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High Priestess of High Fashion: GABRIELLE CHANEL

5 minute read

AT the fall fashion shows in Paris, high among clothes that excited the press and buyers the most were those of Gabrielle Chanel. Her colorful, classic “little suits” were once more the high-fashion hit. It was hardly a surprise: for the past 40 years a large share of the history of feminine fashion has been tailored by slim, dark-haired “Coco” (Little Pet) Chanel, 78, the designer’s designer who never learned to sew. Her own modest formula for success: “We don’t need genius, just a lot of skill and a little taste.”

Coco acquired taste when a rich young socialite discovered the pretty, apple-cheeked, orphaned peasant girl in the Auvergne, took her away to share life on his estate and the society of his wealthy friends.

She stayed there several years, then set out to try her skill athatmaking, opened a shop in Deauville. Her hats sold so well that in 1914 she moved on to Paris. Before long, her customers clamored for “little, dresses” to go with Coco’s hats.

It was the threshold of the ’20s and the new era of uncorseted freedom for women. The simple clothes Coco wanted to make were exactly what women were waiting for. She introduced the tricot sailor frock, the turtleneck sweater and the pullover, shortened skirts and heels for comfort, flattened chests to create a lithe, boyish look.

COCO became a fashion herself. Returning from the Riviera to Paris, her bronzed face launched the suntan vogue. One day she went to the races in a man’s trench coat. The next week trench coats were the thing to wear.

By the mid-‘aos the orphaned peasant girl was rich, and delighted in her money because, she said, it “rang with the sound of freedom.” She wore a $75,000 string of pearls to enhance her own designs. To achieve dramatic effects she often mixed these with costume jewelry which she introduced to the world of high fashion. Quick tongued and beautiful (“Like a little black swan,” said Cocteau; “like a little black bull,” said Colette), Coco had one love affair after another, though she never married. One of her most persistent admirers was the Duke of Westminster, who employed three couriers running between London and Paris with their love letters. When he finally proposed, Coco turned him down: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”

In 1920 she asked a perfumer to create some scents for her spring showings. He presented her two series, one numbered from 1 to 5. the other 20 to 24. Highly superstitious, Coco said: “I am going to show my collection on the fifth day of the fifth month. I’ll choose No. 5.” The elegant, evocative odor lingered, and Chanel No. 5 became the world’s most famous perfume. Though she sold the perfume subsidiary in 1924. she still gets a royalty on every bottle sold.

THE great virtue of Coco’s early (and present) clothes is their straightforward design and use of ordinary fabrics. They can be easily copied, cheaply mass-produced. Copied they were, and Coco loved it, refusing to join the cabal of other Paris designers who tried to prevent style piracy. “Thirty years ago,” she says proudly, “I went to dinner at Giro’s. I remember counting 23 Chanel dresses in the room. But I was sure of only one: mine. I found that a very pretty compliment.”

In 1939, with the war coming on, Coco retired. In 1953, to boost lagging Chanel No. 5 sales, Pierre Wertheimer, owner of the perfumes, asked Coco to resume designing. Since then, she has proved that for all the random fads and seasonal excitements, perhaps the surest touch in fashion is still Chanel’s.

She is no innovator for novelty’s sake. She devotes her energies to barely noticeable refinements of detail of her suits and dresses, e.g., jackets are shorter this year, a little closer to the body. With scissors hanging from a ribbon around her neck and her four fingers firmly together in a characteristic Coco gesture as she pats a new suit in various places, she may say: “Make a pleat here, an intelligent pleat.” One of this year’s suits was changed 35 times after being made up before Coco was satisfied.

Such perfectionism comes high: $700 a suit to a private buyer, almost twice that much to a buyer who wants to copy the model for mass distribution. Even so, the House of Chanel loses money every year on its fashion division, which is carried by the perfume profits. Some 80% of Chanel sales are made abroad, and her clothes have been copied all over the world, right down to a U.S. cotton model retailing for $10. The secret of fashion is simple, says Coco: “One always begins by making dream dresses. Then one has to take away something. Always to take off, never to add. Some people think luxury is the contrary of being poor. No, it is the contrary of vulgarity.”

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