Living with Coco Chanel: The homes and landscapes that shaped the designer

Living with Coco Chanel: The homes and landscapes that shaped the designer

by Caroline Young

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Overview

Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was one of the most influential and ground-breaking fashion designers of the twentieth century. This beautifully illustrated biography tells her remarkable story in a unique and accessible way, examining how the homes and landscapes of her life relate to her work.
From her childhood at the convent at Aubazine to her boutique and apartment on Rue Cambon in Paris and her villa, La Pausa, on the French Riveria, Chanel’s style was inspired and influenced by her environment. Emerging at a time that allowed women to be more independent, she designed clothes that let them be free. As she found fame, love and success, she used the memories of her past, and the way that she lived, to forge her own independence.
Featuring designs, drawings, archive imagery and contemporary photography, Living with Coco Chanel provides a fascinating insight into Chanel’s life, work and legacy.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780711240346
Publisher: White Lion Publishing
Publication date: 09/03/2019
Series: Living with Series
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 738,761
Product dimensions: 8.40(w) x 10.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Caroline Young is an Edinburgh-based writer and fashion journalist. She is the author of Classic Hollywood Style (2012), Style Tribes (2016) and Tartan and Tweed (2017).

Read an Excerpt

CHAPTER 1

The Country Girl

Saumur, Aubazine, Moulins, Royallieu 1883–1908

Gabrielle Chanel kept many facts about her childhood secret. She only offered hints about the poverty and the abandonment she had suffered, of the cloisters and chestnut trees of the Auvergne landscape that formed a backdrop to her early life.

'I love everything that's up high. The sky, the moon, and I believe in the stars. I was born under the sign of the Lion, like Nostradamus.'

She was born on 19 August 1883, under the Leo star sign. Being superstitious, she chose the lion symbol for many aspects of her life – in her apartment in rue Cambon, Paris, on her creations and as a marker on her headstone in the cemetery of Lausanne. 'I love everything that's up high,' she said. 'The sky, the moon, and I believe in the stars. I was born under the sign of the Lion, like Nostradamus. I'd rather have a touch of the invisible than roast mutton every day.'

While it was known that Chanel was born poor, she obscured the parts of her story of which she was ashamed, instead detailing a softened, fantasy version of her childhood to biographers, only recounting some of the hardships she suffered. Her father Albert Chanel's ancestry is traced to the Cévennes region, a rural area marked by its limestone peaks and ravines, where shepherds tended their flocks, where chestnuts and mulberries were the main harvests and silk farming and weaving – eighteenth-century industries – were still in common practice. Albert's father, Henri-Adrien, was born in Ponteils-et-Brésis, a village built on lush, green, undulating slopes with views over the mountains. The people of the region lived in homes of slate stone with sloping roofs. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, Henri-Adrien's family owned a tavern that was part of a large farmhouse called Mas Chanel, built in 1740, and where generations of Chanels were raised. Henri-Adrien became a market trader, raising nineteen children with his wife Émilie Virginie Angélina. Albert, their eldest son, followed in his father's footsteps as a peddler, selling everything from wine to haberdashery and clothing across rural France.

Albert was a charmer, regularly flirting with village girls. After stopping for the winter in Courpière, in 1881, he seduced Jeanne Devolle, a sixteen-year-old seamstress and the sister of his landlord. When Jeanne discovered she was pregnant, Albert quickly disappeared, but Jeanne's family traced him to a tavern in Aubenas, and told him to take responsibility for Jeanne, who gave birth to a daughter, Julie-Berthe, in September 1882.

The town of Saumur, in the Loire Valley, catered for smart officers of the military cavalry school, all dressed in leather riding boots and high-collared coats. It was here that Gabrielle Chanel was born, in 1883, and where her parents stayed for her first year on 29 rue St Jean. Gabrielle felt that, because she was born in an equestrian town, under the symbol of the lion, she had the dual protection of both horse and lion.

'I was born on a journey,' she told a journalist. 'My father was not there. That poor woman, my mother, had to go looking for him. It's a sad story, and very boring – I've heard it so many times ...' She was born in a hospice for the poor, run by nuns, and baptised quickly because she was unwell. She said the nun who took care of her named her Gabrielle Bonheur as a baby, and the registrar, unable to spell the surname, noted it down as 'Chasnel' – the spelling of which is still on the birth certificate.

Albert finally agreed to marry Jeanne in November 1884, after her family paid a dowry. He and Jeanne moved to the market town Issoire, and in 1885 Jeanne gave birth to a son, Alphonse. A third daughter, Antoinette, was born in 1887 in Saintes, and in 1889 Jeanne gave birth to her fifth child, Lucien, in Gueret.

Travelling from town to town, the Chanel children were raised around bustling public market places, staying in cheap lodgings in artisan quarters. Trades were predominantly pre-industrial, such as leather and candlemaking, joinery and clothmaking, and Albert bought and sold such goods. He began to specialise in work clothes and undergarments, perhaps made from cheap, flexible jersey fabric.

One of Gabrielle's early memories was playing in a cemetery, creating fairy-tale worlds amongst the weeds and bringing presents for the dead. Other recollections included her father comforting her after nightmares, placing wheat by her bed as a good luck charm. As an adult Chanel kept wheat in her homes, as a symbol of the wealth and prosperity of the harvest.

Chanel also recalled a room covered in red wallpaper. Her mother had taken Gabrielle and her two sisters to the home of an elderly uncle in Issoire, and left in a room on their own, the bored, naughty girls began peeling strips of paper from the wall. 'We placed the stack of chairs on a table and managed to strip away the paper as far as the ceiling: the pleasure was sublime!' she recalled. 'At last, my mother came in; she stood stock still, contemplating the disaster. She didn't say a word to us; in the depths of her despair all she did was weep silently; no reprimand could have had such an effect on me; I ran away, howling with sorrow: we never saw the uncle from Issoire again.'

With the strain of a quick succession of multiple pregnancies, Jeanne suffered from poor health, developing asthma and tuberculosis from living in the cold lodgings. Jeanne's white handkerchiefs were often stained with blood and Gabrielle and her siblings were kept away so as not to catch the illness. Eventually Jeanne succumbed. In February 1895, she was found dead in her bed in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde. Albert was absent when she died, and unable and unwilling to take on responsibility for the children. He left the two boys with farmers, essentially as free labour, and the girls were delivered to a convent orphanage at the nearby abbey of Aubazine. It is thought that Albert took them there in his horse-drawn cart, or that he left them with his parents, who then took them to Aubazine.

Chanel was twelve years old when she was abandoned, but in her revisionist history she became six, and was left with two strict aunts dressed in black, who were 'good people, but absolutely without tenderness'. It's now known that the aunts of her recollections were the nuns of the convent. Part of Chanel's fabrication of her past lay in her fears at being discovered as 'illegitimate'. She even refused to change the spelling of 'Chasnel' on her birth certificate to avoid the truth of her life in the orphanage coming out.

Chanel recalled arriving at the 'aunts' house in Mont-Dore at dusk, with her father who was in deep mourning for her mother. 'When we get there, we are greeted half-heartedly; they cut the wick of the lamp to see my face more clearly. My aunts have had supper; we haven't; they are surprised that people who have been travelling all day should not have eaten. This disturbs their routine and their household management, but eventually they overcome their harsh, provincial austerity and say reluctantly: "We shall cook you two boiled eggs."'

Aubazine village is situated on a long ridge protected by wooded hills, isolated from main roads and looking out over the Coyroux mountain stream. The village, a collection of little thick-walled houses with grey-slate gabled roofs, was quite different from the bustle of the market towns, yet its remoteness had attracted its medieval founder.

The monastery at Aubazine had been established by hermit Étienne de Vielzot, who devoted himself to God by living as simply as possible. Following the Rule of St Benedict and the Cistercians, a monastery was built in 1142 for Étienne's disciples. The Romanesque abbey, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, became a resting place for pilgrims on their journey to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain. The Cistercian Order encouraged an austere life of manual labour and isolation from the outside world, and each monastery was to be as autonomous as possible. The monastery was donated to the Congregation of the Holy Heart of Mary in the mid-nineteenth century, and an orphanage opened for girls in 1860, the largest in the region.

Linked with vaulted passageways and arches, the monastic buildings surrounded a square cloister with a fountain and flowerbeds of lavender. The whitewashed walls of the corridors in the orphanage contrasted with black-painted doors that opened onto large, cold rooms.

It was very bleak in the winter. The girls slept in an unheated dormitory on iron beds, with crucifixes hanging above them, and from the windows they could see out over the chestnut trees, the forests and hills. Breakfast was watery porridge served on rows of tables in the dining halls. The girls studied for six days a week, and in the evenings they practised housekeeping skills, such as hemming bed sheets, vital for a life to be spent in domestic servitude. Sunday mornings were devoted to mass, and in the afternoons the girls often walked to the summit of Coyroux.

When Chanel talked of the cleanliness of her aunts' house, she must surely have been referring to the orphanage. 'If I have a certain preference for order, for comfort, for having things done right, for chests filled with linens that smell good, and gleaming floors, I owe it to my aunts. Living with them gave me that solid substance that is to be found only in the French.' She remembered, in the spring, every chest was emptied and the linens sorted out and cleaned and pressed. 'Now sheets smell of chlorine everywhere; at the Ritz they're changed every day, so that every night I go to sleep in the aroma of chlorine. Life in the country was luxurious.'

The convent at Aubazine offers a glimpse into the creative mind of Chanel. It was from her memories here that she created many of her signature pieces, including her black, white and beige colour scheme. White stood for the clean sheets in old chests, and beige for the natural sandstone and wood. The nuns walked the white corridors in their black and white habits, with the girls in their own black skirt and white blouse uniform. Hundreds of years before, the monks had created a stone mosaic in the long corridor leading to the rooms, which depicted moons, stars and crosses, and these symbols would manifest in Chanel's jewellery collections. The Maltese cross, for example, was first depicted in precious stones in a 1937 white-enamel cuff bracelet, while her first diamond collection, in 1932, used precious jewels to create constellation designs.

Each day the girls padded up and down a stone staircase into the abbey as they made their way from their dormitories to the abbey for daily prayers. The steps were worn down by centuries of trailing feet. At the bottom was a twelfth-century liturgical oak cupboard considered to be the oldest cupboard in France, and which resembled the architecture of a church.

Light entered the church through deep, arched windows, with grisaille window panes made from colourless glass set into leaded geometric patterns that included Celtic knots. This was the only type of glass permitted by Cistercian churches – coloured patterns were considered too ornate and contrary to the sense of austerity. The young Gabrielle would have gazed upon these windows frequently during her years at the convent. In the abbey there is a sign that demonstrates how these interconnected swirls form a similar shape to the famous Chanel double C logo. Did she remember the shape of these windows when thinking of her branding? Maybe those years of praying in the abbey, the light streaming through the windows, remained imprinted in her mind.

In Chanel's retelling of her childhood story, it was always winter. She romanticised the warm hearth, the bare branches of chestnut trees and snow-covered hills. 'Winters were frightful – winters nowadays aren't what they used to be. I loved winter. I was allowed to stay in the kitchen, and we burned trees in the fireplace. In the country the kitchen is the soul of the house. When people came in, frozen, you filled their pockets with chestnuts, and gave them more when they went out again. Potatoes for the pigs were boiled in a big cast-iron pot hung over the fire.'

The young Gabrielle was fierce and angry. She recognised life's injustices, and resented the nuns for a lack of love. She would say she owed her 'aunts' everything, because they created her inner resolve – starving her of love rather than coddling her. 'It's the mean and nasty aunts who create winners, and give them inferiority complexes, although in my case the result was a superiority complex. Under nastiness looms strength, under pride a taste for success and a passion for grandeur.'

Gabrielle wasn't completely without family – she was allowed to spend holidays with her grandparents. She also formed a close friendship with her youngest aunt Adrienne, the nineteenth of Virginie and Henri-Adrien's children, only a few years older than Gabrielle, and more like a sister.

As a teenager, Gabrielle discovered the romantic stories of French writer Pierre Decourcelle, which served to fire up her imagination where there 'was nothing but silk pillows and white-lacquered furniture. I'd have liked to do everything in white lacquer.' After visiting her grandparents she took these stories, essentially newspaper clippings, back to the orphanage, where she supposedly hid them in the loft. 'The catalogues I read gave me wild dreams of spending. I imagined myself wearing a white woollen dress; I wanted a bedroom painted in white gloss, with white curtains. What a contrast this white made with the dark house in which my aunts confined me.'

Clues from the stories she told her biographers help to understand where Chanel's designs came from, and while they may be part fantasy, they serve as an allegory to her life. She admitted that 'Indirectly, it was my Auvergne aunts who imposed their modesty on the beautiful Parisian ladies. Years have gone by, and it is only now that I realise that the austerity of dark shades, the respect for colours borrowed from nature, the almost monastic cut of my summer alpaca wear and of my winter tweed suits, all that puritanism that elegant ladies would go crazy for, came from Mont-Dore.'

Moulins

When the three Chanel sisters each turned eighteen, the nuns arranged a transfer to the Notre-Dame convent in the centre of Moulins, where they would be closer to their grandparents and aunt Adrienne, who lived in Vichy.

The convent school mixed fee-paying students with charity pupils, who received a free place in exchange for work. The private boarders were clothed in claret cashmere, straw boaters, cloaks and new shoes, while the charity schoolgirls wore rough wool pelerines, knitted in the convent's workroom, and second-hand ankle boots donated by the congregation. The girls' duties involved embroidering initials on towels, or sewing crosses onto nightdresses, and while this work made Gabrielle want to 'spit', these skills would prove useful, as it allowed her to earn money to gain the freedom she craved.

Moulins was a lively place owing to several military regiments that stayed at the barracks, Quartier Villars, close to the river and the medieval old town. The Tenth Light Horse was the most prestigious, and its moustached, wealthy men wore dashing uniforms of scarlet breeches, pristine white gloves and peaked caps worn at an angle over one ear. Days were spent at the racetrack or flirting at the modern art nouveau pastry shops, and evenings in the music halls, drinking as the chanteuses sang bawdy songs.

The convent's Mother Superior granted Gabrielle permission to work with her aunt Adrienne as a sales assistant at a lingerie shop, the House of Grampayre, on rue de l'Horloge, which offered a direct view along its narrow cobbled street to the clock on Jacquemart tower. The owners, the Desboutins, liked to hire girls from Notre-Dame as they were highly skilled at sewing. They gave the girls a third-floor attic room to share. By 1904, Gabrielle and Adrienne had moved into a room in the popular, but down-at-heel, street in Moulins, rue du Pont Ginguet. To earn more money, they each took on an extra Sunday job. There was plenty of work for seamstresses in the town, as there were military uniforms and racing clothing to alter and stitch.

Gabrielle was now twenty years old, beautiful and lively. 'I was told I had black eyes,' she said. 'I have an unbelievably long neck. Look how far it extends to the nape. No one has a neck as long as mine, particularly in photographs. I always hold my head high when I eat.'

The two young women were noticed by a group of cavalry officers who came in for alterations, and they asked the girls if they would like to join them to watch a showjumping competition. The officers often invited the girls out for sherbets at popular tearoom La Tentation, to the art nouveau Grand Café, with huge gilded mirrors and plush seats, or to Les Palets d'Or chocolatier, featuring a blue swirling neoclassical facade, designed in 1898 by the Moulins School of Fine Arts.

(Continues…)


Excerpted from "Living with Coco Chanel"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Caroline Young.
Excerpted by permission of The Quarto Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

The Country Girl,
Genre Pauvre,
Bohemian Paris,
Rue Cambon,
The Scent of Success,
The British Look,
Riviera Chic,
Chanel in the 1930s,
At the Ritz,
The Comeback,
The Twilight Years,
Endnotes,
Picture Credits,
Index,

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Living with Coco Chanel: The homes and landscapes that shaped the designer 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 4 reviews.
Anonymous 5 months ago
People have mixed feelings about Coco Chanel. She is both known for her amazing fashion sense and for her apparent collaboration with the Germans during WW II. However readers may feel about Coco, this book will provide an extensive look at who she was, what influenced her, the places she lived and, of course, her fashions. It is an insightful and interesting look at a woman who lived a dramatic and creative life. Many thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for this read in exchange for an honest review.
WildFlowerBookBlogs 6 months ago
Simply fascinating! Highlights the life of an icon and shows the beauty that had always lay within her. Stunning photographs, beautiful descriptions make this a must read for any fashionista or a fan of the brand itself. 5/5 stars for a new iconic masterpiece.
CharJones2525 9 months ago
This intriguing bio provides a unique look at famed fashion designer Coco Chanel by focusing on place as context for her creations. She of the classic suits with pearls aswirl was greatly impacted by the homes and landscapes of her life, including the Aubazine convent of her childhood (think of her demure jacket necklines), to her Parisian appartement and boutique on Rue Cambon, as well as her villa, La Pausa, on the French Riviera. Fully illustrated with drawings, designs, contemporary photos, and archival images that bring Coco’s storied background to life. 5/5 Pub Date 03 Sep 2019. Thanks to Caroline Young, Quarto Publishing Group - White Lion Publishing, and NetGalley for the review copy. Opinions are mine. #LivingWithCocoChanel #NetGalley
Rachel_Denise01 9 months ago
Living with Coco Chanel by Caroline Young is a great reference for anything and everything about this intriguing woman. Love her or dislike her, she was a genius in her own right, despite her flaws. One has to give her props for never taking a back seat in the drive of her life. This is a fascinating read, and I learned quite a few more things about this complex woman. The author clearly has done her research. 4/5 stars