A morning spent in the splendid Paris apartment of couturier Coco Chanel is a rare privilege and a long-time wish come true, writes Sarah Ayoub.
I’m sitting on the sofa in a glamorous Parisian apartment and I want to pinch myself. Beside me rests the tiny gold birdcage that inspired a Chanel advertisement featuring actress Vanessa Paradis swinging on a perch, high on the luxury that one of the world’s most iconic brands represents.
The woman behind the label had epitomised that sense of luxury – she lived it and she talked the talk, coining such idioms as: "The best things in life are free, but the second-best are very expensive." I am talking, of course, about Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, and sitting on the sofa in her salon is a free – and somewhat expensive – experience that will surely count among the best times of my life.
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I’ve flown to Paris to tick a hard-to-come-by experience off my bucket list, and I’m on a high. Not only am I sitting on Chanel's sofa, but I have access to the abode she retreated to daily once she’d finished her duties downstairs as commander of a fashion empire created from nothing, through sheer force of will, innovation and drive. And her charms, of course – she was bank-rolled by some well-to-do male friends.
Chanel's career and personality have fascinated me ever since I shed the punk-skate outfits of my teenage years and embraced womanhood, navigating the territory of comfort and style that was uncharted before she changed women's fashion with a vision that embodied chic, understated elegance.
I was once told by a novelist that a visit to Chanel’s apartment was the mark of a true Chanel fan. And a true fan I am. It took months to arrange the visit, and with every email I sent off, a knot formed in my stomach as I awaited a response. It was simple, really: a visit to Paris would not be complete without a visit to 31 Rue Cambon.
To my friends and family I am the authority on Chanel and have been since I bought my first quilted bag and became obsessed with the sense of luxury and style that came with it. I started buying books about Chanel, learning her history and the stories behind her designs, and repeating her famous quotes. She once remarked it was not houses she loved but the life she lived in them. But I never had a sense of her decor approach and I wondered...What if you couldn't afford a Chanel 2.55 bag and wanted to adopt her decorating style instead?
The Rue Cambon apartment was Chanel's ticket to the life she carved for herself and, 41 years after her death, it remains as it was the day she left it.
At first, it's hard to associate the minimalist decor of the Chanel stores around the world with the opulence of Mademoiselle Chanel's third-storey residence. But Mlle created her space with that in mind: to allow her to retreat upstairs into an oasis of her own making, a place that reminded her daily that she had risen from an underprivileged childhood in a French orphanage to become the doyenne of French couture.
Chanel was ahead of her time. She was committed to making women feel both comfortable and chic in her clothes, ridding women of the constricting corsets of the day (she designed pieces in jersey, then more commonly used in undergarments, giving women room to breathe) and pioneering the effects of the suntan, costume jewellery and short hair. (The latter came about when she burnt her long hair while preparing for an evening out – and snipped it all off. Two weeks later women were sporting chic, shorter styles.) She took the clutch purse and added straps to it, because she saw that something wasn't right about not being able to use her hands while out and about (and that included being able to hold a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other). That bag is now the iconic 2.55.
Upon entering the living area, visitors are faced with the Coromandel screens that Chanel affixed to the walls, lightweight beige curtains and a suede sofa. None of these pieces were de rigeur in her day. No society home boasted Asian prints on walls. The drapes of the time were stiff, made from taffeta or plush velvet, and sofas and carpets were never seen in such subdued, earthy colours. But Chanel was avant-garde: she covered her sofa in suede and let the muted carpet play understudy while her furniture and accessories did the talking.
I'm overjoyed to sight the white satin bergere in which Mlle was photographed in 1937, wearing her trademark strings of pearls. It’s a quintessential Chanel image, so I hope I'm forgiven for being distracted from the splendid screens in red lacquer and gold, even if their engravings – featuring horses, camellias, phoenix birds and pagodas – speak volumes about her inspirations.
The second flash of recognition comes in the form of the octagonal mirror hanging over the console. Its shape would become the inspiration for the stopper of No. 5, the famed perfume that made Chanel a wealthy woman.
It's only after another twirl around the room that I notice the Venetian Moor statues, their dark skin and curly hair so prominent that the figures look real. Their placement is not accidental – one figure welcomes you into the apartment and the other bids you adieu. In lonely moments Chanel would refer to them as her companions.
The entrance is quite understated compared to the lavish salon where she entertained the likes of Dali, Picasso, Colette, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, and which is adorned with her most treasured possessions.
More Asian screens (she found the first at an antique shop, then eventually amassed more than 30), surrounded her, as did walls lined with books: leather-bound works of Shakespeare, Buffon, Rousseau, Voltaire, St Augustine and the Bible. Numerous animal figures – terracotta camels, gilded lions, enamelled deer, and earthenware horses, frogs and toads – are all in pairs, Chanel’s love of symmetry and her sense of superstition the likely reasons why each item had its match.
With her superstitions and her ecumenical approach to religion, it’s clear that Chanel was fascinated by what might have waited for her in the next world: she surrounded herself with statues, icons and artworks depicting a variety of deities. There's a statue of the Virgin Mary reminding her of the village church near her childhood orphanage; the gift of a Buddha from Boy Capel, her great love and early financial backer; a 15th-century Japanese silk painting depicting divinities in kimonos; processional crosses of Spanish pilgrims; a bronze icon presented to her by Igor Stravinsky, the only piece the composer salvaged as he fled Russia. And a set of tarot cards still spread out, waiting for her.
Chanel did most of her thinking on her sofa here and only her inner circle was permitted to sit beside her (others had to sit on the 18th-century French timber armchairs). She worked on the low tables in front of the sofa, designing jewellery on a table that also displayed her collection of crystal balls and vermilion boxes.
Across from her, above the fireplace, stood another merging of east and west: an Egyptian mask next to the head of an Asian goddess and a small-busted marble Venus.
Wood fires burned in the apartment almost all year round: Chanel hated the cold. But she hated the poverty and the hunger of her past more. Hence the golden sheaf of wheat, used as the base for a glass table designed by jeweller Robert Goossens, and the drawing of a sheaf of wheat, created and given to her by Salvador Dali. This was a symbol of prosperity that reminded her of how far she’d come.
The jewel in the crown of the salon is the chandelier, a source of fascination and intrigue for all who’ve heard of it. My guide points out some of the secrets held in its wrought forms: a blossoming of camellias; Chanel’s lucky number, five; the double Cs that make up the Chanel logo; plus G for Gabrielle and W for Westminster, after the duke who lavished gifts on her.
On either side of the salon are the dining room and office. The office is simple: more mementos, low tables and screens. The dining room has two baroque consoles that are the epitome of grandeur. Their gold bases represent Chanel's favourite seasons: autumn and summer. Above them, enormous octagonal mirrors, bordered in crystal, rival her chandelier. There are more screens, their engraved timber offset by a giant walnut dining table bedecked with gold seashell ashtrays, lions and black-rimmed plates bearing the two Cs. At dinner parties, guests sat in Louis XVI chairs arranged to encourage conversations. Dining at Chanel’s was simple. The food was seasonal, mostly fruit and vegetables: she was slender before it came into fashion.
Mlle did not sleep at Rue Cambon. It was strictly for business and entertaining, so each night she'd walk a few blocks to the Ritz and her bed.
My eyes fall upon her desk, where I spy an open notebook and a pair of cat's-eye sunglasses that she left as she walked out of her apartment for the last time, in January, 1971. Forty-one years later, they're still waiting to be picked up, perhaps held for emphasis as she barks orders at the staff. It's not much of a stretch to suggest Chanel would have something to say about today's towering Louboutin heels or the bandage dresses of Herve Leger. According to Mlle, fashion was made to become unfashionable, and it is style that remains forever.
Before leaving Rue Cambon, I sit on the mirrored Art Deco staircase Chanel had installed when she moved in, so she could witness, unseen, the reactions to her fashion parades on the boutique floor below via the reflections. Maybe that's what the arrangement of the store and apartment at Rue Cambon was all about – a separation of heart and work.
Paris has changed, but it will always be hers. Chanel knew that, and typically had a maxim to fit: "In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different."
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