An Homage to Coco Chanel & My Visit to 31 Rue Cambon Paris
My admiration and adoration for Coco Chanel and all things Chanel is so complex and vast that it almost daunts me to write about it. This tribute to Chanel requires such deep examination and extraction of my mind and emotions that perhaps I may not do this passion of mine justice by writing about it but never the less I’m compelled to do so anyway. Ever since I can remember, I have been fascinated and captivated by Coco Chanel, her life and legend. For me, nothing else could compare and no other designer could match the glamour, classic simplicity, beauty and mystic of Chanel couture and accessories. Mademoiselle Chanel, the woman who changed the world of fashion, is not only remembered for her complexities but for her brilliance, courage, strength, resilience and the intrigue which surrounded her life. Chanel captivated my mind and imagination and the more I examined and read about her the more I grew to adore and admire her and wished that I could bring her back to life to have the opportunity to become acquainted with her. My most significant memory of where this fascination began I’m able to pin point to the impressionable age of thirteen. I recall quite clearly being drawn to my mother’s Chanel Number 5 Art Deco inspired glass bottle that contained the liquid gold, alluring elixir from Paris that intensified in colour when the light reflected from it. The beautiful bottle captivated and enticed me and I remember being transported to another world by the fragrance – a world I imagined to be filled with luxury, wonder and mystery. To me Chanel number 5 has always symbolised the heart and essence of Coco Chanel and provided me with a direct connection to her mind, spirit and even to the equally alluring city of Paris which at the time felt so far away and out of reach.
Whenever I would wear Chanel No5 as a young girl it transported me to a happier place. It seemed that every time I would spray No5 her spirit would vaporise out of the bottle much like a genie releases itself from his lamp in the Aladdin tale. Every spray of the bottle onto my decolletage, for as long as it lingered around me, I felt alive, regal, content and incredibly feminine. The fragrance was so impressionable that it triggered a journey of discovery and research into Coco Chanel which kept me amused for countless hours in my local library and at home as I flicked through the pages of whatever books I could find on the subject. Most of my pocket money would be spent on any fashion magazine that offered the most fashion coverage, articles or more revelations about Chanel. Even though this tiny amount of pocket money was primarily given to me in order to purchase lunch or a snack at the school canteen at the time feeding my intense interest in Chanel was more necessary than feeding my body with uninspiring canteen food. I discovered we had so much in common and made myself feel more important by believing I could have been her sister, dear friend or perhaps her reincarnation. Everything from her love of hats, simplicity of style and colour, her admiration for tarot, healing crystals, horoscopes, superstitions, romance novels and of her connection to the sea was remarkably so dear and of interest to me. What fascinated me the most was her incredible imagination and genius as she catalogued all the things in nature and in her immediate environment or circumstances and incorporated it into her couture. Chanel took a brave leap in her pursuit for comfort and simplicity and revolutionised women’s fashion and how they perceived it. liberating them from the their restrictive corsets so symbolic to the male dominated world of her time.
Everything about Chanel from her life experiences to the things she admired is imprinted and expressed in her couture, accessories and designs. Like flicking through the pages of the countless novels written about her life, the detailing in Chanel bags and jewellery contain a story that are woven into the fabric of Chanel couture. The burgundy lining in her iconic 255 handbag to the tweed and jersey used to design her fashion to her beloved flower the Camellia and her trademark beige, white and black colour palette all connect back to a memory or moment extracted from the pages of her life. The concept of layering pearls in order to conceal an heirloom necklace and the revolutionary No5 fragrance came to be as a result of gifts given to her by her friend and lover Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich and his sister Maria Grand Dutchess of Russia. Indeed, her life story is a complex one filled with hardships, heartbreak, great achievements and triumphs. Coco Chanel was a woman tormented by the deprivation and struggle of her childhood and who was emotionally scarred by being abandoned by the father she so admired after the death of her mother as a young child. The abandonment she and her sister endured not just by her father but of immediate family affected her deeply throughout her life and until the day she died she harboured resentment and shame towards her blood relations and of years being raised by nuns in an orphanage in Aubergine. Her life was shrouded in mystery and many aspects about her earlier years in particular are still not completely known as Chanel would weave a web of obscurity around the facts of her childhood and of her origins by making up various stories that suited her fancy at the time.
Chanel survived the lonely and long days in the orphanage by finding solace in the beauty of the landscape around her and would escape into novels and in her passion and talent for sewing discovering joy in creating things with the needle in particular the Camellia which she adored and that later became an iconic flower within her fashion empire. Chanel’s deprived and difficult childhood shaped her as a woman and later what she drew from her childhood and growing up in a convent later shaped and became a contributing aspect to Chanel revolutionising women’s fashion and shaping the attitudes of women in her time. Everything that we associate with the Chanel brand and see incorporated in the couture and accessories drew inspiration from her time being raised by nuns at Aubergine. Chanel incorporated her memories and of the beauty and simplicity she drew from the the nuns black and white conservative attire into her fashion to the rosary beads worn around their necks to the leather threaded through the key chains of caretakers of the convent that was later incorporated into the 255 hand bag. The burgundy lining within her iconic 255 bag represents the colour of the uniforms the girls had to wear at the convent while the simplicity of the girls’ convent uniform inspired the iconic idea of the Chanel two piece skirt and jacket suit.
Her father’s wayward and irresponsible disposition and his heartless abandonment of Chanel and her siblings led her to troubled and incomplete and unsatisfying relationships with men. Even though her rise to success and fame was initially due to the devotion and assistance of two of the most important male figures in her life, Etienne Balsan and Boy Capel, Chanel never could achieve a commitment from them and so as time went by she found solace in building her empire and became married and devoted to her career. Chanel greatly admired and was forever grateful to Etienne for his care of her and contribution to her success, however, fell in love with his charming friend Aurthur Boy Capel. Although Capel and Balsan loved her dearly they could never marry or devote themselves completely to her as they could only marry within their social class. After the tragic car accident and death of Boy Capel, her greatest love, Chanel was never to be the same again and threw all her time and energy into her empire as it was her way of expressing her continued love and appreciation for all the support, dedication and inspiration Boy Capel had contributed to establishing the frameworks of her business.
Chanel was indeed a remarkable woman so much so that her legend continues to thrive, live and flourish today and is a source of inspiration and emulation to other fashion designers who draw from the timeless elegance and brilliance of her label. Chanel couture, hand bags, accessories, fragrances and cosmetics sell themselves and a woman who is in a Chanel boutique to purchase an item especially a classic or seasonal bag needs no coercion or persuasion and relishes in the feeling of luxury, royalty and importance when wearing a Chanel piece. There is something unexplainably magical about Chanel couture – the beauty, comfort and plushness of the fabric and the joy and pleasure a Chanel bag in particular provides that elevates not only a woman’s state of mind but any outfit selected for any occasion. Wearing a Chanel hand bag is a celebration in its own right and can uplift a woman’s mood and day and totally transforms her attitude by injecting additional grace and elegance to her pose.
Before the first world war, women were constrained and weighed down by their fashion much like the circumstances they lived in during this male dominated period in time. Chanel detested this aristocratic, pompous, restraining, over embellished and heavy fashion of her time and rebelled against it by designing and making herself more comfortable hats and chic, simple couture to wear. During her time living with Etienne Balson, Chanel created clothing that was in complete contrast to the fashion of his wealthy female friends and drew from the comfort and simplicity of the male fashion at the time and particularly from the elite sport attire men wore when horse riding or playing Polo. She would take Etienne’s clothing made from Jersey or tweed and transform it into something innovative and chic for herself or purchase simple woven hats and transform them into easy to wear masterpieces. Women of the upper class began to notice Chanel’s interesting, inventive and pretty hat designs at first and would ask her to design and create unique hats for them. It was Etienne’s actress friends who began to wear her designs on stage advertising the hats and propelling Chanel into the public eye. Now in significant demand, Chanel came up with the idea to open her own milliner boutique which became possible with a little help from Etienne who offered her a space in one of his apartments in Paris. Later, with Boy Capel’s marketing and financial assistance Chanel expanded into fashion and after that the world of fashion as we know it changed forever. Chanel liberated women from corsets and heavy drapery and gave them sports and casual wear made from comfortable jersey, tweed, silk and beautifully tailored outfits and dresses introducing the little black dress to the world during the roaring twenties. Chanel not only liberated women from corsets and uncomfortable attire she also liberated women from holding purses in their hands and invented the idea of purses with shoulder straps so that women could free their hands in order to eat or drink at parties or gatherings. Chanel created the notion of ready to wear fashion by merging tailoring techniques with dressmaking techniques and employing hundreds of seamstress to execute her ideas with strict quality control.
Chanel put woman in trousers, made the suntan fashionable, revolutionised the use of jersey, introduced the concept of imitation or costume jewellery to compliment her simplistic yet elegant style giving women the freedom to enjoy more affordable pieces instead of sticking to the genuine pieces they owned or couldn’t afford to own. Chanel made black fashionable and introduced the little black cocktail dress which until today is every woman’s saviour and go to wardrobe item. The iconic two piece suit made up of a structured tweed jacket and fitted skirt in classic colours was Chanel’s creation as well modelled and borrowed from menswear and was gradually adapted and modernised according to the times. Something else that Chanel introduced and that fashion houses now emulate is the branding of artificially made and mass produced perfume such as Chanel No5. Chanel was the first fashion designer who came up with the ingenious idea to place her name on the bottle of a fragrance which in turn catapulted her fashion brand to a whole new level and opened the doors for a wider market. With the introduction of a branded fragrance anyone who couldn’t afford Chanel couture or accessories could buy into the world of Chanel by “wearing” her signature fragrance. Indeed, Coco Chanel was a living legend and remarkable woman who’s legend and gift of beautiful couture and accessories continues to thrive and bring great pride and joy to her countless fans and admirers of all ages.
MY MEMORABLE VISIT TO THE ICONIC RUE CAMBON BOUTIQUE IN PARIS
My visit to 31 Rue Cambon on November 9th 2013 was perhaps one of the most memorable, emotional, magnificent and treasured experiences of my life. After years of admiring and discovering everything there is to know about Chanel, her life and accomplishments this long awaited moment of visiting her iconic boutique and walking in her footsteps was overwhelmingly emotional and exhilarating all at once. I recall taking one of our favourite routes the long but pleasant walk from our hotel in the Latin Quarter along the River Seine passing by the bohemian Bouquiniste stalls along the river banks and then crossing the romantic Pont Des Arts covered in lovers Padlocks. A short walk from the bridge led us directly onto the lovely and lively Rue Rivoli where popular land marks like the Jardin Tuileries, the Louvre and the Place Vendome with the famous Hotel de Ritz where Chanel resided are in close proximity. As we strolled under the pedestrian friendly lane, that provides shelter from the elements by the covered archways, we pass by many luxurious restaurants and boutiques with some souvenir stalls along the way selling the usual touristy items.
At one point we arrive at the famous Angelina’s Cafe – a cafe that Chanel adored and payed a visit to daily (as did we later that day) for their decadent hot chocolate and opulent interior and atmosphere. I understood at this stage that Rue Cambon was close by and within minutes I would be at the doorsteps of her flagship store and place where she spent most of her life working, creating and entertaining. As we arrived at the corner of Rue Rivoli and Rue Cambon my heart beat intensified and as we made our way down this historic little street we passed the popular Pierre Herme macaron boutique filled with people deciding on which innovative macaron flavours to place into their gift boxes. Suddenly my heart skipped a beat and my eyes began to fill up with tears of joy as the Chanel boutique came into view. There it was in all its glory – the boutique with its beautiful Art Deco facade and the signature floral and cherub stone work crowning the top of the entrance. Two black lacquered rectangular plaques with white Chanel signage flanked on either side of the wall make a commanding statement and a smartly dressed security guard stands by watching devotedly over the boutique. Mon mari stops to take a few photos of me on the opposite side of the rue to capture the whole of the three level building and the boutique’s opulent facade. I felt like a model about to meet Coco Chanel and her close circle of friends such as Picasso, Dali and Cocteau whom I also greatly admire.
We make our way to the entrance and are welcomed inside by the security guard who opens the grand door that leads us into an even grander foyer. Opulence is all around us with an interior that seems like an oriental jewellery box hosting beautiful luxurious items with a lavish combination of materials symbolic and personal to Mademoiselle Chanel such as plush beige, bronze, soft gold, neutral toned marble, reflective glass and black lacquer. Custom built reflective glass cabinetry, an idea that Chanel ingeniously came up with, provide a multi dimensional view of all the latest Chanel accessories such as shoes and hand bags displayed like priceless works of art. Simple lined beige upholstered sofas rest on either side of the foyer and stunning couture hangs elegantly in a lacquered cavity built into the back wall of the boutique. To the left is a mysterious looking black framed door which at that stage I had no idea contained the famous winding Art Deco staircase with mirrored walls and that led to Chanel’s apartment and atelier. To the right, an extra rectangular room stretches out with a counter and seats on one side and a wall displaying stunning hand bags upon glass shelves, A few women are inside sitting along the counter with their assistants deciding on which bag or accessory to purchase. A number of women both young and mature sit proudly on the sofas in the main foyer as they try on shoes and look lovingly over other items brought to them by their own Chanel sales consultant. We are kindly greeted by a staff member informing us that we must wait for our own consultant who will assist us with our purchase shortly and are invited to browse around the store while we wait. At this point my heart is accelerating at a phenomenal speed and most of the other significant details of the store have become a blur as I was so filled with emotion at the time. As I browsed through the boutique admiring the couture and accessories and wishing I could purchase everything in the store, I could feel Chanel’s spirit strongly here and visualised her as she moved around the boutique in her classic two piece suit, pearls and bowler hat ensuring everything was perfectly displayed and spraying the boutique with her signature No5 fragrance before opening the doors to customers each and every work day.
As I waited for an assistant, the minutes passed with anticipation yet pleasurably and soon enough a lovely, softly spoken and very pretty young lady in an elegant Chanel black pant suit uniform approached me. We both exchanged smiles and our names hers was Victoire and she seemed like an angel with her blue eyes and blonde hair in a loose bun leading us to the consulting zone and offering me a tall stool by the counter to sit down on. She asked me how I was enjoying Paris and where we were from and I discovered that she lived for quite some time in Hong Kong and had only been back in Paris for a short time. Her spoken English was perfect with a hint of an accent and she offered me some water, coffee or champagne as we conversed about all things Chanel and remember her being impressed by my knowledge of Chanel and of the inspiration behind the detailing of the 255 bag which I had been dreaming to purchase for years but decided to wait until my visit one day to this very original boutique. Victoire was so gracious and generous with her knowledge, time and patient as I tried on a few hand bags just for fun but firmly deciding and desiring to become the owner of my very first 255 handbag the most beautiful, classic and symbolic of all Chanel bags. I couldn’t contain my excitement when Victoire opened the box that contained by black luxurious lamb skin bag with the iconic C’s and chain. She checked the bag over to make certain there were no marks or damage to the bag and placed it back into the fabric protective satchel with an adorable drawing of Chanel by Karl Largerfeld on it. Victoire and I continued to converse as she escorted us to a separate tiny room on the ground level where the manager of the store was seated by a large table preparing the VAT forms to fill out for redeeming consumer tax before leaving France. The manager whose name I can’t recall peered at us from under her eye glasses while asking our details to fill in to the forms scribbling away behind the desk that seemed to dwarf her. Meanwhile Victoire stood by the manager’s side singing my praises about how much I adored and knew about Mademoiselle as this is the way in which staff refer to the late Chanel. As is the standard practise within this boutique, staff continue to carry on the traditions and rituals here in honour of Chanel in every way from the interior to the design of her couture and accessories which is perhaps the reason her spirit can be so strongly felt here.
After a short time the forms where filled out and the transaction successfully approved. M dream come true hand bag was placed inside the pretty white gift bag with 31 Rue Cambon(this is the only boutique in the world where they supply white bags anywhere else and you will depart with a black bag) black signage on it and then offered to place my purchase inside a brown bag for privacy and to ward off any potential theft on the way back to our hotel. We thought nothing of it and agreed to the idea and then Victoire escorted us to the door. As we walked down the foyer towards the door I couldn’t help but wonder where the famous staircase was that led to Chanel’s famous apartment and atelier. I remember feeling a little disappointed in not seeing more of the historic premise but the thought of asking didn’t enter my head and if it had I would feel a bit awkward or shy in asking. As we stood at the threshold Victoire, as if we were long time best friends, gave me a heartwarming kiss and hug goodbye and wished us farewell and and a safe return. Once the door closed behind us the emotion of the whole experience overwhelmed me to tears and as I began to walk slowly away with mon mari wiping the tears of happiness, joy and sadness at having to leave this incredible place I had been dreaming of visiting for years and uncertain when I would once again have the opportunity to return.
Suddenly I heard my name being called out, “Madame Judy, madame Judy please come back inside!”. I looked around and there was Victoire again calling out to me and gesturing for me to return to the boutique. At this stage my heart began to thump again and I began to worry something went wrong with the transaction or worse but Victoire’s warm smile and arm around my shoulder provided comfort as she led me back into the foyer and positioned me beside the mysterious doors I had noticed earlier wondering what was hidden behind them. As we stood by the doors Victoire said to me, in her soft spoken voice, that she had asked Madame manager if she could invite me back in to the boutique for a surprise since she explained how much I loved Chanel and how lovely a customer I was. At that point I was again nearly in tears and before I could find a Kleenex, Victoire opened the mysterious doors to reveal the beautiful, iconic and glorious winding staircase with the Art Deco glass panels on the wall. On those very steps Chanel would sit and observe the expressions of the people, journalists and critics attending her fashion events without being seen herself. If her collections were well received she would come down the grand stairs and make an appearance, however, if their was a negative reception( which didn’t occur very often) she would walk back into her private apartment and wait for the guests to leave. I became breathless, teary yet again and speechless as Victoire led me into the staircase room where a large over sized glass framed stunning photographic print of Mademoiselle in her youth hung dramatically above a chic black console table and long crooked vines stood inside their black lacquered pot guarding the room by the foot of the stairs. Mademoiselle Chanel’s photograph exuded a woman with confidence and style – her smile and dark, alluring eyes and her glamorous layered string of pearls was captured so perfectly in this picture. Here, in this beautifully preserved space where the symbolic beige, white and black colour scheme exuded warmth and chic Chanel’s presence was so strongly felt. I admired and smiled back at her in the picture and in that moment I felt a gentle, soft breeze and had the sense that she brushed approvingly passed me and noticed a slim shadow at the turn of the staircase. Perhaps the stories that Mademoiselle Chanel haunts this building are true although they say her presence is usually felt more at night. Victoire suggested I pose for a few photos by the staircase and console as at the time the stairs were in repair and stepping on them was not possible. I often wonder that if the staircase was not undergoing repair that I might have been fortunate enough to perhaps take a peek into Chanel’s private apartment were a very select few have had the privilege to do so. Victoire graciously took a few pictures of me and encouraged me to linger in the room for a bit, which I was so greatly thankful for, until she was requested to return to attend to customers and we in turn were escorted out.
As we said our goodbyes again for the last time I offered Victoire my sincerest and most heartfelt thanks for giving me this incredible once in a lifetime opportunity and for making a special dream of mine come true. The whole experience at 31 Rue Cambon is one I will never forget and will always hold dear to my heart and treasure and enjoy sharing with anyone who is interested. Before coming to the boutique I thought I might experience a bit of arogance or unpleasantness but I have to say that nowhere else have I experienced such warmth, quality assistance and joy let alone being chased down the street and asked to come back in for a surprise. When I take my gorgeous 255 Chanel handbag out for a special occasion or just to enjoy on a girly day out I feel so happy and proud to be carrying a Chanel bag from the original and iconic boutique where so much of Chanel’s history was made. Thank you, thank you to the lovely Victoire and staff at 31 Rue Cambon for an experience I will treasure forever and ever. Merci et amicalement, pour Madame Judy.
The lovely Victoire in the background asking me to return inside:)
Angelina’s – Coco Chanel’s favourite tea salon
Rue Rivoli Passageway