SUNDAY MAGAZINE

The house that Chanel built

The opulence and baroque artistry of the apartment where the legendary couturier spent much of her time are mind-boggling.

VIGNETTES

SUSHMA RAMCHANDRAN

31 RUE CAMBON: An exclusive address. Enter a world of ornate d�cor with life-size models of deer, oversized mirrors and priceless artefacts, to name just a few. PHOTOS: O.P./CHANEL

31 RUE CAMBON: An exclusive address. Enter a world of ornate d�cor with life-size models of deer, oversized mirrors and priceless artefacts, to name just a few. PHOTOS: O.P./CHANEL  

CHANEL. The name evokes the image. Luxury and exclusivity. From the austere black and white cover of the iconic number 5 perfume to the little black dress immortalised by Coco Chanel. Her stamp is unmistakable in the stark black and white d�cor and mirrorred walls of the famed fashion house's main salon in Paris. Even our guide, the company spokesperson, is wearing a rose pink and grey-green check outfit that screams "Chanel" all over it.

We are lucky. The house of Chanel has agreed to take our small group of Indian journalists not only for a peek at the salon but also on a tour of Coco Chanel's private apartments on the upper floor. My male colleagues are clearly not as excited as I am but gaze politely at the minimalist salon from where we climb a spiral staircase to the door of the private apartments. Like me, however, their jaws drop when the doors open and we step into another world. The opulence and baroque artistry of the apartment where the legendary couturier spent much of her time are mind-boggling as expensive artefacts abound in each room with even the walls having stories to tell.

But first, a bit of the story of how Gabrielle Chanel rose from obscurity in the small town of Aubazine to being the toast not only of Paris, but the world. Her life began in 1883 as a virtual orphan studying under the care of nuns in a convent. She grew up to become a seamstress with an instinctive flair for knowing how to look chic without spending too much money. When she became rich and famous, Coco, as she was known, created an imaginary rich family background for herself, seeking to hide her humble background. By then few cared where she came from as the elegant seamstress had conquered the fashion world with her daring innovative designs. The little black dress, short skirts, and men's jacket worn with a skirt are all vintage Chanel and even today form the basics of a modern woman's wardrobe in western society.

The house that Chanel built

As for Chanel no. 5, it remains entrenched as the perfume with the longest stretch of popularity in history having been launched in the 1920s. Our guide tells us that when the perfume was being developed, Coco Chanel was sent numbered samples. She chose sample number five and hence it became Chanel number five. Not only that, she used the starkly simple laboratory bottle for selling the new perfume. The design has joined the permanent collection at the New York Museum of Modern Art. The perfume itself became a status symbol in the 1950s when Marilyn Monroe said that all she wore to bed were a few drops of Chanel no. 5.

But Coco Chanel's private apartments on the Rue Cambon are quite the opposite of the elegant simplicity of her salons or her clothes. The d�cor is ornate and baroque with the artefacts ranging from lacquered Coromandel screens with Chinese paintings to elaborate life size models of deer ranged in front of the fire place. The mirrors have elaborate oversize frames while the chandeliers replicate the double "C" symbol used as a brand logo in most products including bags and belts. Everything in the rooms reflects the concept of duality in her products with nearly each antique or display piece having a twin beside it. At the entrance itself are two life-size statues of young boys poised in front of the Coromandel screens which, we are told, she had bought from India. Strangely, she never turned in for the day in this artistic apartment above the main salon. Instead, she would return every night to the Ritz Hotel.

We are told she would sit on top of the stairs leading to her private apartments, looking through the mirrors on the walls at her clients downstairs. She could see their reactions as models walked down the steps wearing her creations, without being seen herself. The salon on the ground floor has d�cor typically identified with Chanel. The focus is on shades of black and white with a touch of grey in the carpets which have a unique design for each segment of the showroom.

The house that Chanel built

Our guide informs us the woman who began life in a convent had several affairs with renowned personalities. She was the companion of the Duke of Westminister for 10 years though several other men swept through her life. At the age of 50, she finally contemplated marriage but the man in question, designer Paul Iribe, suddenly died while playing tennis.

When Coco Chanel died in 1971, her fashion house apparently remained dormant for a decade but was revived under the leadership of designer Karl Lagerfeld in the early 1980s. It is under his guidance that the House of Chanel has finally reached India with the first showroom now in New Delhi's Imperial Hotel. Despite the changes at the helm, we are told the essential classic designs of Coco Chanel will remain imbued in all creations of this high fashion house.

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