It's OK for intellectual feminists to like fashion

Blog title from Hadley Freeman's book The Meaning of Sunglasses : "Prada styles itself as the label it's OK for intellectual feminists to like".

The author is a bilingual fashion editor, writer and translator with a serious blog, cinema and magazine habit.

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Email: fashionmemex(at)gmail.com

Coco Chanel and Malcolm Muggeridge: The untold encounter

In September 1944, a mere month after the Libération de Paris, a photographer friend of French fashion designer Coco Chanel set up a dinner with British writer and spy Malcolm Muggeridge at Chanel’s rue Cambon flat. This was the first and only encounter between the couturière and the journalist. 

The dinner was arranged so that Chanel could disclose to Muggeridge the wartime relationship between this friend and an unnamed German officer. Despite her recent affair with Muggeridge, the photographer was still in love with the German officer. She feared the writer might think her relationship with him was only a ploy so she wouldn’t suffer from Resistance reprisals following the Libération de Paris. The photographer begged Chanel to break the news to Muggeridge diplomatically over dinner, even though that part did not quite work out.

For Isée St John Knowles, president of the Société Baudelaire and publisher of the Chanel-Muggeridge interview, it was Chanel’s Baudelairean ideals and behaviour, as well as her personal fight against those who debased and demeaned what she held dear, rather than her love life, that explain the ongoing controversy around her wartime activities. 

Between 1937 and 1960, Coco Chanel worked on a Baudelaire-inspired collection and a Baudelaire-inspired fragrance, as part of her activities within the Société Baudelaire, a group aiming to perpetuate the work and aesthetics of the poet. Neither project materialised since Chanel decided not to run for the honorary presidency of the Société Baudelaire in 1960, upon learning Charles de Gaulle was about to throw his hat in the race.

"Any manifestation of Baudelairean autonomy will be marked down as subversive, since its moral frame of reference is alien to collective thinking, even when harnessed to serve humanist ideals in time of war”, argues Knowles. She was “a Baudelairean Dandy, of an independent cast of mind, who proudly clung to her autonomy in defiance of the historical context. The Allies, on the other hand, seeking to uphold humanist values, fought the war from a totally different perspective”.

Available on Chanel’s War, The Unpublished Interview, a website set up by the Société Baudelaire, the interview transcript reveals a teasing Chanel, who is very aware of the end-of-war situation, and of what is being said about her relationship with von Dincklage and other German sympathisers. The designer had apparently “welcomed the opportunity of being interviewed. She saw it as a challenge. She believed that she was a match for secret agents, be they Allies or Nazis.”

Muggeridge likely knew of the nature of Chanel’s wartime activities before they even met, something Knowles believes the designer to have been aware of, and the reason why she focused more on moral questions than on cataloging what she’d been up to during the previous five years. 

The interview, key to better understanding Chanel’s war views, almost didn’t surface. It remained unknown until 1976, when Knowles stumbled upon it while researching a book on Muggeridge at the writer’s own house. Six years later, extracts were made available but didn’t get published because of the French mentality of sanctifying the Resistance. 

Furthermore, Muggeridge was less than impressed with Chanel. He found neither her teasing, (“I have heard so much about you, Mr. Muggeridge. I believe you have come to liberate us. How very solicitous of you”) nor her insensitivity, endearing. Although he used the encounter as a basis for his play Liberation and mentioned it in a letter to Jacques Soustelle, the ethnologist who became Governor General of Algeria, his strong dislike of Chanel’s character led him to disregard the dinner, not mentioning it, for instance, as part of his 1973 biography, Chronicles of Wasted Time

Knowles only recently decided to publish the interview as a follow up to the first website published by the Société Baudelaire, explaining why Chanel is the ultimate Baudelairean Dandy. He feared it would otherwise never be made public. It is part of his ongoing fight to clear up Chanel’s name, a struggle Gabrielle Labrunie, Chanel’s great-niece, backs him in. 

Part of this mission, which doesn’t have any official support from the Chanel fashion house, is to make sure that all the historical documents about the designer that were collected during the war are available to the public. According to Knowles, many testimonies have been amputated over the years, sometimes by biographers or historians. The remaining ones, the ones that could clear her name are in private collections and “the private hands in which they lie are resolutely opposed to divulging them for fear of damaging Chanel’s image”.

In a bid to end the debate once and for all, Knowles is to write a book, again with Labrunie’s blessing. Let’s hope it doesn’t face the same lengthy and dramatic publishing history as Muggeridge’s interview of Chanel. 

All quotes are lifted from an exclusive email interview with Isée St John Knowles, 5-9 July 2013, which constitutes the sole basis for this article. Thanks to Dawn Jones of clickymedia for her help in organising the interview.

The Malcolm Muggeridge photographs are drawn from Malcolm Muggeridge’s private collection. Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders. Omissions are unintentional and will be corrected; Malcolm Muggeridge through the eyes of Gerald Scarfe on the front page of the Sunday Times Weekly Review; Chanel pictures were sourced from Google Image.

Posted at 5:47am and tagged with: coco chanel, chanel, world war 2, baudelaire,.

My Little Paris, a lifestyle website dedicated to everything Paris, is having a sample sale of apparel from womenswear fashion brand Des Petits Hauts today. Only on its iPhone app. The sale was advertised on Facebook and half of the comments published so far are from annoyed, iPhone-less followers.

iPhone-only apps are a branding black hole. Once upon a time, the photo-based social networks Instagram and Pinterest were reserved for Apple users. Then as their user numbers grew, they adapted and introduced apps for Android. 

It’s not just that the iPhone was the most developed of any smartphones, but rather having your product on Apple, which many confused with aligning with Apple values, made you one of the cool kids. Availability for iPhone users isn’t just about serving the customer, it’s about the perception the customer has of the brand.  

Companies like tagging on Apple’s reputation for disruptive innovation and on its authority in cool design. They also like the female-dominated, city-living, degree-owning, country-hopping, HBO-watching, Woody Allen-loving, high-earning iPhone user, who is bang in their demographic, real or ideal. 

Brands seem to be picking up though. Last October, Apple and Google announced equal numbers of apps were available for iPhones and Android phones, at 700,000. 

In the US, Android currently owes 51.7 percent of the smartphone market (down two points since the beginning of the year). Shouldn’t that market share be enough for Chanel, Style.com and Diane von Furstenberg (despite her partnership with Google on Project Glassto factor the development of an Android app into their budgets

A survey by the Reynolds Journalism Institute last August showed that the Android market is dominated by the under 34’s, the very millennials who shop and get their information on their smartphones. It’s time fashion brands and publications caught up with their customers.

Disclosure: I’m an Android user (obviously).

Posted at 4:36pm and tagged with: Chanel, marketing, smartphone, technology,.

Latest in the blurring of fashion and art trend is Chanel’s traveling exhibition The Little Black Jacket, currently showing in Paris after stints in Tokyo, New York and London, where I got to see it.

Focused on one classic little black jacket (LBJ) personalised ad infinitum in the Chanel ateliers to the dimensions and wishes of the personalities wearing it, the exhibition aims to show, through pictures styled by Carine Roitfeld and shot by Karl Lagerfeld, the eternal elegance, staying power and versatility of the garment.

In London, the Little Black Jacket is showed at the Saatchi gallery, a fitting space for a project which holds more to grandiose marketing and the desire to create buzz than straight ‘art’. The pictures and the quality of their printing might be beautiful, but the concept linking them feels tenuous.

The exhibition could be split into two categories: the people who wear the jacket as they would in their daily life, and the ones, mostly models, who wear it styled, fashion editorial-like.

Rather than Lulu Gainsbourg wearing his father trademark white Zizi shoes, Sofia Coppola in a stripy t-shirt or Alice Dellal complementing her LBJ with a studded leather jacket, I would have liked to see Roitfeld style them in an unexpected way, challenging not only their style, but also her own styling.

As for the more fashion editorial pictures, Freja Beha Erichsen wearing the jacket nun-like is reminiscent of POP's Autumn September 2008 issue. Men wearing an LBJ have already been done, say for the March 2009 issue of Paris Vogue tribute to Coco Chanel, in an editorial photographed by Lagerfeld and styled by Roitfeld (already).

If I stopped for long in front of any picture, it wasn’t because I was taken aback by an unexpected styling choice or photographic angle but rather to rack my brain trying to remember which fashion editorial a pose or a garment reminded me of. The only possible exception was Roitfeld, who dressed herself as Coco Chanel, in a move which could either be seen as tongue-in-cheek or self-aggrandising.

A sure crowd pleaser, the exhibition was a safe move by Chanel, which has so far guaranteed the brand thousands of mentions on social media and in the press, multiplied every time the show moves to a new city. I did not expect anything radical from the exhibition, considering it was staged by Chanel itself, but a little more imagination would have suggested that in addition to lasting that long, the little black jacket has a long life ahead.

All photos from The Little Black Jacket Chanel exhibition

Posted at 9:20am and tagged with: chanel, exhibition review, photography,.

Can you imagine Vince Cable, Secretary of State for Business, innovation and skills posing for the cover of the Sunday Times magazine wearing a bowler hat and an umbrella in defence of the British industry? Arnaud Montebourg, the man with the slightly communist title of Ministre du Redressement Productif, minister of Industrial renewal, did just so for Le Parisien Magazine in the French equivalent of the clichéd British outfit: an Armor.Lux stripy t-shirt.

In the accompanying editorial, Montebourg wears other products of the French fashion industry such as Caulaincourt shoes and a Bérengère Claire shirt. His acknowledged aim is to prove the French industry is still going strong, producing quality products, and to encourage his fellow citizens to buy things made in France.

The French industry can’t bounce back without exports, including clothing ones, which accounted for 7.2 billion euros in 2011. Armor.Lux, Saint James and Petit Bateau are three of the French brands succeeding in France and abroad thanks to their high-quality nautical style.

It’s therefore fitting that, even though Montebourg’s cover t-shirt was French, the styling decision was anything but, adopting the codes of what is perceived as French outside the borders, rather than what the French people really wear.

A recent staple of the French wardrobe, first used by la Marine (the Navy) the stripy t-shirt was popularized over the past century by designers such as Coco Chanel and Jean Paul Gaultier. Fashion is one of France’s strongest soft powers, and the sailor jersey has become a symbol of Frenchness abroad. No French-inspired editorial is complete without it, and American magazine TIME used the item to cover its issue on The death of French culture.

The stripy t-shirt sells well because it sells the French way of life and the Gallic romanticism foreigners still buy into. Montebourg is not just wearing a t-shirt, he’s wearing the millions of tourists who come to Paris for the food and the philosophical conversations in cafés, for the nonchalant cigarette and l’amour libre. He’s wearing a garment which innovation, ignoring colour and cut versions, is stuck somewhere on a 1920s Deauville beach. Is this loop of heritage and cliché really what the French industry is condemned to?

Posted at 7:45pm and tagged with: france, petit bateau, politics, chanel, Stripe,.

Conan O’Brien called it “nonsensical ramblings”, Saturday Night Live parodied it and Tumblr has got its own Fuck Yeah! Inevitable Brad! page. Brad Pitt’s Chanel No 5 ad is probably the actor’s most criticised film to date, far ahead of Troy, The Mexican and Mr & Mrs Smith. Yet this very pan is what has made the ad so successful.

Immediate reactions to the ad ranged from the mocking to the lukewarm with the actor, rather than Chanel, bearing the blunt of criticism. Reviewers are questioning the rationale of the move in terms of image and career for Pitt, only a few wondering whether its quality can affect the French fashion house. The industry seems more worried by the EU threatening to ban tree moss, a key perfume ingredient, for being allergen, than by Pitt’s performance.

Early reviews focused on Pitt’s shifty gaze and the intensity of his delivery rather than the ad script or Joe Wright’s direction. Media outlets which would normally have little interest in Chanel kept reporting the story because it attained the holy grail of 2010s marketing: it went viral, supported by a strong media buy. People made it theirs, embracing the asset in their own way.

For a brand like Chanel, which has in the past taken strong steps to protect and enforce its trademarks such as a full page ad in WWD warning editors against the inappropriate use of the term Chanel jacket, there seems to have been very few, if any, cease and desist letters. The fashion house is letting the buzz run its own course, which is the only way to sustain it. Would Chanel have preferred the short to be lauded as an oeuvre d’art of cinema and marketing? Probably, but it wouldn’t have had the same result. Having a go at the perfect professional, perfect husband, perfect dad is an integral part of the Jolie-Pitt narrative played out in media outlets, and with its less than perfect ad, Chanel has gotten itself on that bandwagon.

By hiring a name with brand power equal, if not above its own, Chanel has not only generated interest and earned media beyond the fashion sphere, it has taken an insurance that its most lucrative and best known product would be left unscathed. It’s too early to see which effect the ad is having on No 5 sales in the key Q3 festive period but in terms of online success, Chanel is one step ahead of its competitors in the Christmas ad race.

Posted at 1:44pm and tagged with: chanel, Brand communication, advertising, marketing, cinema,.

A famous woman escaping her world of obligations into the arms of a young, good-looking, poor man living on a hill overseeing everything representing what she’s fled, unsuspecting of her real identity until she’s forced to go back. The story has been told multiple times but I’m always stricken by the similarities between Baz Luhrmann’s Chanel 5 advert with Nicole Kidman and Rodrigo Santoro and the beginning of the love story between Jasmine and Aladdin.

Posted at 1:26pm and tagged with: compare and contrast, Classy film, Disney, chanel,.

The season is at hand when swaying on its stem
Every flower exhales perfume like a censer
Sounds and perfumes turn in the evening air;
Melancholy waltz and languid vertigo!

wrote French poet Charles Baudelaire in 1857 (1). What would a Chanel wardrobe based on these verses look like? Between 1937 and 1960, Coco Chanel worked on a Baudelaire-inspired collection and a Baudelaire-inspired fragrance, as part of her activities within the Société Baudelaire, a group aiming to perpetuate the work and aesthetics of the poet. Neither project materialised since Chanel decided not to run for the honorary presidency of the Société Baudelaire in 1960, upon learning Charles de Gaulle was about to throw his hat in the race.

A little known episode of the Chanel legend, her Baudelairian heritage is now the subject of an entire website ran by the Société Baudelaire and Isée St John Knowles, its president and a curator and theatre director. Containing never seen before material pertaining to Chanel during the Second World War, including a September 1944 interview with Punch editor Malcolm Muggeridge, the website was launched to refute Hal Vaughan’s accusations of collaboration and anti-Semitism.

"What prompted my decision to publish was the uncritical fawning by Chanel’s executioners as they impeached her for treason and anti-Semitism – two crimes of which, on the evidence, we cannot find her guilty,” explains Knowles (2).

Yet the Société Baudelaire doesn’t expect this publication to drastically change the scholarship on her character, arguing that “the media are intent on tarring her with the brush of guilt”.

Biographers have accused Chanel, with various levels of objectivity, of turning a blind eye on German activities in Paris, of leading a peace mission and of taking advantage of the Reich anti-Semite laws to take back ownership of Chanel Parfums. The Muggeridge interview is a rare occurrence of the designer discussing her role during the War, yet it’s not a mind changer. Her explanation is very prosaic: “I was on neither side, of course. I stood up for myself as I always have done. Nobody has ever told Coco Chanel what to think.”

This “self-determined, lone outsider scornful of the world decision-makers” attitude during the war is what makes Chanel the epitome of the Baudelairian dandy, defined by his behaviour rather than his wardrobe, à la Oscar Wilde. Knowles explains Chanel’s “ideals were not circumscribed by attire but encompassed a whole philosophy of life”.

A philosophy which has survived in the Chanel fashion house through Karl Lagerfeld, described by Knowles as “immensely gifted as a couturier who has retained his autonomy, unaffected by the creations of fellow-couturiers including Chanel”.

(1) Harmonie du Soir, Evening Harmony, William Aggeler, The Flowers of Evil (Fresno, CA: Academy Library Guild, 1954)

(2) Exclusive interview with Isée St John Knowles, 17 July. With thanks to Arthur Tegetmeier at Clicky Media for facilitating

Photo from Puregreenmag.com

Posted at 4:49pm and tagged with: Chanel, Interview, History, Baudelaire,.

A universal tale of finding yourself with Jungian traits and multiple variants worldwide, the Brothers Grimm’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs has been re-imagined by Hollywood twice over the past six months: Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. With its "Miroir, Miroir" email sent early July, Chanel is keeping with the trend and banking on how the story echoes in ourselves to increase opening rates.

The entire email copy references fairy tales. The subject line refers to a (likely incorrect, depending on the translation) Snow White quote so engraved in popular culture finishing it is not necessary for the recipient to know this email is about beauty. The call to action invites the customer to go through the mirror, a possible reference to Alice in Wonderland, another tale with a looking-glass at its heart. The email ultimately links to a short film teasing the upcoming Rouge Allure lipstick line, “lips red as blood” being one of Snow White’s three key beauty attributes.

The film, where “crystals become makeup and reveal kaleidoscopic beauty”, is more science fiction than fairy tale, India-influenced rather than set in the German forest. According to Style.com, inspired by the “something Indian” in the new lipstick, Chanel creative director of makeup Peter Philips looked at Karl Lagerfeld’s Paris-Bombay and “a specific mirror-embellished coat” to direct the short. India is a popular inspiration for beauty brands at the moment: Clarins, Boucheron and NARS have all released wide-reaching lines rooted in the subcontinent. Yet the Chanel email copy follows the decidedly Western angle of Snow White.

Pictures: Top picture, Miroir miroir, Chanel email July 2012; Photos 2 and 3: Julia Roberts as the Evil Queen in Mirror Mirror, Relativity Media 2012; Photos 4 to 7: Charlize Theron as the Evil Queen and the mirror in Snow White and the Huntsman, Universal Pictures 2012

Posted at 8:35pm and tagged with: Brand communication, Classy film, beauty, chanel, email marketing, karl lagerfeld,.

If Coco Chanel was still alive today, we’d have to call her Madame Chanel. Or at least French red tape would. After years of debate and lobbying from feminist associations, the French government signaled the end of the Mademoiselle box in all, but not beyond, administrative paperwork, effective immediately, as per Circulaire 5575/SG published by the Premier Ministre’s office 21 February. Mademoiselle was used for any unmarried French woman, no matter her age. The Prime Minister called it “a term referring, without necessity or justification, to the female marital status”(1).

Upon learning the change, Fashion Carrousel cried “non mais j’y tiens à mon mademoiselle !” (“But I do like my Mademoiselle”). She’s not the only one. In left-leaning weekly Le Nouvel Obs, Lydia Guirous, founder of Future, au Féminin, a feminist association fighting against the Americanisation of French feminism,  denounced the move as “Tupperware feminism”(2), mentioning the “many women happy to be called Mademoiselle”(3).

Differentiating married women from unmarried women, without inflicting the same to men, was an administrative throw back to yesteryear, when women were defined by their marital status. Although an improvement, the decision, which had long been supported by feminist associations Osez le Féminisme! and Les Chiennes de Garde is little more than a symbolic gesture announced in time for the April presidential elections. Lacking support from the bodies guardian of the French language, such as the Académie Française, the circular is unlikely to start a radical mentality change.

Although inequalities need to be made right, one at a time, some matter more than others. Suppressing Mademoiselle from official forms is lobbying procrastination: doing the small tasks first because you feel a sense of achievement while dreading and postponing the ones which really need your attention.

(1) Circulaire n° 5575/SG du 21 février 2012 relative à la suppression des termes ‘Mademoiselle’, ‘nom de jeune fille’, ‘nom patronymique’, ‘nom d’épouse’ et ‘nom d’époux’ des formulaires et correspondances des administrations, Translation my own

(2)(3) Lydia Guirous, “Campagne féministe : je me rejouis que l’on m’appelle mademoiselle" 10 January 2011, Nouvelobs.com

Posted at 6:24pm and tagged with: feminism, france, chanel,.

The end of the Kathy Reichs project, Chanel the spy, an annoying French Mad Man, race and women issues and a retelling of Pygmalion on last month’s reading list.

Sleeping with the Enemy Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent, Hal Vaughan

“You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.”

Gabrielle Labrunie, Chanel’s grand-niece to Hal Vaughan quoted in The New Yorker

Rumours of Chanel being a Nazi agent, introduced to the ways of Hitler’s Germany by her Second World War lover Baron von Dincklage are not new. Former foreign correspondent and diplomat Hal Vaughan’s publication is the first biography focusing on the topic, on its whys and hows. Until then, Chanel’s possible collaboration had been dismissed by her biographers at best as legend, at worse as nothing more than an aspect of her strong survival instinct, backed neither by actions nor by convictions. Vaughan, lacking the fashion background which has lead many to rehabilitate her on grounds of coming up with the little black dress and Number 5, believes that Chanel was an unapologetic antisemite and homophobe with strong right-wing beliefs. Did she see siding with the Nazis as the best way to protect her fashion house? As the easiest mean to secure her nephew’s release from German prison? Did she consider it the only way to gain back full ownership of Chanel Parfums, her licensing operation property of the Wertheimers, a Jewish family now running the entire business? Vaughan’s case is well-built thanks to quotes from official archives and Chanel friends and acquaintances, even though his timeline is sometimes sketchy and his analysis judgmental, especially regarding Mademoiselle’s string of lovers. Even if you’re not 100% convinced that Chanel was a Nazi agent after finishing this book, you’ll never see her the same way gain.

The Overnight Socialite, Bridie Clark

This is yet another rose-tinted retelling of the Greek myth of Pygmalion. This time, Mr Higgins is Wyatt Hayes IV, an anthropologist with time, pedigree, money and little academic future who decides transforming a white-trash American into a grand socialite might just be the perfect pet project (and his ticket to the New York Times best-seller list). The story line being as old as the world, no event in Lucy Ellis’ journey comes as a surprise. It is all to Bridie Clark’s credit that the story and characters are endearing and compelling, despite a social analysis which is little more than surface.

Grave Secrets, Kathy Reichs

This marks the official end of my summer project reading every Temperance Brennan novel written so far. Of course, a new one has since come out in the UK but I’m now taking a much needed break from the world of Bones, only watching Tempe on TV. The most important thing in Grave Secrets, which takes place during the excavation of a Guatemalan mass grave, isn’t the central and rather boring mystery around the deaths and disappearances of girls of various social backgrounds in Guatemala City. With the fifth book in the series, Reichs sheds some light on the Guatemalan mass killings (or was it a genocide?), highlighting how little we know, how little has been done to indict the culprits and how thirty-year-old atrocities are still impacting the entire country. Educating while entertaining, focusing on the world’s duty to remember rather than ignore sees Reichs at her thriller best.

Image: Optical Realities, Guatemala. Human remains recently exhumed from a mass grave in the Quiche region of Guatemala where thousands were killed and “disappeared” during the war. (Panetta)

99 Francs, Frédéric Beigbeder

Beigbeder’s cult French novel 99 Francs follows the car-crash trajectory of his main character: the first two chapters are great but before long, you grow as tired of Octave’s antics and pseudo rejection of the system as he claims to be of them. Whether Beigbeder planned this sinking feeling is unclear, especially since the narrative construction of splitting the book into six chapters, one per grammatical person, has strong potential. Its flip side is that the reader grows more and more estranged from the narrator and his determination to get fired from his ad agency job by writing a tell-all book. Octave’s relationship with his reader is ambivalent, being both one of close confidence and total manipulation, as an ad man claiming to despise advertising techniques and to tell us all about how they work while being proud of his ability to influence people and despising anyone who buys into his lies.

Earlier blog post: Should brand names be localised in translation?

The Help, Kathryn Stockett

More than a book about racism in the old South and grass-root civil rights movement, The Help deals with the emancipation of women in the 1960s, no matter their age, background or skin colour. Young college graduate and journalist hopeful Miss Skeeter is determined to write a book on what it means to be the colour help in 1962, to be always considered inferior and to have little opportunities and choice when it comes to your future and your family’s. Skeeter’s desire to get a job rather than get married and have babies, to her mother’s and friends’ dismay, pregnant maid Mimi’s eventual decision to leave her brutal husband after one beating too many and maid Aibileen eventually discovering how writing talent can lead to new prospects also send a strong message of hope and freedom. The three voices narrative, unsettling at times, allows a more honest story telling while depicting in details life in Jackson in 1962, its routine and its relationship with national events, especially Kennedy’s assassination and Martin Luther King’s speeches.

Posted at 10:02am and tagged with: book review, chanel,.