As some of you lovely readers will know, I've spent the last few months writing, photographing and illustrating a book about Chanel and the art of French style called How To Live A Beautiful Life: Chanel and The Art of French Style. The book is still in production, and I'm actually rewriting it/refining it now, during the holiday period. I'll provide more details of the book, including pub dates, in late January. But for now, here's a little sneak preview...
HOW TO LIVE A BEAUTIFUL LIFE:
CHANEL AND THE ART OF FRENCH STYLE
"She arrived. It was summer. She had on a little white quilted satin tailleur – a skirt, below the knee but short – a gardenia in her hair, and a white lace shirt. I have never seen anyone look at delectable, as adorable. What age was she then? What difference did it make?"
– Diana Vreeland, speaking of Coco Chanel in DV
"Live with rigour and vigor!"
Coco Chanel, to Diana Vreeland
Early one morning in July 1962, during what was an oppressively warm summer in Paris, a dignified, gracefully dressed, model-slender grande mademoiselle (a highly respected woman of a certain age) walked up the now famous Rue Cambon; a thin ribbon of a street that begins at Rue de Rivoli and unfurls north of the rear of The Ritz Hotel Paris. She wore a cream skirt that fell to just below the knees (she claimed the knees were the most unattractive part of a woman's body), and a well-cut jacket made with quilted lining and a gold-chain hem to ‘weight’ the suit, so it sat neatly, in the way that she liked. She also wore a cream hat with a black ribbon (she was never seen without a hat, even in her atelier), a small black handbag carried lightly over her left arm in the French manner, a glamorous pearl necklace, and dark sunglasses. And although she was in her late 70s she wore heels. Black ones. With a sole that made a rhythmical click-click-click on the Parisian street. She also possessed cheekbones that could have been cut with one of her own silver-plated dressmaking scissors, thin, perfectly arched eyebrows that were as carefully designed as the necklines on all her dresses, and a meticulously maintained bob that pre-dated Anna Wintour’s famously disciplined coiffeur by four decades. In fact, she was the Anna Wintour of her time.
Fast-forward half a century from that warm day in July 1962. It is now almost 50 years since Chanel strode down the Rue Cambon on that steamy summer’s morning and I am standing opposite the entrance to the same Chanel store, having followed in her footsteps. Unlike in 1962, it is spring in Paris and one of the city’s famous spring rain clouds has settled over the streets. It’s not quite rain but rather a haze of fine scented spring mist, as if someone is spraying an enormous Chanel No. 5 bottle over Paris at uneven intervals. Everywhere I look, Parisians are darting for cover, opening up umbrellas decorated in Pantonesque shades and tightening belts on chic trench coats, that classic French fashion staple.
It’s difficult to know what the weather has planned for the day, since the sky shifts constantly in both hue and mood. Some days it is a pale blue; like the blue of porcelain plates, or one of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon rooms at Versailles; other times it’s like a faded military trenchcoat in Paris during the last days of the German invasion. And yet other days it clears entirely, so that the horizon is shiny and bright with the promise of gilded sun. The French, of course, are accustomed to this springtime spectacle and come prepared, with their natty little trenchcoats, pretty umbrellas, lovely leather gloves, bright scarves and flattering hats (boy, can these people accessorise). Even when it rains, the French still look glamorous. I feel like I’ve walked into a scene from The Umbrellas Of Cherboug.
A sense of style is an odd thing, really. It’s difficult to acquire. Like money. Or a good husband. You can think you’re stylish–you can dress in a lovely pair of pants or a gorgeous new frock and you can even splash out on a beautifully fitting Giorgio Armani jacket, but you can somehow still look unstylish. That’s the thing about style. It’s elusive. Chanel knew this. She knew that some people had style, and others didn’t–and that those who didn’t would be prepared to pay for it. She also knew that she had it. There is nothing quite so empowering as knowing that you have a secret that every other woman would rip the clothes off your back for.
‘It is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,’ she once said of clothes, and she was right. This was, after all, a woman who knew how to capture style, and how to create sophistication. It was her strength, her talent. It was the key to her success.
Of course, she also had a head start. She was French, after all.
A FEW OF MY FAVOURITE PLACES IN THE WORLD WHERE YOU CAN FIND DISCOUNTED CHANEL
Catherine B. 1 & 3 Rue Guisarde, St Germain des Près, 75006, Paris.
Didier Ludot. 24 Galerie Montpensier, Palais Royal, 75001, Paris.
Gabrielle Geppert. 31 & 34 Galerie Montpensier, Palais Royal, 75001, Paris.
Pandora’s Dress Agency. 16-22 Cheval Place, London SW7.
"I want to make things that are classic. Imagine inventing the Chanel suit or blazer…"
THE PRINCIPLES OF FRENCH STYLE
Sit up straight. Don’t slouch. Walk tall. Elongate your body.
Walk everywhere. Especially up stairs. The incidental exercise will help keep your legs in shape.
Dress with restraint. Before you walk out the door, take one thing off.
Go easy on accessories. Ensure they’re the best quality you can afford.
Watch your silhouette. Keep the lines clean and in proportion. For example, a long scarf or wrap looks best with long, vertical lines–slim pants and a neat sweater, a narrow pants-suit or a long skinny dress. A short scarf, meanwhile, looks better with a short jacket, or a short dress.
Wear white near the face, particularly if you’re wearing a black suit. It brightens the complexion. Always try and buy white shirts with a strong collar and French cuffs. Cuffs add instant elegance to a suit.
Don’t be tempted to wear black all the time. Life is not a funeral. Try navy, chocolate or charcoal grey. If you want to wear black, think of a young Sophia Loren and go for a sexy dress. Accessorise with killer shoes, big dark sunglasses and a cute Italian. Wear a coloured scarf or carry a red handbag. Anything to avoid looking like a Sicilian widow.
If you find something that suits you, wear it often. Chanel only needed two or three of her well-made suits to survive her working week.
Most of all, wear what makes you happy. Clothes are made for pleasure. Be happy wearing them.
Here’s what I think. I think that French women love being a little unpredictable, but since they find it so difficult to be radical in fashion, because the pressure to conform to the traditional ladylike aesthetic is so strong, they release their rebellious nature in other ways. They smoke. They buy sexy, vertiginous shoes, with heels that sit just the PC side of S&M. They often slip on an expensive, slightly titillating bra-and-knicker sets beneath their subdued little suits. They even have affairs. With a little Secretary-style hanky-panky-spanky to spice life up a bit. And yes, some of them even get paid for it. Think of Chanel deliberately underpaying her fitting models because she assumed that they could put their bodies and faces to better use during the evening for ‘extracurricular’ income. French women may look like the epitome of Mad Men-style chic, but they are far from being 1950s and 60s secretaries and housewives. Don’t let the Dioresque façade fool you. French women are as naughty as any of their Buenos Aires or Rio cousins.
[CHANEL'S STYLE TIP: ALWAYS DRESS AS IF YOU MIGHT RUN INTO YOUR EX.]