lundi 4 février 2008

Coco on my mind

For countless fashionistas Coco Chanel remains the ultimate icon of fashion. Undoubtedly she was one of the most innovative and forward fashion designers of her times and her influence continues to be felt today. There is much however that is not known about Chanel. Indeed much of the personal information we have about her are those facts which she authorized to be known about her. Her myth lives on and people continually dream up what it might really have been like to live her life and in her shoes. Thus I found myself lately with three different Coco related books.

The first book titled “The Collection” by Gioia Diliberto is the story of Isabelle Varlet, a young talented seamstress who dreams of one day joining the great Parisian couture houses. Her dream comes to pass after a personal tragedy pushes her to leave her hometown and to make her way to Paris. Through the efforts of her kindly previous employer, she is able to find employment in the house of Chanel. It is here that we see the inner workings of the atelier, with Chanel depicted as a hard and demanding taskmistress. It is fascinating to read about the inner workings of the atelier, with all the seamstresses competing and scheming to be in the good graces of Mademoiselle, as she is referred to. However, once one of them does catch the eye of Mademoiselle, her success does not last. One of the more seasoned seamstress warns Isabelle that the fall is not far for her once she is singled out for her work. The book is simply, if elegantly written and is rich in period details that give the reader a good idea of life during those times. More interesting is the way the author depicts the process by which clothes are prepared for their unveiling before the clients in the first fashion shows of those times. And while the story also includes the love story of Isabelle, far greater attention is paid to her work at the atelier and her struggle to be successful at her chosen profession. Despite whatever aversion she might personally feel for Mademoiselle, there is likewise great admiration for her grit, determination and the sheer talent that has taken her to the heights of success.

The second book to deal with Mademoiselle tells a far more personal story. Written by Chris Greenhalgh, Coco and Igor is a retelling of the tumultuous affair between Coco Chanel and the composer Igor Stravinski. At this period of her life, Coco is enjoying the fruits of her hard work and the fashionable set clamor for her personal attention to dress them. Despite her success however, she is suffering from the innate snobbery and prejudice against a working woman who has managed to succeed largely on her own. She is likewise suffering from the death of Arthur “Boy” Capel. Stravinksi on the other hand is in exile with his family. His monetary position is precarious as he is dependent on the kindness of strangers and his wife Catherine is ill. At a fateful dinner hosted by Diaghliev, he is introduced to Coco and there is a frisson of attraction, unaccountable and unacknowledged between them. Soon after this dinner, she invites him and his family to spend the summer at her villa in Garches. Marveling at such generosity, he acquiesces and soon moves his entire family to the villa. Unsurprisingly, they drift close to each other till they succumb to the secret raging attraction. The consequences are of course dire, but surprisingly, it is the women of this story who come out on top. In writing a story about Coco and her relationship with Stravinski, the author has given us a portrait of a more vulnerable Coco. She is shown here as a woman and who, cliché or not, wants to be loved for herself. Despite herself she hopes to be accepted in the high echelons of society. But it is the affair with Stravinksi which reinforces her belief that work comes before everything. She is adamant in insisting that her work merits the same respect as that accorded to artists. It is a finely written elegiac portrait of a supremely talented woman determined to succeed even at the cost of personal happiness.

Third but certainly not the least is the book “Different like Coco” written and illustrated by Elizabeth Mathews. It is a jaunty telling of the highlights of Coco’s life. It is charming book filled with amusing illustrations that still manage to tell the story of this formidable woman who’s changed the face of fashion in so many ways. It makes for a nice gift for anyone looking to be introduced to Mademoiselle.

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