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by laurie brookins | November 21, 2011 | Style & Beauty
|The Pluie de Cristal (“Crystal Rain”) necklace plays the strength of rock crystal against the delicacy of diamonds|
|A star is born: The Etoile du Nord brooch combines diamonds, mother-ofpearl, moonstones, and white opals|
Decades after she had become a legend for altering women’s minds and wardrobes by crafting silk jersey or wool bouclé into dresses and jackets that perpetually rank high in the pantheon of fashion’s most iconic items, Coco Chanel remained content to live her life quietly amid the few blocks surrounding Paris’ Place Vendôme. Each night she slept at the Hôtel Ritz, which dominates this city square as prominently as the Vendôme Column that stands at its center, then each morning she discreetly slipped out its back entrance to traverse the few dozen steps to her famed atelier at 31 Rue Cambon.
Of course, this daily trek and Chanel’s desire for a low-key existence are details almost as famed as the woman herself. Forty years after her death, Chanel’s life remains a deep well of inspiration, with the Place Vendôme playing a key role in the latest collections to emerge from the fashion house. For one week in July, the label showcased these Fall/Winter debuts, making full use of the romantic imagery of Chanel’s presence in and around the landmark square, while also offering more insight into the dichotomies that drove the designer both personally and professionally.
The latter served as the central theme of the high-jewelry debut that took place at the Chanel Fine Jewelry boutique that sits directly across from the Hôtel Ritz at 18 Place Vendôme. Dubbed Contrastes, the collection of 35 one-of-a-kind pieces highlights the yin and yang Chanel explored throughout her life’s work.
“We wanted to play on another side of Gabrielle Chanel’s legacy, and that is her love of contrast,” explains Benjamin Comar, international director of Chanel Fine Jewelry. “First there is the contrast of materials, pearls and diamonds mixed with rock crystal in some cases; a contrast of textures, rough and very polished; the contrast of color that she loved, namely her use of black and white; and the contrast of shapes which shouldn’t work together, and yet they play together beautifully. There is something for every woman’s pleasure.”
Chanel’s ability to employ seemingly disparate elements to achieve an effect both artful and innovative was only one part of her appeal, says Justine Picardie, author of the just-released Chanel—Her Life (Steidl, $58). “She was the greatest fashion designer of the 20th century, that just goes without saying,” says Picardie, who launched her US book tour in New York in September. “Nobody comes close to Chanel in sheer scope and range; her clothes transcend fashion, from the fact that she freed women from the corset to the little black dress to the use of tweed. But her own story is so archetypal and powerful: a girl who came from nothing, from nowhere, and who ultimately took Paris and the world by storm. Beyond that, for many women their memories of their mothers and grandmothers are wrapped up in Chanel, often in a bottle of Chanel N°5. It’s no wonder she endures.”
Chanel: A Study in Contrasts
As its name implies, Contrastes is rooted in ideas that in theory might fight against one another yet blend masterfully. The Nuage de Glace necklace drips with 409 white cultured pearls and features a centerpiece of a seemingly rough-hewn circle covered in white diamonds totaling eight carats, which is fastened to the pearls via slim hoops encrusted with 181 brilliant-cut black diamonds. The Pluie de Cristal necklace, meanwhile, takes the idea of contrast a step further, with brilliant-cut diamonds embedded in faceted chunks of rock crystal, which are edged in more white diamonds; the piece is finished with a waterfall of white diamonds in a mix of round and emerald cuts.
RIGHT: The silhouette of the season, with the unmistakable mark of Chanel
|Preserved since her death in 1971, Coco Chanel’s Rue Cambon apartment continues to inspire|
“Rock crystal is about strength, and while diamonds are also very strong, there is a delicacy perceived in the stones,” Comar notes. “It is by mixing the rough and the refined that you ultimately create something very strong and dynamic.”
While Contrastes showcases Chanel’s love of combining unexpected elements, distinctly personal details also are easily discovered. Count the number of sides on those rock crystals, for example, to discern each is a free-form octagon; the makes reference to a mirror in the entryway of Chanel’s private apartment atop her Rue Cambon atelier as well as the eight-sided configuration of the Place Vendôme itself.
Of course, it’s not the first time the octagon has inspired: In 1924 Chanel looked at her treasured mirror and used it as the basis for the bottle shape of Chanel N°5. Contrastes features several details found within the Rue Cambon apartment, most notably in the Ombre de Charm pieces, in which diamonds wind around black onyx in a delicate floral pattern, a nod to the designs seen on a series of 18th-century Coromandel screens, which Chanel was fond of collecting.
Over the years Karl Lagerfeld and others have looked to the apartment for inspiration (a shade of Chanel Rouge Allure Laque satin lip color, Coromandel 72, echoes a shade of red found on those screens). For past collections Lagerfeld often referenced these rooms, from the crystal camellias that adorn a chandelier to the statue of a lion displayed on a coffee table (Chanel, a Leo, favored the animal), which Lagerfeld enlarged to gargantuan proportions for the backdrop for the Fall/Winter 2010 haute couture collection.
And 36 hours after Contrastes’ debut, for Fall/ Winter 2011 Lagerfeld looked to the Place Vendôme as inspiration. Within the nearby Grand Palais, where Chanel shows typically take place, Lagerfeld recreated the Place Vendôme on a starry night, but instead of Napoleon I sitting atop the Vendôme Column at center stage, it was, unsurprisingly, Mademoiselle Chanel. In this setting, Lagerfeld presented his vision for the ne plus ultra in handcrafted clothes for the Fall/Winter 2011 season, including bouclé suits featuring the peplum jackets that seemed to populate every Spring 2012 runway and Poiret-esque gowns embellished with hundreds of hand-placed sequins. One could easily discern the mix of hard and soft, of structure and languid flow. It was no accident Lagerfeld had titled the presentation “Les Allures de Chanel,” to drive home the point that she—and the house that bears her name—are far from one-note prospects.
“Karl has a huge sense of the power of the history and legacy of Chanel,” Picardie says. “But there’s something very magical that goes with it, and he has such a great talent for bringing it alive again. Instead of treating every idea or reference as though it should be a museum piece, he breathes new life into them and makes them feel modern. He treats the apartment in the same way, as a living, breathing, working space.”
Forty years after her death, why does Coco Chanel—at one time the most famous woman in the world—maintain a persona that continues to fascinate? Ultimately, it’s a mystery that can take on uniquely individual meanings. Back at the high-jewelry presentation in the Place Vendôme boutique, Comar picks up another of the Contrastes pieces, the Etoile du Nord brooch, a starburst of white diamonds totaling more than 15 carats mixed with moonstones, opals and mother-of-pearl, all set in 18k white gold. “You know Superman, yes?” he says with a smile as he holds aloft this mélange of clear and opaque, smooth and jagged stones. “I look at this and I think of ice in the Arctic, or where Superman might have lived.” Comar positions the brooch against the lapel of a black jacket. “Wear this, and you can fly.”
photographs by Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/WireImage (runways)