BA for Chanel  biography


1883 - 1971
Gwendoline Hirst

Part Three

Part One.       Part Three.

The final phase

On a trip to Monte Carlo in the autumn of 1925 Gabrielle was introduced to the Duke of Westminster, who immediately became enchanted with her. But she was not so easily persuaded that he should become a large part of her life. She did not want to give up her independence and move to England, away from her circle of friends. However, slowly but surely, the Duke persuaded her to try the English way of life and she began to spend more time with him at his various homes and on his yachts. Although he had already been married twice, the Duke had no heir, which made Gabrielle think that perhaps she could be the mother of the future Duke; but at the age of forty six the odds were stacked against it.

The years spent mixing with the English aristocracy became apparent in the designs for her collections. 1926 to 1931 was considered to be the English period, with sports jackets, waistcoats and shirts in the masculine style. But the Chanel touch was always there, this time using jewellery with simple cardigans or sweaters in a way that no Englishwoman had ever done.

The affair with the Duke was to be as short lived as the rest, and by 1929 he was looking round for a new wife. Gabrielle, not without a struggle, resigned herself to the situation and returned to Paris to take up her old life and her old friends. She did, however keep her contacts in England.

But once again fate intervened and a new phase began. Depression had hit the United States of America and Samuel Goldwyn, the movie mogul, decided that one way to help women to forget the misery was to produce films depicting a different way of life. A famous dress designer must be found to produce memorable clothes. That designer had to be Gabrielle Chanel. His stars were to wear Chanel styles both on and off screen, and he was prepared to pay Chanel one million dollars for the pleasure of going to Hollywood twice a year with her designs.

Misia, as so often, was her companion on the triumphal entry into Hollywood in April 1931, where they were greeted by many of the top movie stars. Gloria Swanson was to star in the film “Tonight or Never” and Gabrielle was asked to design her wardrobe. This proved harder than expected as Miss Swanson was pregnant, and at each fitting the clothes became tighter, causing Gabrielle to urge Miss Swanson to lose weight and not wear a girdle, which showed beneath the sheer fabric. However, with the usual Chanel creativity, a selection of clothes was produced, including a bias cut evening gown in black satin and a suit that was also in a style much loved by Chanel, with a fitted waist and wide revers, worn with a white blouse.

The public loved the clothes but the Hollywood stars did not want clothes designed exclusively by one person. Gabrielle would not put up with all the arguments and released herself from the contract, leaving Samuel Goldwyn to find another designer.

Fashionable clothes were becoming more accessible to the general public. Early in 1932 Gabrielle was invited by a British textile firm to design a range of clothes using cotton materials. She used cotton lawn, muslin and organdie to great effect for ball gowns and clothes for the races. One of the notable fashion events of the year was held at the Duke of Westminster’s London apartments, where over a hundred Chanel creations, using British materials, were modelled by her friends. All the designs were able to be copied, and the charity event was attended by manufacturers from all over the world.

Chanel costume jewellery, particularly pearls, was now a part of the fashionable womanÍs wardrobe, but Gabrielle now had other ideas. Her salon became a fortress, guarded by alarms, for she was about to launch an exhibition of real jewellery. The exhibition, in November, 1932, was not open to the public, but to prominent people in the jewellery trade, who paid for the privilege of seeing her unique new creations. The proceeds were to to be divided between two charities. Her aim, she claimed was to provide employment for the craftsmen at such a difficult time. Wide bracelets that could be split up and worn separately, and necklaces covering the shoulders, which were a work of art in themselves, caused quite a stir.

A new influence had entered Gabrielle’s life. Paul Iribarnegaray, Iribe to his friends, became her constant companion and moved into her house on the Faubourg. It was rumoured that they were to be married, but he still had a wife. Over the next three years Gabrielle began to lean more and more on Iribe, leaving him to fight her legal battles, of which there were many. However, a particularly nasty incident outside her apartments, in the Spring of 1934, when the Fascists tried to take over the city, made Gabrielle decide to leave the Faubourg. Dismissing all her staff except her personal maid, she took her furniture and moved, with Iribe, to the Ritz hotel.

A Classic Chanel Suit

A Classic Chanel Suit

The summer was spent at the villa on the Riviera, but the world was changing, and by the next year Hitler was gaining prominence in Germany, which was to have an effect on all their lives.

Gabrielle and Iribe were spending the summer of 1935 as usual at the villa. A game of tennis had been arranged, but, just as Gabrielle arrived, Iribe collapsed with a heart attack and died soon afterwards. At the age of fifty two Gabrielle was once more alone. Misia, still her closest friend, tried to comfort her, but to no avail, and Gabrielle returned to Paris in the Autumn, once more to immerse herself in work.

But worse was to come with the great strike of 1936, when all the workers in the city went on strike for better conditions and better pay. The employees at the house of Chanel joined the strike, and locked the doors against Gabrielle. Dressed in a classic Chanel suit, she tried to argue with them but they would not listen. Inevitably she had to give in to their demands, or the business she had spent so long building up would cease to exist.

The threat of war hovered over the world, but the Exposition des Arts et Techniques was held in Paris in 1937, and Gabrielle took every opportunity to be seen wearing her own creations. A crystal plate designed by Chanel and engraved with a pair of scissors cutting into a piece of material, held the inscription “I used these scissors to cut all that was superfluous in the creations of others.”.

These years were to be some of the worst of her life, but she was persuaded to design the costumes for Cocteau's play “Oedipe Roi”, starring Jean Marais. The costumes were indeed very strange, resembling rolls of bandage draped round the actors, or heavy, outdated dresses and bonnets. Needless to say press and public were scathing in their condemnation.

With one last effort, Chanel made a comeback with her red, white and blue gypsy dresses of 1939, before the outbreak of war forced her to make a momentous decision. She was closing down the workrooms and salons, only the boutique, selling accessories and perfume, would remain open. She could not be persuaded to change her mind, though the trade union and staff tried their best.

After a short time in seclusion, Gabrielle once more came back to Paris where she was offered a small room at the Ritz. After the closure of her salons she had told everyone how poor she was, but, in fact, she was a wealthy woman and the sales of perfume and accessories never faltered. She still had an apartment above the shop, and here she brought a German officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, after their fateful meeting in 1941. Spatz, as he was called, was thirteen years younger than Gabrielle, who was now fifty six, but, always dressed in civilian clothes, he seemed happy to merge into the background. Their affair lasted until 1944. After being arrested and held briefly by the “Clean up Committee” Gabrielle decided that the time had come to move to Lausanne in Switzerland.

For years Chanel had been fighting the Wertheimer brothers over the rights to manufacture her perfumes. Never having actually signed a permanent contract with them, she had never accepted that she was being treated fairly. However, in 1947, they finally came to an agreement, giving Gabrielle a two per cent royalty on gross sales worldwide, plus other benefits. After all the years of wrangling she was satisfied, as, at that time this represented one million dollars per year.

Gabrielle watched in dismay as male designers such as Dior began to dress women in figure restricting clothes once more. She had spent so many years designing easy fitting styles, which flattered the female figure. In 1953 she could no longer stand the inactivity and began to design a new collection. On the 5th of February 1954, at the age of seventy one, she once more opened her Paris salon with a collection based on her previous best selling styles; the simple, collarless Chanel suit with skirt just skimming the knee, nothing frivolous or fussy. The press were cruel in their castigation, but Gabrielle was not to be beaten, she continued to design, and little by little she made her mark once more on women’s fashion, helped by increased sales in the United States.

She carried on, working herself to exhaustion, going across the road to her room at the Ritz for a few hours troubled sleep, then returning to her cutting and fitting with renewed vigour. But on January 10, 1971, she went to her room and, lying on her single bed, with her maid beside her, she quietly died, at the age of eighty eight. © GMH

The End.

Part One.       Part Two.

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