by laurie brookins | December 1, 2011 | Style & Beauty
The Pluie de Cristal (“Crystal Rain”) necklace plays the strength of rock crystal against the seeming delicacy of diamonds.
During all the decades after she had become a legend, after she had forever altered women’s minds and wardrobes by crafting yards of silk jersey or wool bouclé into dresses and jackets that perpetually rank high within the pantheon of fashion’s most iconic items, Coco Chanel remained wholly content to live her life quietly amid the few blocks surrounding Paris’s Place Vendôme. Each night she slept at the Hôtel Ritz, which dominates this city square as prominently as the Vendôme Column that stands at its center, and then each morning she discreetly slipped out its back entrance to traverse the few dozen steps to her famed atelier at 31 rue Cambon.
|Chanel at home, in 1937|
Of course, this daily trek and Chanel’s desire for a low-key existence are details almost as famed as the woman herself. Forty years after her death, Chanel’s life remains a deep well of inspiration, with the Place Vendôme playing a key role in the latest collections to emerge from the house. The label showcased these Fall/Winter debuts over a full week, making use of the romantic imagery one might conjure of Chanel’s presence in and around the landmark square, while also offering a little more insight into the dichotomies that drove the designer both personally and professionally.
A Study in Contrastes
The latter served as the central theme of the high-jewelry debut that took place at the Chanel Fine Jewelry boutique that resides directly across the Hôtel Ritz at 18 Place Vendôme: Dubbed Contrastes, the collection of 35 one-of-a-kind pieces highlights the yin and yang Chanel explored throughout her life’s work. “We wanted to play on another side of Gabrielle Chanel’s legacy that she left us, and that is her love of contrast,” explains Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. “First there is the contrast of materials, pearls and diamonds mixed with rock crystal, in some cases; a contrast of textures, rough and very polished; the contrast of color that she loved, namely her use of black and white; and the contrast of shapes which shouldn’t work together, yet play together beautifully. There is something for every woman’s pleasure.”
Indeed, Chanel’s ability to employ seemingly disparate elements to achieve an effect both artful and innovative was only one part of her overall appeal, says Justine Picardie, author of the just-released Chanel—Her Life (Steidl; $58). “She was the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, that just goes without saying,” Picardie says. “Nobody comes close to Chanel in the sheer scope and range; her clothes transcend fashion, from the fact that she freed women from the corset to putting trousers on women to the little black dress to the use of tweed. But her own story is so archetypal and powerful: the story of a girl who came from nothing, from nowhere, and who ultimately took Paris and the world by storm. And beyond that, for so many women, their memories of their mothers and grandmothers are wrapped up in Chanel, very often in a bottle of Chanel N°5. It’s no wonder she endures.”
|The living room of Coco Chanel’s rue Cambon apartment, which continues to inspire designs for the house|
And increasingly, Miami is one market that’s paying attention. “In the last 24 months Miami has stepped up dramatically for us,” says Barbara Cirkva, president of Chanel’s fashion division. “It was one of our first markets to rebound [after the recession], and a lot of that has to do with the South American influence in Miami today. The huge economic changes in South America, which is a highly sophisticated customer, have ultimately quadrupled our business in Miami.” Partly as a result of such growth, Cirkva notes that plans are in the works to revamp Chanel’s Bal Harbour boutique next year, with completion expected in time for Art Basel 2012—and an accompanying party, perhaps? “More on that to come,” Cirkva says with a smile.
One can’t help but imagine Contrastes feeling right at home among other installations during a December in Miami. As its name implies, the collection is rooted in design ideas that in theory might fight against one another, yet blend masterfully. The Nuage de Glace necklace drips with 409 white cultured pearls, and features a centerpiece of a seemingly rough-hewn circle covered in white diamonds totaling eight carats, which is then fastened to the pearls via slim hoops encrusted with 181 brilliantcut black diamonds. The Pluie de Cristal necklace, meanwhile, takes the idea of contrast a step further, with brilliant-cut diamonds embedded in faceted chunks of rock crystal, which are then edged in more white diamonds. The piece is finished with a waterfall of white diamonds in a mix of round and emerald cuts.
“Rock crystal is about strength, and while diamonds of course are also very strong, there is a delicacy perceived in the stones,” Comar notes. “It is by mixing the rough and the refined that you ultimately create something very strong and dynamic.”
While the Contrastes collection showcases Chanel’s love of combining the unexpected, distinctly personal details are also easily discovered. Count the number of sides on those rock crystals, for example, and you’ll quickly discern that each is a free-form octagon; the shape is meant to call to mind not only a mirror in the entryway of Chanel’s private apartment atop her rue Cambon atelier, but also the eight-sided configuration of the Place Vendôme itself. Of course, it’s not the first time the octagon has inspired: In 1924, Chanel looked at her treasured mirror and used it as the basis for the Chanel N°5 bottle shape.
Home is Where the Art is
Over the years, Karl Lagerfeld and others have looked to the apartment for inspiration (a shade of Chanel Rouge Allure Lacque satin lip color, Coromandel 72, even echoes the red of the Coromandel screens she favored). For past collections, Lagerfeld often has offered up references found in these rooms, from the crystal camellias that adorn a chandelier to the statue of a lion found on a coffee table—Chanel, a Leo, favored the animal—which Lagerfeld had enlarged to gargantuan proportions to use as the backdrop of the Fall/Winter 2010 haute-couture collection. And 36 hours after Contrastes’ debut, for Fall/Winter 2011 Lagerfeld would look to the Place Vendôme as inspiration, though he could not be content with merely staging the show in the square. Instead, within the confines of the nearby Grand Palais, where Chanel shows typically take place, Lagerfeld duplicated the Place Vendôme on a starry night—though his version was lined with neon lights, and instead of Napoleon I sitting atop the Vendôme Column at center stage, it was, unsurprisingly, Mademoiselle Chanel. Amid this backdrop of equal parts romance and fantasy, Lagerfeld sent out his vision for the ne plus ultra in handcrafted clothes for the Fall/Winter 2011 season, from bouclé suits featuring the peplum jackets that most recently seemed to populate every Spring 2012 runway to the Poiret-esque gowns with sleeves lovingly and painstakingly covered in hundreds of hand-placed sequins. Through the collection, one could not help but discern the mix of hard and soft, of structure and languid flow. It was no accident that Lagerfeld had titled the presentation “Les Allures de Chanel,” to drive home the point that she—and the house that bears her name—is far from a one-note prospect.
|Look from the Chanel Fall/Winter 2011 haute-couture runway|
“Karl has a huge sense of the power of the history and legacy of Chanel,” Picardie says. “But there’s something very magical that goes with it, and that is he has such a great talent for bringing it alive again. Instead of treating every idea or every reference like it should be a museum piece, he breathes new life into them and makes them feel modern. He treats the apartment in much the same way, as a living, breathing, working space.”
Forty years after her death, why does Coco Chanel—at one time the most famous woman in the world, who desired nothing more than to live a quiet life within a few blocks of a famed Parisian square—maintain a persona that continues to fascinate? Ultimately, it’s a magic and mystery that can take on uniquely individual meanings. Back at the high-jewelry presentation in the Place Vendôme boutique, Comar picks up another of the Contrastes pieces, the Etoile du Nord brooch, a starburst of diamonds totaling more than 15 carats mixed with moonstones, opals, and motherof- pearl, all set in 18k white gold. “You know Superman, yes?” he says with a smile as he holds aloft this mélange of clear and opaque, smooth and jagged stones. “I look at this and I think of ice in the Arctic, or where Superman might have lived.” Comar positions the brooch against the lapel of a black jacket. “Wear this, and you can fly….”