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About the Author
Dodie Kazanjian lives and works in New York City. She is the editor at large for Vogue Magazine, a staff writer for The New Yorker, and the author of Icons, a collection of essays on style, and Dodie Goes Shopping.
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The Absolutes of Style
By Dodie Kazanjian
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1995 Dodie Kazanjian
All rights reserved.
the chanel suit
I've never had a Chanel suit. A Chanel suit is something my mother wore, and I always thought I wasn't old enough, or grown up enough, or tall enough to have one. But I always thought I'd have one when I was in my thirties, which is where I am now. It's one of those big events in a woman's life, like getting married or having a child. I got married last year for the first time. We're discussing the child. And I find myself thinking more and more about a Chanel suit.
Anyway, I finally decided to dare it.
It's eight o'clock on Thursday morning, February 15, and I'm getting dressed to go shopping at Chanel. What should I wear? My four-year-old blue YSL coatdress is the ticket — it's authoritative, it has a name, and it's not my usual black.
I arrive at five minutes of ten, five minutes before they open. The big glass doors are not locked, to my surprise, so I walk in. They're vacuuming inside. One of the women in the Chanel salesgirl's uniform — black Chanel sweater and skirt, white blouse, ropes of pearls, and beeper — invites me to sit on the sofa while they take the last few moments to primp the store for its opening. At ten on the dot, "Can I help you?" asks the same Chanelmaiden. She is friendly and casual, an Italian girl from the Bronx who puts me immediately at ease.
"Yes, please. I've never worn Chanel, and I'd like to try."
Going upstairs is part of the Chanel ritual. A stairway has drama, and Coco always had one at her famous rue Cambon shop in Paris. This one is Coco–New York. It's not a bit old-world. It has glitz, with vertical strips of cut mirror to your left as you ascend. At the top of the stairs, I ask if I've come at the wrong time of year — between seasons or something like that. "It happens you've come just at the right time. My name is Patricia," she says, giving me her hand.
Does she mean the right time, literally, because it's that rare moment when I'm the only shopper in the store? No, she means that the spring/summer collection was shown in Paris last week, and the new line has just started to arrive. She points to a rack of clothing set into the far mirrored wall. I ask about a white Chanel suit with a long fitted jacket I had seen in a magazine last summer. Is it still available? "Forget that suit," she says, authoritatively. "Just forget it. That was last year's." She walks me over to the suit rack and shows me a couple of little suits — one is a vanilla yellow color with a raglan sleeve, and the other is navy.
"Okay, I'll try these on."
"No-no-no," she says. "I don't have any in your size. These are all size 40s and 42s." The line has just started to come in, she explains. Then she walks me over to a countertop, asks me if I've seen the collection, and shoves a huge black binder in front of me before I can answer. On the left-hand page, there's a Polaroid of a model wearing a suit with a very short skirt; on the right, there's an entry for each size, with space after it for the names of customers who have placed orders. If the size is highlighted in yellow, it means it's in stock. Patricia asks if I'd like to see the collection on video. "Sit over here," she says, planting me on a brown suede settee and offering coffee or orange juice. The video theme song, "Better Than Ever," fills up the audio space. "We're better than we've ever been before. ..." Models sashay across the screen in Chanels that don't look like the ones my mother wore. Thanks to Karl Lagerfeld, these are tighter, with thigh-high skirts and brighter colors. I'm a little worried that now I may be too old for Chanel.
Fifteen minutes later, as the video is winding down and the theme song is beginning to get on my nerves, people have begun to block my vision of the screen. There are more Japanese than you see bidding on paintings at Sotheby's or Christie's. Patricia comes over and asks me what I like. "There's a little white V-necked bouclé jacket that seems to go with everything that ..." Before I can finish my sentence, she's sitting next to me with the book on her lap opened to the page with the little white jacket that's shown with everything from a chiffon evening dress to a bikini.
"Forget that jacket. That's the jacket of the season. You'll never get it. And besides, the press has made a big deal about it, and there's an unbelievable waiting list. See?"
Waiting lists for Chanel suits? I know I'm on Fifty-seventh Street, but I thought that was art gallery lingo. "What do you mean, waiting list?" She shows me. On the right-hand page, there are hundreds of names — names in tiny print cramped in after each size.
"How many people will get this jacket?" I ask.
"Oh, one in each size, perhaps, sometimes two. But no promises." (This little jacket isn't cheap. It's $1,665.)
All right. Let's give it another try. I tell her I like the light yellow–beige suit with white piping and relaxed-looking shoulders. She opens the book to just the right page, and we study the line for size 34. There is no yellow horizontal line, which means the suit hasn't arrived from Paris yet, but the line is already full of names. She manages to squeeze mine in and puts a 9 next to it. I'm number nine in line for this one, behind two Japanese names. Her beeper beeps, calling her to the telephone. All over New York, women are paging Patricia for Chanel suits. What chance have I got?
"What else did you like?" she wants to know.
"Well, there was a wonderful beige suit that reminded me of the one I liked last summer — the jacket is long and fitted and the model had her sleeves pushed up." Patricia finds it in the black binder. For this one, she writes my name in with a 6 next to it; the same two Japanese names are in front of me. My heart sinks. Maybe I'm not Chanel material. I've never flown to Marrakesh for the weekend with a grand duke, or been presented at court. Patricia senses my anxiety.
"While you were watching the video, I was able to pry some suits away from other salespeople for you to try on. You can't buy them, because they're reserved for other people, but at least you can see how they fit."
The dressing room is ample, not threatening, with fawn Ultrasuede walls, a settee and one chair, a countertop, and a three-way mirror. We start with a cropped fuchsia jacket and a chiffon skirt. The chiffon skirt is the latest style for evening, she informs me. I'm after a suit for daytime, but what is interesting is that a Chanel 34 fits me perfectly. Next, she shows me a black bouclé suit with a jewel neckline, gold buttons, and the matronly look I always associated with Chanel when I was a child.
"This is a 34?"
She assures me it is. When I get into it, sure enough, the jacket is boxy, not fitted, and I feel it's wearing me. She agrees. (There's no such thing as high pressure at Chanel.) But the skirt is a great fit. "Leave the skirt on and try on this little white jacket," she suggests. As I'm doing so, there's a knock on the door. It's my thirty-something friend Lucy, English and pregnant, who like me has never worn Chanel but feels it's about time. She likes the little white jacket, which I can't buy because umpteen people are already waiting for it. Patricia brings in two more suits — both navy. No go on either. The top pockets on the long jacket hit at just the wrong spot — exaggerating me where I don't want to be exaggerated. The tunic is too overpowering. Out they go, and back she comes with a black cotton suit loaded down with gold buttons. Lucy shakes her head no as I snap the big gold belt buckle shut. "I still like the white jacket best on you," she says, heaving herself out of the settee to go to her eleven o'clock appointment. Thanks, Lucy. She tells Patricia she'll be back in May after she delivers.
After trying on a few more suits I can't buy, I ask Patricia, "Now what?" We sit on the settee with the black binder. She recommends that I get on the waiting list for a suit that she doesn't have but that she is sure will be "the suit of the season," a pastel yellow bouclé with a silk satin bow at the neck. "It's a tiny suit. Not everyone can wear it," she says. "But you can." I'm number four on the list for this one, but she notices that nobody has reserved it in pastel blue in size 36, so she puts me down for a 36, too.
"I hate to buy clothes that are too big and need lots of alterations," I protest.
"Trust me. We have a great seamstress."
Flipping through the black binder one last time, she spots "a classic little suit" like the white jacket, she says, that comes in black or white, and nobody has reserved the black in my size. I'm number one for this one. Hooray!
It's twelve fifteen and I'm late for an appointment. Patricia tells me that a shipment may already have arrived, and I should check with her in the morning to see if any of my selections have come in. "It could take a week or three weeks," she says. She takes my telephone number and I ask for her last name. "Oh, everybody calls me Fish," she says with a laugh, pushing a card in my hand. Her name is Patricia Pesce.
"I'm going away for a week," I say. She looks anxious and takes the number where I'll be. "I'll call you there," she says. "But you have to be ready."
The next morning at ten I call Patricia. I ask what the procedure is if something does arrive while I'm out of town. "There's a three-day grace period given to everybody," she says. "I'll worry about it when it happens. I'll do some juggling, but let's not worry till the time comes." She's reassuring but seems in a hurry to get off the phone.
The week passes. Should I call? Meanwhile, I notice that hot little white jacket in the Sunday Times magazine. Also, a long fitted black jacket that looks like bouclé, over a chiffon skirt.
It's ten thirty Monday morning, a week and a half after my visit to Chanel. When I call and ask for Patricia, I'm told she's at lunch. She's what? I hang up. At twelve fifteen, Patricia calls me back. "Nothing has come in yet," she tells me right off. "But did you see it on the cover of Vogue?" See what? (Of course I didn't. I only write for Vogue. I'm the last to see it.) "Our suit. Remember I told you it would be the suit of the season?"
I'm a little out of focus but then catch on. "Oh, yeah. The little one with the satin bow at the neck."
"Oh, now I'll never get it, now that the press has a hold of it — and the cover of Vogue."
"Not everyone can wear it," she says, just as she did before, bucking up my spirits. "And besides, you're already number four for this one."
Would it make sense for me to try to get it at another Chanel boutique? "No," she assures me. "I'm doing everything for you. I'm not permitted to fax until it gets into the stores."
Fax? What does faxing have to do with this? She explains that once a particular suit arrives, she can then fax Beverly Hills or one of the other Chanel boutiques for it — like putting out an all-points bulletin.
February 28, 10:40 A.M.: my phone rings. "This is Patricia from Chanel. I've got my hands on a chiffon skirt."
"Chiffon? But I wasn't waiting for chiffon."
"I thought you might like to have a little separate."
"I don't think so. What I really want is a suit. You won't forget me?"
"Of course not. I'll call you the minute something comes in."
March 3, 10:30 A.M.: the phone rings. "I got the black suit in," says a now familiar voice, excited this time.
"Great. I'll try to get in this afternoon."
"Fine. I'll hold it for you."
Patricia has become my protector at Chanel. I change my plans and go that afternoon. I arrive at two fifteen. Since it's a Saturday, the place is jammed, and hopping. After about five minutes, I find Patricia. She goes into a back room and returns with my suit bagged in plastic. Lifting the plastic very carefully and slowly, she says, "Isn't it beautiful?" Before I can answer, she tells me that it's going to take a few minutes for a dressing room to free up. "Make yourself comfortable."
Time passes. I hear the insistent sound track of the video starting up again: "It's better than ever, we're better than ever...." It's now 2:55, and I've been waiting forty minutes for a dressing room. Patricia notices me looking at my watch and rushes over. "It'll only be another five minutes." A couple of minutes later, she signals to me that a room is becoming free. "Wait a minute while I get the suit." As she goes to get the suit, another salesperson starts to claim the dressing room. "That's mine," Patricia says very clearly. She tells me to come on in. As soon as I try on the black suit, which I never even had the chance to see before getting on the waiting list, I know it's not for me. It doesn't have that young Lagerfeld look. It's more of a Chanel from the past. But do I dare let it go? It may be the only chance I'll have. All I can afford is one suit. Patricia senses my dilemma. "You can let me know on Monday morning."
March 5, 10:20 A.M.: I call Patricia and tell her that the black suit isn't what I want. "All right," she says. "I'll call you when one of your others comes in."
Time is passing and I'm wondering whether I'll ever get a Chanel suit. Not only is my Chanel on the cover of March Vogue, but I just received the April Vanity Fair today, and Madonna is on the cover wearing a white chiffon Chanel dress. It's true that you see much more of Madonna than of her Chanel, but at least she's got one.
March 14: I call Patricia. "Nothing's come in yet."
March 15: One month since I first went to Chanel.
March 16: I call Patricia from out of town, a touch of desperation in my voice. "Nothing yet, dear," she says.
March 26: I call at 1:30. Patricia can't come to the phone; "She's with a customer." Patricia calls me back at 5:40. "Nothing yet." She pauses, then adds, "One of the suits is here, but we're number four for it." My mind does some quick arithmetic. That means I could wait nine more days before I can even try it on. "That's all I can say at this point. We have to wait for the three in front of us."
"But I'm going away for a week on Sunday."
"Call me on Friday."
"Is it time to start faxing?" I ask.
"Not yet. But think positive."
March 28: There's a message on my machine — "This is Patricia from Chanel. Please call me. I've got very good news for you."
I call her immediately.
"I've got it for you," she says triumphantly.
"Which one? The little pastel? In yellow?"
"Yes. Yes. Yes. Size thirty-four."
"What happened to the three people in front of me?"
"They're all out of town till next week or the week after." So they've all lost their turns — only three days of grace, you know. Very democratic. "I can't get in till four tomorrow, is that okay?"
"See you tomorrow."
March 29, 4:00 P.M.: Patricia is waiting for me by the cosmetics counter at the door. We climb the stairs and go into the same dressing room. She goes to get the suit. The tension is building. What if I don't like this suit? Once again, I think maybe I'm not meant to have a Chanel in this life. A minute passes, then another. Where is she? Suddenly, I see Patricia at the doorway carrying something covered in plastic. She stops to answer a saleswoman's question. I'm straining my neck to catch a glimpse of the suit, but she's holding it with her right arm, away from the doorway. Finally, she comes in. She hangs it on a hook, lifts the plastic, and steps back.
It's such a pale yellow bouclé, much paler and softer than I had imagined, like Devonshire cream, and it's piped in the silkiest white satin I've ever seen. The whole thing is lined with silk satin, and the lining is channel-quilted (a straight up-and-down quilting, as opposed to the average cross-hatched kind), just like the old Chanel suits used to be, and the jacket even has a gold chain sewn all around the inside hem, a signature detail Coco invented to make her jackets hang evenly. It has the right Lagerfeld look. As I slip into it, I feel as though I'm becoming a different woman — sophisticated, immaculate, possibly Parisian. Patricia claps her hands. We both know it's a success. "It's gorgeous," she says, smiling and jumping up and down. I can hear the video's music starting up outside — "Better than ever, better than ever, we're better than ever, now."
And so am I.
the image consultant
Women who use image consultants don't want to talk about it. It's okay to delegate interior decorating, cooking, and sometimes even child rearing to experts, but the idea of hiring an expert to show you how to dress, style your hair, do makeup, walk, talk, and perhaps even think is taboo. It may be one of the last taboos left in America. I was curious about this reticence, so I decided to hire an image consultant to find out just what it is that nobody wants to talk about.
Also, I have a couple of minor image problems that I could use some help with. I'm five feet two and want to be five feet six, and I've always wished I looked all-American. My grandparents were Armenian, but I am always being taken for a South American.
Excerpted from Icons by Dodie Kazanjian. Copyright © 1995 Dodie Kazanjian. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
The Chanel Suit,
The Image Consultant,
The Kelly Bag,
The Wedding Gown,
The Winter Coat,
The Armani Jacket,
The Little Black Dress,
Also by Dodie Kazanjian,
About the Author,