On Set With Coco Chanel: A Dummy's Guide To Fashion
Posted on Monday July 20, 2009, 17:07 by Sam Toy in Empire States
Or, Coco Chanel Et La Maison De Néon Bleu. AKA, Journeys Of A Fashion Remedial To Style Mecca.
Make no mistake, I’m a bit of a fashion lug. I am the sort of guy who enjoys simple clothing, and has ‘favourite’ articles thereof, which I will happily wear until the repairs are worn out. My prize red shirt, for example, is about to celebrate its ninth birthday. So it was something of a suprise to discover that I was to be sent to a set visit for Coco Before Chanel, the biopic of legendary fashion designer Coco Chanel. My knowledge of the woman I would discover to be the world’s most important couturier of the twentieth century was limited to what I had hastily read on Wikipedia, but the prospects were immensely improved after learning that my number two ‘it list’ girl Audrey Tautou would be playing the lead.
So I knew Chanel was the inventor of the ‘little black dress’, had a thing for simple black & white (which gave rise to her reputation for ‘minimalist elegance’), and had her name on the perfume recipe my mum adores. Beyond that, I was still a dunce. Fortunately for me, a part of this set visit consisted of a guided tour through the heart of Coco’s headquarters and semi-residence, the House Of Chanel.
It’s nestled, with typical French discretion – i.e. quietly – on Rue Cambon, where it’s been since 1910. My guide for the day informs me that as something special is being planned for ‘Russian Fashion Week: Paris’ (or something like that) in the front room of la maison, we won’t be able to go in that way, and ascend the famous, mirror laden spiral staircase leading up to Coco’s private quarters. Being something of a swot, I’d already bought Chanel’s biography and learned that she designed that staircase herself, so that she could sit at the top and see her models from every angle as they descended to the catwalk, while remaining virtually invisible from the crowds below.
I head inside, therefore, through the considerably less glamorous employee entrance. The first thing I see are the offices, which are very like any other workplace, but for the oh-so-simple black furniture that lets you know where you are. What’s unusual are the bits of blue neon about the place: lining the outside of the clock on the wall, for example. Oh, and of course the life-size cut-out of current Head-of-House Karl Lagerfeld, which is stuck opposite at the base of another set of stairs. I’ve never looked up the French for “WTF?!”, but if I knew it, it would surely be screaming through my mind at this point. After all, I have no idea why a) there is a life-size cut-out of Karl Lagerfeld here, b) why it’s stuck to the wall, and c) why it is outlined with blue frickin’ neon like an acid trip halo/kebab shop sign/homage to Miami Vice. Perhaps it’s a work of art; the neon represents the eternal ultraviolet sunbaking of the famously orange fashionista: who knows? But it’s there, and it’s freaking me out. Would Coco have approved? I say nothing, for fear of appearing not ‘with it’. That’s what fashion can do to you. I’m clearly out of my depth.
Moving swiftly on, I’m taken dangerously close to the life-sized cut-out, and I dismiss an earlier theory: überstylish insect killer (although it’s doing a good job of scaring me, so why shouldn’t it work on bugs?). Ascending more stairs, I’m now in Chanel’s private office and chamber, where she would work, hang out, be stylish and sometimes entertain guests. Stylishly, no doubt. I’m told by the guide that these rooms hold pretty much everything to unlocking Chanel’s tastes an influences. There are some jaw-dropping items on display, including a lot of Eastern bamboo screens (I learn these have all but disappeared elsewhere in the world), which have been re-appropriated into wallpaper. Also of note – thanks to my swotting up – is the upholstery on her couch, which inspired the famous diamond-pattern seen on her handbags. See? We're all learning!
Amid the items of importance placed about the rest of the apartment – lions are a popular motif, as are, of course (he says smugly from the comfort of his Chanel biography) camellias – we are shown one special item: placed on a writing desk are Coco’s sunglasses. For some reason, I’m struck by how modern they look, which gives way to thoughts of how timeless her style was, and I suddenly get that that is what makes her so important; she was at once ahead of her time, and timeless. Which sounds like something for Pseud’s Corner, but it made very clear sense in the moment, and there was an almost audible "ping!" as a lightbulb went on above my head.
As all that was rushing through my tiny fashion brain, I was led out to see that famous staircase from the top, looking down (very pretty, an Art Deco icon; I imagine people critics or art historians getting really excited about it as they recount its importance in a TV documentary on the period), and who should be descending from above, but Karl Lagerfeld. There is surprise from all parties.
Surprise from him, that there is someone so abominably dressed standing in his way. He offers a polite “Oh, hello.”
Surprise from me. that he isn't surrounded by ahalo-like aura of blue neon. “Hello,” I offer back.
Not so much surprise as abject horror from the guide; clearly this was unexpected, and I’m ushered promptly from Karl’s (I feel we’re on first name terms now, me and the Lagermeister. Lags. El Lagerino...) immediate vicinity, which brings my tour to a close.
The experience was, quite unexpectedly, great – not that I was expecting it to be bad: I should say that it was great in ways that I wasn’t really expecting; a bit like a school excursion which you think is going to be a laugh, but you accidentally get a lot out of. And it turns out blue neon is the future of fashion.