Chanel’s tendency to lie about her history. Font continues stating that Morand had an active social life, “taking every one in with a hungry novelist’s eye, and recording his impressions in a journal.” The first time Chanel was mentioned was in 1917 in his journal. In Chanel’s recount of her first meeting with Marand, she was at Cecile Sorel’s dinner party, where George Boy Capel escorted her, but Capel is not mentioned in Morand’s journal. Morand moved in the same social circles as Capel, so therefore it is possible that they did not actually meet until 1919-1919.

Font continues to explain the detailed relationship between Morand and Chanel. Font points out that in Morand’s book L’Allure de Chanel he gives the impression that he and Chanel did not meet until a party on New Years Eve in 1921. Font gives us two possible theories as to why he did not acknowledge their relationship until later. Morand entered Chanel’s life when she was deeply saddened by the loss of Boy Capel and when she was experiencing success as a designer. There are two ideas that Font explores. The first is that Morand had a reputation of being a womanizer, therefore wanting to omit the “tête-à-têtes” in 1918. The second idea is that Chanel and Morand would meet in the evenings and talk about Boy Capel.

Morand tells the tell of the well connected, revealing Chanel's power began with the proper endorsement. Above left Chanel with Capel who introduced her to the private life of wealth at right with the British Prime Minister. Her androgynous dress fit in with a world of men.

The author conveys this brief history in order to segway into the topic of Mallard’s book, Irene et Lewis. Font only includes so much detail about Chanel’s relationship with Boy Capel and how this was relevant to Monard because in his novel, the two characters seem to have much in common with the couple. Font analyzes both characters comparing Irene to Chanel and Lewis to Boy and while they do draw similarities, they also draw differences. It is evident that Morand did draw inspirations from his characters from Chanel’s personal life with Capel, but it is not an autobiographical piece on their relationship.

The real piece that depicts Chanel’s life is in fact L’Allure de Chanel. Font reveals the difficulties Morand faced when trying to write her memoirs the first time. She would constantly lie about her early life, ending the collaboration in failure. It was only after her death that he was able to pull his notes together and tell her story exactly the way she did. It is mentioned that both Morand and Chanel had a certain “stylistic rapport” that complimented the other. L’Allure de Chanel would be one of the more famous depictions of her life because of the special relationship the author shared with the subject.

Font concludes her article by emphasizing that it is important to understand that Boy Capel shaped Chanel to whom she was, but it was Morand that gave her the voice for the rest of the world to know who she was. Font ends the article stating, “Finally, we should also recognize that the Chanel we think we know—who is Paul Morand’s Chanel—is a work of art because she is a literary character.”

The Chanel suit of the 1902's a looser form of the 1960's version

I find Font’s article to be well informative, unique and interesting. Her main focus is the relationship between Morand and Chanel, highlighting that Morand’s memoir transformed Chanel into a work of art by making her into a fictional character. While Font stresses the importance of Morand’s other work Irene et Lewis she also places somewhat of an equal importance on Boy Capel. I believe she does so, so that the reader has an understanding that not only was Capel her lover, but her foundation. The article stresses Morand’s strong relationship with Chanel giving him the capabilities to write about her. What we can infer from this reading is that Chanel and Morand had a unique relationship. Chanel inspired Morand and Morand gave Chanel a voice through his literature.

What I find to be the most interesting about this article is that Font is able to connect fashion and fiction. She does not just state the Morand wrote about Chanel and did a good job, she explains why this particular relationship is unique. Boy Capel played a huge role in Chanel’s life, both personally and professionally. Morand was part of their social circle, having a better understanding of Chanel’s life. In addition, in the final paragraph, Font addresses Chanel’s love for novels. Chanel stated that she learned about life through novels. This highlights her personal relationship with Morand more exclusively because he was a writer. He wrote her own story and by drawing form Chanel’s experiences and putting them into Irene et Lewis, Chanel may learned about her own life through this piece of fiction. Font recognizes this idea when saying, ”But Chanel could not have seen herself in the character of Irene. In Lewis, however, she had to have recognized a devastating portrayal of Boy Capel.”

Information on the author: Lourdes Font: This article was taking from the book Fashion Theory published in 2004. Lourdes is a costume and textile historian who teachers in the History of Art department at the school of graduate studies at FIT. She is particularly interested in art and literature. She has earned her MA in Costume Studies and a PH.D. in Arts and Humanities from NYU. She taught history of dress at NYU and at Parsons. Since 2003 she has been a full time faculty member at FIT. She has overseen exhibits curated by her students at the museum at FIT. In addition, she has presented papers at the Frick Collection’s Conference on Dress and Art.

Chanel by Douglas Kirkland

Designer and business woman she was not only strategic about the release of her own memoirs but also promotional photos below from 1959.

US Vogue below, 1961

Chanel handpicked her models, not for beauty as much as poise and social connection, below couture models waiting, 1964

The Chanel brand and use of black and white were created by Coco and are still used in original form. Below Ali McGraw, 1966.

The last collection SS 197. Chanel died on January 10 and the collection was presented on January 26 with an audience of 1000.

Karl Lagerfeld has been directing Chanel since 1983. He still designs the classic suit and shoots the campaigns himself.

2009 campaign

Lagerfeld below at SS 2010 Couture

F 2009 RTW

Lagerfeld is known for introducing the original branded accessories.

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