The Gospel According To Coco Chanel: On Fearlessness (Part II)

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When we left young Coco Chanel, she had established herself first as a successful hat designer and then opened a trendy little shop in the resort town of Deauville, selling her little skirts and cardigans. But she had not yet become the great Mademoiselle Chanel, independent of her boyfriends’ support. She needed a Great Idea. Here, in our second excerpt from Karen Karbo’s new book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, she finds it. (The photos are stills from the new movie Coco Before Chanel.)

Most of us, when we land upon a great idea, a lifesaving idea, immediately turn it into our baby. And like our real-life babies, we only want the best for it. We love it. We coddle it. It’s our great idea, and who knows when we might have another one! We want to implement it at the right time with the best materials possible. We want the stars to be right.

But Chanel’s chutzpah dictated the opposite. She was going to reinvent the female wardrobe, and she was going to do it now with whatever was at hand. And what was at hand was jersey, then thought of as the cheesiest material possible.

If the world of fabric was high school, jersey was the personality-free, nearly invisible nerd everyone avoided at lunch. Stretchy, clingy, and cheap, it came in colors like beige, medium beige, light beige, and lighter beige. It was the opposite of silk, wool, cashmere, tulle, and other fine fabrics that could, at the very least, hold their own shape.

Audrey Tatou Coco Chanel stripes How did Chanel decide to use this red-headed stepchild of fabrics? The Chanelore differs. Either she got a sensational deal on a lot of jersey from a manufacturer that decided against using it for the menswear for which it was originally made, or else her lease at the Rue Cambon stipulated that she could only make hats, because there was another dressmaker on the block. As jersey was not something used to make women’s clothes, Chanel’s early jackets, skirts, and suits were not considered clothing, and therefore did not violate the terms of her lease (I will not attempt to parse the French bureaucratic logic).

If things hadn’t worked out so well, Chanel could have easily been dismissed as a whack-a-doo, and her jersey ensembles written off as the crocheted beer hats of the early twentieth century or the disposable paper minidresses in style for a nanosecond during the 1960s.

But Chanel possessed an unswerving faith in her instincts, which included what she believed to be her impeccable taste. And it was (largely) impeccable, because she believed it was. It was sheer nerve. When she launched her line that summer before the war, her dressmaking skills were nearly nonexistent. She knew how to make hats, and she knew how to explain what she wanted to other people (i.e., the women she hired who did have actual dressmaking skills).

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 The history of haute couture is populated with designers who were either born in a box by the side of the road, or like Chanel, suffered traumas straight out of Dickens. For every high-born Miuccia Prada, there is an Armani, who grew up in a small town near Milan that was so aggressively bombed by the allies during World War II that Giorgio lost his entire gang of boyfriends in a single day. 

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It’s possible Chanel’s pluck was not as unique as it seems. The history of haute couture and luxury goods is populated with designers who were either born in a box by the side of the road, or like Chanel, suffered traumas straight out of Dickens. For every high-born Miuccia Prada and Pucci, there is an Armani, who grew up in a small town near Milan that was so aggressively bombed by the allies during World War II that Giorgio lost his entire gang of boyfriends in a single day. On another day, a rifle cartridge he’d found in the street exploded as he was leaning down to have a look. He spent forty days on the burn ward and still bears the scars. Chanel’s contemporary, Madeleine Vionnet, “queen of the bias cut,” was born dirt poor in Chilleurs-aux-Bois, Loiret. Her family sent her to begin her apprenticeship as a seamstress at age eleven; by eighteen she had already been married and divorced and was working in a London hospital as a seamstress, repairing tattered bedding. Louis Vuitton came from a family of farmers in the foothills of the French Alps; he left home at age thirteen for Paris and worked as a stable boy until he was able to apprentice himself to a trunk maker. In 1854, with nothing more than his good ideas as to how a fine trunk should be built, he opened his first shop on the Rue des Capucines. Thierry Hermès was orphaned at fifteen, after his parents and siblings died of various diseases during the Napoleonic Wars. He wandered a bit before settling in Normandy, the heart of French horse country, where he learned to make harnesses. In 1837 he opened his own shop in Paris (not far from Vuitton’s) and proceeded to make the most exquisite harnesses, saddles, and eventually, yes, handbags, on Earth.

Audrey Tatou Coco Chanel black It’s tempting to think that the gene for the courage to impose one’s vision of beauty on the world is located on the chromosome that also determines the ability to create a simple, beautiful object (a bag, a hat, a dress) for which people the world over will pay staggering amounts of money.

Chanel’s biographers have surmised that she was able to stick her neck out the way she did because she had nothing to lose, meaning she had no family, no husband, no name, and no money. The other thing she had was no wiggle room. Had her business tanked, she would have lost the patronage of Balsan and Capel, both of whom had absolutely no obligation to underwrite her or her shop. Unlike Blanche Dubois, she was not relying on the kindness of strangers, but on the kindness of businessmen, a far riskier proposition.

The moral of the “Using Jersey When Good Sense Would Dictate Using Wool or Something More Sensible” story is twofold. First, when it comes to going with your gut and making the big, bold, seemingly outlandish move, doing so from a precarious position in life is not just a good idea, it’s the best idea. The very precariousness can, in fact, be a source of strength. Chanel wasn’t about to wait to launch her big idea; on the eve of war, in a relative backwater town (Deauville was chic, but it was hardly Paris), modern fashion was born.

Continued tomorrow...

Reprinted with permission from The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman, published by Skirt!, an imprint of The Globe Pequot Press, copyright © 2009 by Karen Karbo.

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