BA for Chanel biography


1883 - 1971
Gwendoline Hirst

Part Two

Part One.       Part Three.

Branching out

Capel had left Gabrielle 40,000 in his will and, three months after his death, she moved into a new villa at Garches. Her sense of colour and style were reflected in the colours she chose for the exterior, beige stucco with black lacquered shutters. So began a new era in Chanel’s life, full of painters, composers and dancers. Her friend Misia Sert, a pianist of some renown, had a large circle of friends in the theatrical world, and it was she who introduced Gabrielle to this exciting and invigorating environment.

Misia decided that Gabrielle needed to have a complete change from her work and the things that reminded her of Capel, so she and her husband took her with them to Venice. Here they met Serge Diaghilev, who was having desperate financial problems. Having been sponsored by the Romanovs before the uprising, he needed a backer for a new production of “Le Sacre de Printemps” to be staged by the Ballets Russes in Paris, but could see no prospect of finding the money. Gabrielle listened and said nothing, but on returning to Paris she visited Diaghilev at his hotel and handed him the money he required, on condition that he told no one. However his private secretary knew, and it was he who, much later, told the world of this generous gift. Gabrielle’s home at Garches also became a refuge for Igor Stravinsky, the composer, who with his wife and four children had returned from Switzerland in order to become French citizens.

The summer of 1920 found Gabrielle once more in Biarritz. Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich was also on holiday, and it soon became clear that they were very attracted to each other, even though he was eleven years younger than she was. A member of the Romanov family, he had been treated as a son by the tsar, but he had survived the war and now had very little money. They lived together for a year, and in that year Chanel’s most successful product was created; the perfume Chanel No. 5.

Chanel 5 perfume.

Chanel 5 perfume

Until this time all perfumes had been based on natural flower fragrances. These were very concentrated essences but once in use the perfume quickly evaporated and faded. Dmitri had grown up in the Russian court where perfumes were used in large quantities. He was acquainted with Ernest Beaux, a perfume chemist at Grasse, the centre of the perfume industry. So it happened that Gabrielle too became acquainted with Ernest Beaux and the idea for her own perfume evolved. This was to be based, not on flower essences, but on eighty different ingredients, creating a more stable base and a distinctive abstract perfume and could also be used in smaller quantities. Gabrielle left the mixing of the ingredients to Ernest Beaux, but she made the final decisions about the finished product, sampling it several times before deciding on the perfume that she thought reflected the image she wanted to portray. Even the bottle was a totally new concept, moving away from the elaborate, frivolous designs of other manufacturers to a sharp cornered cube, in which the perfume was visible through the glass. The label was also devoid of ornament, in plain white, with the words “No. 5 Chanel” printed in black.

The perfume was an immediate success and, though other manufacturers tried to produce copies, no one was able to capture it exactly and Chanel No. 5 remained the favourite. Parfums Chanel was founded in 1924, run by Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, and with Ernest Beaux as its technical director.

Dmitri, or his Russian ancestry, was to be the inspiration for a further innovation that year. Gabrielle had introduced embroidery into some of her garments as early as 1916, but after the war embroidery became very popular and she experimented with a black rubashka blouse, embroidered on the cuffs and collar, worn over a straight skirt. The idea was so popular that an embroidery workshop was set up, with the Grand Duchess Maria, Dmitri’s sister, in charge, using machines to embroider intricate patterns on a wide variety of garments. Fur, another favourite of Chanel’s, was used to line a full length cloak, giving a distinctly Russian air to the collection. Many of the models and saleswomen in the salon were also Russian, and they, in turn, brought their Russian friends as clients.

At the end of the year Gabrielle and Dmitri parted company and he married an American, but he and Gabrielle remained firm friends. The villa at Garches was also sold and Gabrielle moved back to 29, Faubourg St. Honoré in Paris. Her theatrical friends were soon filling the apartment with their singing and dancing, much to the annoyance of the neighbours, but Gabrielle shrugged off their complaints. Picasso, Stravinsky and Diaghilev were all to be found there, pursuing their particular interests.

For several years after this Gabrielle was involved in a tempestuous love affair with Pierre Reverdy, a struggling poet, with a wife patiently waiting at home. Even after their final separation in 1926 he was to continue to dedicate his poems to Gabrielle, and she owned the first editions of his complete works, as well as a priceless copy of “Cravates de chanvre”, by Reverdy, with original water colour illustrations by Picasso.

It was Jean Cocteau who asked Gabrielle to design the costumes for his production of “Antigone” at the newly opened Atelier Theatre in Paris. In December 1922, at the age of thirty nine, Chanel was to become as famous for her theatrical costumes as for her haute couture collections. The stage sets were designed by Picasso, with music by Arthur Honegger, using the oboe and the harp. Taking the theme from Greek vase paintings, both Chanel and Picasso created an authentic Greek atmosphere for the play. Antigone was dressed in a long, tunic dress in white wool, decorated with brown bands, over which she wore a woollen cloak patterned in brown. Picasso also used the Greek vase as his inspiration, thus bringing together the costumes and the sets.

In 1924 Cocteau’s “Le Train Bleu”, portraying tennis, golf and swimming on the Riviera, opened at the Champs-Elysées Theatre in Paris, with costumes by Chanel, and stage curtain by Picasso. With Anton Dolin and Bronislava Nijinska in the starring roles, the costumes provided a challenge for Gabrielle, who had to make sure that the clothes she designed allowed the dancers to perform somersaults as well as conventional dance movements. The first designs, tried on for the first time at the dress rehearsal, were something of a disaster, with the dancers complaining that the costumes did not fit and restricted their movements. Frantic alterations were made and on the opening night the costumes were a triumph. Once more Chanel was influencing fashion with her thigh length, knitted bathing dresses with shorts just showing beneath, worn with a skull cap and earrings. Her tennis player’s outfit of white, loose-fitting, knee length dress and headband, soon became the rage in fashionable circles, and no one was seen on the beach unless they were wearing the Chanel bathing dress.

The collaboration between Chanel and Cocteau lasted for fourteen years, from 1923 to 1937, and with each production a new fashion emerged.

The 1925 Arts Decoratifs Exhibition in Paris brought together the architecture, furniture and fashion of the time, with the pavilion of elegance displaying the gowns of Boulanger, Lanvin, Patou and Chanel. The Art Deco style was nothing new for Chanel, who had been creating the smooth, almost masculine look for several years. To be chic all frills and fussiness must be eliminated, even the hair styles were short, smooth and slicked back. The era of mass production had also arrived, something which caused most designers to start law suits against the firms copying their garments. Chanel, however, took all this in her stride and decided to go along with the trend, creating fashion for everyone, not just for the select few who could afford it. The “little black dress” displayed in “Vogue” in 1926 was a typical Chanel style, in black crepe de chine, tight fitting on the hips, with no collar and long, straight sleeves, soon became the standard for the smart occasion.

Costume jewellery was first introduced into the fashion world by Paul Poiret and in 1924 Chanel decided to open a jewellery workshop with Comte Etienne de Beaumont as manager. Imitation jewellery that looked like the real thing became part of the fashionable woman's wardrobe. The twinset and pearls look was created. The jeweller Madame Gripoux made the imitation pearls and glass beads for the Chanel collections. The Duke di Verdura, who joined Chanel in 1927 as a textile designer, later created some of the most unusual pieces of jewellery for her collections. © GMH

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