It was billed as an additional surprise. A visit to the private apartment of Mademoiselle Gabrielle Coco Chanel, above the Chanel headquarters at 31 Rue Cambon, Paris.
But, as with some memorable entrees, this starter not only whetted our appetites but almost stole the spotlight from its sister at Le Palais de Tokyo. Our visit to Mlle Chanel’s private apartment, closed to public but opened on special occasion to selected press, gave us an insight into the woman whose name will be forever linked with style and prestige. She defined it.
The apartment is a time capsule of Gabrielle Coco Chanel. Left unchanged since her death in January 1971, the rooms are carefully retained exactlyas Mlle Chanel left them. We almost expected her to walk in and join us. She was in our midst everywhere we looked.
The apartment at 31 Rue Cambon is the essence of Chanel. A legacy to her life and her art and a source of constant inspiration (as well as wonder) re what drove this fashion maverick. As well as answering some of our questions on Coco’s loves and obsessions (Far Eastern art, superstition, symbolism, duality, camellias, the No.5, philosophy, art, religion), the apartment’s significant aura and impression raised more questions than answered. Who was this woman and what drove her? Her soul may be partially caught there, her life laid bare in objets d’arts, antiquities and books but, like most good things in life, it left me wanting to know more. To converse with her through her art and her salon collective who flocked to her – writers and poets (Apollinaire), artists (Dali, Cocteau, Picasso, Modigliani), musicians (Satie, Stravinsky), dancers (Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes) as well as other great fashion artisans (Hubert de Givenchy).
Mlle Chanel’s link with art and artistry is unsurpassed and continues to inspire and drive legions of devotees in the 21st Century. What was it that made this woman such a visionary – a driver of new ideas, new wave art (of the time), new attitudes and great leaps of faith? Was it being on the cusp of La Belle Epoque? Coming of age in a world still ruled by men and through men but using her talent, her devil-may-care approach to being seen as different – willing to push the boundaries. And then, post WW1, when the world had been turned upside down and was grieving and longing for a new age of hope, did Gabrielle Coco channel growing power and influence?
Meeting and moulding vivacious new thinkers in all areas of the burgeoning new Century’s art world who were doing the same? Confronting new ideologies and pushing forward the frontiers of what was expected and what was dared?
At the top of the stairs and beneath the couture atelier is Mlle Chanel’s apartment. Still at the epicentre of the life of the House of Chanel. The space lies nestled between the ‘petits mains’ of the haute couture and the storefront, with the trapped memories and evocation of this formidable woman.
Largely deco in style and incredibly modernist with its beige carpeting throughout and cathedral like deep golden painted walls, a huge, cubist style, suede covered sofa takes up most of one room – Mlle Chanel is pictured on this many times. It was the setting for many evenings of salon conversations as she entertained her art world friends. Set above this centrepoint and lining other walls are books – philosophy, religion and poetry is interspersed with Shakespeare and Shelley.
But it is Chanel’s fascination with numerology, her security blanket of superstition and ritual that pervades the room. A huge chandelier has camellias, no.5’s, the interlocking C’s of the famous Chanel logo and ornate letter G’s for Gabrielle fashioned as its base.
Symmetry is all around as ornamental lions, Buddhas and gilt boxes are paired throughout the room. We were told the story that once, when visiting, fashion designer Hubert de Givenchy noticed a piece of glass had fallen from one of the chandeliers. He put this in the mouth of an ornamental frog for safekeeping and to remind Coco of its whereabouts. Coco Chanel instructed that this remain there as he had added to the ambiance of the room. It is there to this day.
Chinese coromandel (the name inspired a fragrance in Les Exclusifs de Chanel) and works of art feature dancing women – a sign of good fortune. These surround Chanel. Lions (so synonymous with the Chanel fine joaillerie line) represent the sign of Leo, Chanel’s astrology sign. And, no doubt, reminded her of her life-changing trip to Venice to recover from the death of her lover, Boy Capel, who died tragically in a car accident in 1919. Poignantly, a figure of an Indian Buddha takes centreplace – a gift from Chanel’s lost love.
The dining area was the source for many meetings of minds – dinner used as entertainment, the sharing of confidences as well as debate. The feel is intimate and intellectual – not grand and off-putting. Coco Chanel’s apartment was her solace.
Interestingly, there is no bedroom. Mlle Chanel may have sought solace, creativity, inspiration and entertainment in her home but she actually slept at the nearby Ritz Hotel. It is said that Chanel workers would spray the street outside with the scent of Chanel No.5 when they were told she was returning a la maison. The image is evocative. The apartment more so. She lives on in the house that carries not only her name but her soul.