She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves.
Coco Chanel wasn't just ahead of her time. She was ahead of herself. If one looks at the work of contemporary fashion designers as different from one another as Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Donatella Versace, one sees that many of their strategies echo what Chanel once did. The way, 75 years ago, she mixed up the vocabulary of male and female clothes and created fashion that offered the wearer a feeling of hidden luxury rather than ostentation are just two examples of how her taste and sense of style overlap with today's fashion.
Chanel would not have defined herself as a feminist — in fact, she consistently spoke of femininity rather than of feminism — yet her work is unquestionably part of the liberation of women. She threw out a life jacket, as it were, to women not once but twice, during two distinct periods decades apart: the 1920s and the '50s. She not only appropriated styles, fabrics and articles of clothing that were worn by men but also, beginning with how she dressed herself, appropriated sports clothes as part of the language of fashion. One can see how her style evolved out of necessity and defiance. She couldn't afford the fashionable clothes of the period — so she rejected them and made her own, using, say, the sports jackets and ties that were everyday male attire around the racetrack, where she was climbing her first social ladders.
It's not by accident that she became associated with the modern movement that included Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau. Like these artistic protagonists, she was determined to break the old formulas and invent a way of expressing herself. Cocteau once said of her that "she has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value only for painters, musicians, poets."
By the late '60s, Chanel had become part of what she once rebelled against and hated — the Establishment. But if one looks at documentary footage of her from that period, one can still feel the spit and vinegar of the fiery peasant woman who began her fashion revolution against society by aiming at the head, with hats. Her boyish "flapper" creations were in stark contrast to the Belle Epoque millinery that was in vogue at the time, and about which she asked, "How can a brain function under those things?" Something that Chanel can never be accused of is not using her brain. Her sharp mind is apparent in everything she did, from her savvy use of logos to her deep understanding of the power of personality and packaging, even the importance of being copied. And she was always quotable: "Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road."
It is fitting, somehow, that Chanel was often photographed holding a cigarette or standing in front of her famous Art Deco wall of mirrors. Fashion tends to involve a good dose of smoke and mirrors, so it should come as no surprise that Gabrielle Chanel's version of her life involved a multitude of lies, inventions, cover-ups and revisions. But as Prada said to me: "She was really a genius. It's hard to pin down exactly why, but it has something to do with her wanting to be different and wanting to be independent."
Certainly her life was unpredictable. Even her death — in 1971, at the age of 87 in her private quarters at the Ritz Hotel — was a plush ending that probably would not have been predicted for Chanel by the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage, where she spent time as a ward of the state after her mother died and her father ran off. No doubt the sisters at the convent in Moulins, who took her in when she was 17, raised their eyebrows when the young woman left the seamstress job they had helped her get to try for a career as a cabaret singer. This stint as a performer — she was apparently charming but no Piaf — led her to take up with the local swells and become the backup mistress of Etienne Balsan, a playboy who would finance her move to Paris and the opening of her first hat business. That arrangement gave way to a bigger and better deal when she moved on to his friend, Arthur ("Boy") Capel, who is said to have been the love of her life and who backed her expansion from hats to clothes and from Paris to the coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz. One of her first successes was the loose-fitting sweater, which she belted and teamed with a skirt. These early victories were similar to the clothes she had been making for herself — women's clothes made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated with men's undergarments.
Throughout the '20s, Chanel's social, sexual and professional progress continued, and her eminence grew to the status of legend. By the early '30s she'd been courted by Hollywood, gone and come back. She had almost married one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster; when she didn't, her explanation was, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel." In fact, there were many Coco Chanels, just as her work had many phases and many styles, including Gypsy skirts, over-the-top fake jewelry and glittering evening wear — made of crystal and jet beads laid over black and white georgette crepe — not just the plainer jersey suits and "little black dresses" that made her famous. But probably the single element that most ensured Chanel's being remembered, even when it would have been easier to write her off, is not a piece of clothing but a form of liquid gold — Chanel No. 5, in its Art Deco bottle, which was launched in 1923. It was the first perfume to bear a designer's name.
One could say perfume helped keep Chanel's name pretty throughout the period when her reputation got ugly: World War II. This is when her anti-Semitism, homophobia (even though she herself dabbled in bisexuality) and other base inclinations emerged. She responded to the war by shutting down her fashion business and hooking up with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi officer whose favors included permission to reside in her beloved Ritz Hotel. Years later, in 1954, when she decided to make a comeback, her name still had "disgraced" attached to it.
Depending on the source, Chanel's return to the fashion world has been variously attributed to falling perfume sales, disgust at what she was seeing in the fashion of the day or simple boredom. All these explanations seem plausible, and so does Karl Lagerfeld's theory of why, this time around, the Chanel suit met such phenomenal success. Lagerfeld — who designs Chanel today and who has turned the company into an even bigger, more tuned-in business than it was before — points out, "By the '50s she had the benefit of distance, and so could truly distill the Chanel look. Time and culture had caught up with her." In Europe, her return to fashion was deemed an utter flop at first, but Americans couldn't buy her suits fast enough. Yet again Chanel had put herself into the yolk of the zeitgeist. By the time Katharine Hepburn played her on Broadway in 1969, Chanel had achieved first-name recognition and was simply Coco.
Ingrid Sischy is editor in chief of Interview and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair