DG Q&A: Karen Karbo On Coco Chanel
When Karen Karbo was a kid, she wanted to be a large-animal veterinarian and a movie director. Instead, she became a remarkably prolific author. Her well-received oeuvre includes three novels for adults, the Minerva Clark series of juvenile mysteries, and a book on Katharine Hepburn. Her newest title, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World's Most Elegant Woman, is a witty biography-cum-advice-book starring one of the 20th century's most influential innovators. DG will feature excerpts from the book tomorrow through Thursday (here, here, and here), followed by a special Top 10 from Karen (and Coco) on Friday.
DeepGlamour: You previously wrote a book called How to Hepburn: Lessons on Living from Kate the Great, about Katharine Hepburn. What drew you to Hepburn and Chanel? How much do they have in common?
Karen Karbo: My connections with Hepburn were largely personal. Katharine Hepburn was a household saint; my mother was said to look like her and she introduced me to her movies. I’d known about Chanel because I hail from designers. My grandmother was a couturiere in Los Angeles in the ’40s and ’50s; she designed pieces for the wives of movie moguls. My father was an industrial designer. He designed the hood ornament for the Lincoln Town Car, that iconic cross inside a square. Anyway, I started thinking about Coco and her life when I was writing the Hepburn book and came across Coco, the 1969 musical starring Hepburn. One thing lead to the next.
Despite the fact that one was a classic New England Yankee from a WASPy, relatively wealthy family and the other was a scrappy French peasant born in a poorhouse, the two women had a surprising amount of personality traits in common: both women were confident, hardworking, and fearless, except when it came to people finding out secrets about their past. They both discovered their individual style and talents young, and worked them for their entire lives. They were both bossy. They liked to instruct. They both always thought they were right about everything. And, they demanded that they be comfortable in their clothes!
DG: How would you define “Chanel style”? Does it require Chanel clothes?
KK: Chanel style is a philosophy. In its purest form it holds that luxury is a necessity, and true luxury is about feeling absolutely comfortable in your clothes (and thus, in your skin.) Chanel style means wearing simple pieces that skim the body. There is no unnecessary extra fabric, nor is anything so tight you can’t move. I’m sure ultra low-rise jeans would have driven her mad. Indeed, being able to move through the world easily and with comfort was one of Chanel’s main tenets. I don’t think this requires Chanel clothes, but it requires the wearing of clothes with a Chanelian attitude: only wear what suits you. When Chanel was just starting out, when she was Coco before Chanel, the fussy, overly complicated gowns of the Belle Époque were not simply beyond her reach financially, they looked ridiculous on her. She found what flattered her the most and stuck with it until the end of her days.
DG: You write, “Style has always been about money, and it always will be.” That’s a pretty depressing thought. Do you really believe it? How, aside from making your own Chanel-inspired suit, do you deal with it as a middle-class writer?
KK: I agree a hundred percent: it is a depressing thought. But it’s also a reality. To believe otherwise is to live at the mercy of the fashion industry which, in order to survive, needs women, rich and poor and in between, to buy a lot of clothes at all different price points as frequently as possible. “Style” is synonymous with variety in our culture; to be chic and stylish Carrie Bradshaw required a closet full of Manolos.
I have a friend who’s very rich and his clothes are the epitome of simplicity: he likes to wear jeans, loafers and cashmere sweaters, bespoke shirts and Armani jackets. The fabrics are astonishing in their color, their softness. The cut of everything he slips into is perfect and flawless. So is his style.
There are clothes that give a shout-out to style. They boast the of-the-moment neckline or cuff; they’re made of cheap fabric and slapped together by shockingly underpaid workers in Indonesia and China. That’s another discussion for another time, but the point is, from a Chanelian point-of-view, that style is luxury, and luxury means a garment is as beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside. Plus, it has to fit, and cheap clothes just don’t fit that well, generally speaking.
Both variety and quality cost money. Or, more money than a writer makes. J. Crew has been my reliable go-to catalogue for decades. Which is not to say I don’t own a few stylish pieces. Up the street from me there’s an extraordinary consignment store I visit once a week. I just snagged a Ralph Lauren Black Label top for $18. I wear jeans, boots, and jackets a lot, and I have some great jewelry that belonged to my grandmother. As long as I don’t decide to become a socialite who needs to look fantastic five nights a week, I’m set.
DG: You write that Chanel’s attitude toward her past made her “seem completely modern.” What was her attitude and how did it inform her work and her persona?
KK: Chanel lied about her past, and then rewrote the lies. She created a past for herself that suited her. She was, in a lot of ways, one of the early practitioners of spin. France is a family-centric country, and the French tend to honor their heritage. To invent yourself, to make yourself, the way Chanel did was a 20th-century maneuver. It was an American maneuver. We Americans understood what Chanel was about long before the French did. We loved her message of ease and freedom immediately.
DG: Chanel was a master of self-promotion, yet you also note that she was “shrewd enough to make her unavailable to her customers.” What can she teach contemporary figures about balancing publicity and mystery?
KK: A salesman has no mystique. TMI extinguishes allure. Chanel said, “People should guess you,” and so they should. She understood intuitively that inviting her clients and her public to participate in the creation of her allure was to capture their attention. She put enough out there to create a screen for their projection. She understood that self-promotion was also seduction. She was also extraordinarily lucky; she was able to create a desire for her pieces, for her look and way of life, and then recede into the shadows.
KK: Chanel’s most glamorous move was to replace the real jewels given her by her lover, the Duke of Westminster, then the richest man in the world, with poured glass. At a time of great prosperity she invented costume jewelry and during the Depression she insisted women wear diamonds they could sell in order to eat. She was a revolutionary disguised as a fashionista. Can it possibly get more glamorous than that?
DG: How would Coco Chanel fare on Project Runway?
KK: I’m sure she would have nothing to do with it. She would find another way to succeed. When the dazzling Elsa Schiaparelli stole Coco’s thunder in the ’30s (as well as some of her best clients), Chanel’s response was to completely ignore her.
The DG Dozen
1) How do you define glamour? Chanel said “art is imperfection” and the same can be said of glamour. To be glamorous is be aware of one’s flaws worthy of envy. Barbara Stanwyck comes to mind. A glamorous item is usually a fetish item that few people have but everyone wants. The iPhone was glamorous for about 48 hours, once upon a time.
3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity? Absolute necessity. When glamour goes, so does creativity and hope.
5) What was your most glamorous moment? Sipping Lagavulin single malt scotch aboard the Four Seasons Explorer in the Maldives, after a scuba dive in which I’d encountered a hammerhead shark.
6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)? A black and white cocktail dress designed by my grandmother for the 1948 Oscars. Her client ran off to Mexico with her lover two days before the awards ceremony and never claimed the dress.
7) Most glamorous place? The Hemingway Bar at the Ritz
8) Most glamorous job? Photojournalist avant digital.
9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't. Making a movie. I went to film school at USC and learned pretty quickly that filmmaking is both hard work and deadly dull. The days are long, the egos are huge, and there’s a lot of waiting around. There’s a great saying: the most exciting day of your life is the first day on the set; the most boring day of your life is the second day on the set.
10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized. Exercise rider for a great race horse.
11) Can glamour survive? Only if women stop giving press conferences about their preferred method of hair removal.
12) Is glamour something you're born with? Nope, it’s entirely self-generated. It helps if you have some killer quality that distinguishes you from the pack, like very long legs, a nice head of hair, or a huge fortune.
1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett? Cate
2) Paris or Venice? Paris
3) New York or Los Angeles? My heart says LA, my brain says NY.
4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace? Princess Grace
5) Tokyo or Kyoto? Lost in Translation
6) Boots or stilettos? Boots, particularly my own black steel-toed Luccheses.
7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau? Deco
8) Jaguar or Astin Martin? Astin Martin
9) Armani or Versace? Armani
10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour? Diana
11) Champagne or single malt? Single malt
12) 1960s or 1980s? Is this a lesser of two evils question?
13) Diamonds or pearls? Diamonds
14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell? Kate
15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig? Daniel
["25 shoes" photo by Flickr user bandita, who believes a woman should have as many pairs of shoes as she has years of age, under Creative Commons license.]
--Buy Karen Karbo's book here--