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#199 Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life
August 20th, 2021 | E199

What I learned from reading Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie.


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'When my customers come to me, they like to cross the threshold of some magic place; they feel a satisfaction that is perhaps a trace vulgar but that delights them: they are privileged characters who are incorporated into our legend. For them this is a far greater pleasure than ordering another suit. Legend is the consecration of fame.” —Coco Chanel, 1935

Her father soon left them, discontented with marriage and fatherhood.

The dead are not dead as long as we think of them.

I like talking to myself and I don't listen to what I'm told.

Gabrielle spent seven years in the orphanage, until she was 18. Her father never returned to see her or her siblings.

I was thoroughly unhappy. I fed on sorrow and horror. I wanted to kill myself I don't know how many times.

And having to hear people call me an orphan! They felt sorry for me. All this was humiliating.

She was one of the charity pupils who were provided with a free place, and therefore treated differently to those whose family could afford to pay for their education. It was here, too, that she was given further instruction in how to sew.

She sought to define herself by her idiosyncratic choice of clothes.

She distanced herself from the past in storytelling. For telling stories is a way in which to imagine a happy-ever-after.

What she did want was to earn her own living.

They didn't understand how important this was to me.

Coco made hats that were stripped of embellishments, of the frills that she dismissed as weighing a woman down.

Coco began to edge her way to the centre of attention, elbowing past her rivals and competitors.

Paul Poiret, whose fame at the time was such that he dubbed himself the 'King of Fashion', said of Chanel's early days as a milliner, 'We ought to have been on guard against that boyish head. It was going to give us every kind of shock, and produce, out of its little conjuror's hat, gowns and coiffures and jewels and boutiques.’

I often fainted. I had too much emotion, too much excitement, I lived too intensely. My nerves couldn't stand it.

The House of Chanel seemed to give her stability.

I am not here to have fun, or to spend money like water. I am here to make a fortune.

She rejoiced in her independence.

I was my own master and I depended on myself alone.

Chanel was neither slave girl nor wife, but something of her own making.

The little black dress wasn't formally identified as the shape of the future until 1926, when American Vogue published a drawing of a Chanel design, and announced: 'Here is a Ford signed Chanel.' It was simple yet elegant sheath, in black, with long narrow sleeves, worn with a string of white pearls; and Vogue proved to be correct in the prediction that it would become a uniform, as widely recognised as a Ford automobile; fast and sleek and discreet.

I imposed black; it's still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.

She did not see herself as an artist – she repeatedly described herself as an artisan who 'works with her hand' - and yet her precision and commitment to her craft was reminiscent of Reverdy.

Coco was always contrary.

Chanel N°5 was the solid foundation of her empire. N°5 was multiplied a million times over - and more, far more - in a dizzying proliferation that made Coco Chanel rich and recognised around the world, so that her name became a brand, and her face as famous as her logo.

She surreptitiously sprayed the women who passed their table with the new perfume. “You've got to be able to lead them by the nose.”

Each tormented the other at different points in their lives, with such antagonism that Pierre had to employ a full-time lawyer simply to deal with her.

She was both a copyist, and much copied.

Coco is really strong being fit to rule a man or an Empire. —Winston Churchill, 1927

Chanel's deft designs were not without precedents. Nor did she invent its associated fashions. But as was often the case in her career as a designer, she was quick to distil its essence, absorbing it into her own style, and selling it to customers eager for her clothes.

It is immoral to play at earning one's living.

I am only a little dress-maker, trying to make women young and pretty. These other designers that do the pretty little sketches, the boys, they don't understand women, they don't know how they live. Their idea is to make them weird, freaks.

When I showed it in Paris, I had many critics. They said that I was old-fashioned, that I was no longer of the age. Always I was smiling inside my head, and I thought, I will show them.

She devotes her energies to barely noticeable refinements of detail of her suits and dresses.


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