ALL ARTS Documentary Selects

FULL EPISODE

The Wars of Coco Chanel

This documentary explores how Coco Chanel had to take on the world in order to rise from a maid to a CEO in the early 20th century. By fighting men's expectations and her competition, she was able to cement herself as a cultural icon.

AIRED: March 01, 2021 | 0:55:10
ABOUT THE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPT

[ Speaking French ]

Narrator: In her twilight years, Gabrielle Chanel

is still a woman at war.

Her long life has been one enormous battle --

a battle that has allowed her to become wealthy,

and to create an empire that reigns over the fashion world.

[ Speaking French ]

A steely temperament, a huge survival instinct,

and an inexhaustible desire for revenge on life.

gives Chanel a sharp advantage as she goes on

to become a household name around the world --

that, and a bit of tinkering with the truth

to improve her living legend status.

A legend whose famed staircase mirrors

give fluctuating reflections, much like the varying faces

of a woman who, all through her life,

has waged one war -- to give the poor orphan

she had once been the only thing

that would be hers alone.

[ Speaking French ]

♪♪

In 1970, Chanel is 87.

She is the world's most famous fashion designer,

and a Broadway musical is celebrating

her rags to riches story

while she is still alive and breathing.

Oh, Mademoiselle, Madam Taylor

wants four of the red chevron --

one for each house.

We only have enough material for three.

Tell her to sell the house in Switzerland.

All those mountains sticking out everywhere.

It's too vulgar.

[ Speaking French ]

[ Speaking French ]

Narrator: Chanel enters her fashion house,

sits down in her favorite observation post.

Here, she can watch each outfit file past --

and without being seen,

can hear the audience's reactions.

Here, she recalls all those battles that had to be fought --

notably, the one against the press,

which had marked her return to fashion 15 years earlier.

Her brand-new collection was greeted with icy silence.

Some claimed she was all washed up.

How naive they were to assume that she had lost.

She might have lost a battle, but certainly not the war.

And while the suits

in her spring 1970 collection march out,

her thoughts drift to other battles.

♪♪

From birth, Chanel is at war --

a war against her station in life.

Daughter of a linen maid in poor health

and an unfaithful peddler, Gabrielle Chanel

was born on August 19th, 1883, in Saumur.

Despite her precarious life, she's a carefree little girl.

She sings from morning to night

and gets into mischief at the markets and fairs

across the [indistinct].

They nickname her "Fifi,"

after her grandfather's pet canary.

February 5th, 1895, her happy-go-lucky life

suddenly ends.

Her mother, Jeanne, dies from a bronchial disease.

Her father, Albert, abandons his five children, and disappears.

Voiceover: Everything was ripped away from me, and I died.

This happened to me when I was 12.

You can die several times in the course of a lifetime,

you know.

[ Bell tolls ]

Narrator: In 1896, in the village of Aubazine,

a young orphan learns the basics of sewing in a Cistercian abbey.

It's Chanel --

or rather, the child imagined by Edmonde Charles-Roux

in her book "Chanel: Her Life, Her World,

and The Woman Behind the Legend,"

one of the first biographies about the fashion designer --

a landmark biography.

[ Speaking French ]

For Charles-Roux, Chanel's studious years in Aubazine

clearly influenced her style.

The stern architecture of the abbey

will inspire the future fashion designer's streamline touch.

Since then, Aubazine has become a site of pilgrimage.

Today, Chanel's admirers come to discover

the stained-glass windows' intertwined patterns

that prefigure the fashion house's emblem.

They step on the stars that Chanel herself walked on,

and then, later made a recurring theme in her creations.

In 2016, the myth of Chanel's childhood

in Aubazine collapses when one of her biographers,

[indistinct],

stumbles upon the 1896 census in the city of Thiers,

one year after her mother's demise.

The truth is far less romantic.

Little Gabrielle Chanel, age 12,

is employed as a children's maid in the house

of one of her mother's cousins.

A domestic.

The sadly banal fate of most penniless girls back then.

This cousin/auntie turns out to be a laundress

living on the banks of the Durolle,

a river that snakes through the hellhole quarter

of a town studded with cutler's workshops, Thiers.

Chanel tells another writer -- this time, Paul [indistinct] --

about growing up in this Auvergne town.

Amid the din and howl of grinding knife blades,

she sketches a child with a glowering, determined character.

Voiceover: I'm the only volcano

in the Auvergne that is not extinct.

Narrator: For Gabrielle, now forced to embroider

her future marriage trousseau, learning the basics

of needlework merely stokes her anger.

Voiceover:Embroidering my initials on dishtowels

for my future household,

and all sorts of sophisticated stitches on my nightgowns

for a hypothetical wedding night,

made me want to retch.

I spat my anger out on my trousseau.

Narrator: A few years later,

Chanel takes a radical decision.

Rejecting an arranged marriage, she runs off, totally vanishes,

much like her father had done many years before.

This act earns her instant social disapproval.

It is the first manifestation

of a truly extraordinary force of character

that will allow her to forge a new destiny.

By the turn of the century, all trace of Chanel is lost.

♪♪

Edmonde Charles-Roux

locates her in the city of Moulins in 1933.

Chanel is 20 years old.

In this little garrison town,

Chanel takes a job in a clothing workshop,

but tries to find a leg up,

even if it means flirting with prostitution.

She tries her luck in a sleazy bar,

where daring young women can get dates

that allow them to supplement their income.

The calvary men of the 10th Dragun in Moulins

take a liking to this tall, unusual brunet,

and ask her to sing a little ditty

called "Who's Seen Coco on the Trocaero?"

[ Speaking French ]

Chanel acquires a new nickname and a bad reputation.

Both will stick with her for the rest of her life.

As for her career as a songstress, it's all a wash.

She lacks a voice.

Fate brings a man her way -- Etienne Balsan.

This young, wealthy horse trainer,

invites her to his manor outside of Paris,

where he regularly entertains a group of friends

made up of dandys, actresses, and kept women.

For Chanel, this is her sole opportunity

to exit the impasse that she is in.

She follows him with no hesitation.

This will be her passport to freedom.

Her atypical charm fascinates everyone.

Actress Gabrielle Dorziat,

a member of Balsan's circle of friends,

remembers those days.

[ Speaking French ]

Chanel learns to ride sidesaddle,

and then, like a man.

Voiceover: It's easy.

Simply imagine you've got a precious pair of balls

and that it would be out of the question to lean on them.

Narrator: She accompanies Balsan to the horse races,

where the young kept lady with a tom-boyish looks gets noticed.

He introduces her as his new lad, his stableboy.

[ Speaking French ]

Between races, Chanel makes hats,

which she then sells to the actresses

envious of her unusual style.

Chanel soon catches the eye of an English polo player

who is often with Balsan.

His name is Arthur "Boy" Capel.

It's love at first sight, and it's mutual.

Balsan looks the other way.

This is the start of a love triangle.

More than a lover, Capel has the soul of a Pygmalion.

He encourages Chanel to work, suggests fashion,

and convinces Balsan to let her go to Paris.

Paris at last.

For Chanel, this is the city where it's at.

It's where women, fashion designers, and actresses

are blazing the path to female emancipation.

Now 26, Chanel has no time to lose.

If she wants to escape her status as a kept woman,

it's now or never.

Once in Paris,

she starts doing everything she can to get noticed.

Jean Cocteau evokes her style.

[ Speaking French ]

After a training stint at a renowned milliner's,

Chanel opens her own hat shop on the ground floor

of Balsan's bachelor flat.

Her trick is simple.

She buys inexpensive, simple hats from a wholesaler,

adds two or three frills,

and then sells them at a steep markup.

All of Capel's and Balsan's old flames flock to her boutique

to discover this amusing milliner

who has turned not one but two ladykillers' heads.

To put an end to this situation

that has all of Paris in a twiiter,

Balsan quietly exits her life

and Capel now finances Chanel.

On the advice of her Pygmalion,

She rents a lower-level flat on Rue Cambon,

just a few steps from the Champs-Elysees

and Place Vendome, near the leading fashion houses.

[ Speaking French ]

♪♪

Whenever the weather is nice,

all of Paris' social elites head en masse

for Normandy's sea resort towns.

Deauville becomes a prime destination,

once a casino and a few palaces are erected.

It is here, in 1913,

that Capel and Chanel rent a small place

on Rue Gontaut-Biron.

They sell hats, skirts, and a few accessories.

Once again, the selected location is no coincidence.

Nicknamed "La Poterie"

after the very trendy Cafe Terrace on the corner,

this street features a potent concentrate

of high society's key players.

Everyone in Deauville rushes to get a seat at lunchtime,

to see, and above all, to be seen,

secretly hoping to be photographed

or sketched by an artist.

Chanel and Capel unabashedly appear together in public

without being married.

Sem, the official caricaturist of the Belle Epoque,

targets them.

Chanel sees this as her first publicity campaign,

and as a stroke of luck.

It cost her not a penny.

She is determined to succeed.

Even the war that breaks out in midsummer 1914

cannot dampen her motivation.

♪♪

Voiceover: War had been declared.

There had already been much talk of it, but life went on.

I was tempted to think that the Germans were doing this

only to prevent me from selling hats.

I wanted to work my way to independence.

Nothing else counted for me.

Narrator: Chanel views the war as a sign.

♪♪

We needed a change.

We'd come to the end of something --

the clothes of a hideous era.

Everything was ugly.

Women were badly dressed,

trussed up in girdles like the [indistinct] brand,

busts raised high, protruding derrieres, cinched waists.

That was women's clothing of the day.

Women wore these gowns,

a fashion designed for actresses and tarts.

Ladies of good breeding just had to follow.

[ Speaking French ]

Narrator: Chanel cuts her first corsette-free dresses

in Jersey.

She has acquired a large stock of the light knit fabric

at a bargain price.

Sold at luxury rates.

her creations are a smash hit among the elegant crowd

that the German army's incursion

is pushing to their summer homes.

Chanel brings her sister, Antoinette,

to help out in the store, and her young aunt, Adrienne,

to serve as a model.

For Marcel Haedrich, biographer and confidant to Chanel,

this power trio will grab everyone's attention.

[ Speaking French ]

Narrator: In 1916, Chanel leads an army of some 300 female employees

with an iron hand.

Now 33, she has at least achieved financial independence.

She makes it a point of honor to pay off her debts to Capel.

[ Speaking French ]

[ Cheering ]

World War I helped Chanel win her first battle --

the battle for emancipation.

[ Speaking French ]

One year after the armistice,

Chanel has a Rolls Royce and a chauffeur.

She can also afford to buy a sumptuous villa in Biarritz.

There, she opens her third boutique.

Her success dazzles everyone.

Her reputation crosses the Atlantic.

The American press notes that the name "Chanel"

is on everyone's lips.

But this is a success she must savor alone,

for, unlike Chanel, Capel could not bring himself

to break free of social conventions.

At the end of the war, he falls in line,

and marries an aristocrat.

Chanel goes her separate way.

She rides on her success to meet dazzling new people,

who soon lift her up to the summit of Parisian life.

[ Speaking French ]

The little milliner from Rue Cambon

now rules over a veritable fashion house.

She comes up with a new look -- and androgynous silhouette.

She shortens the skirts,

and drops the waistlines to hip level.

Chanel becomes an idol and model

for tomboyish women eager for independence like hers.

They cut their hair short,

and appropriate men's coats.

Wealth allows her to reverse the roles.

Henceforth, the patron of the arts

and the breaker of hearts is Chanel.

The list of her lovers gets longer and longer,

and she multiplies her encounters with writers,

musicians, and artists, whom she admires and finances.

Picasso.

Stravinsky.

Poet Pierre Reverdy.

Choreographer Diaghilev.

[ Speaking French ]

Rubbing elbows with the intellectual elite

soon opens the doors to the aristocracy.

Chanel first forms a liaison with a survivor

of the massacre of the Romanovs, Prince Dimitri.

She then has a brief dalliance with the heir

to the throne of England, the future Edward VIII.

Insatiable, Chanel moves from one man

to another faster than fashion changes.

Reporter: The Duke of Westminster loans his house,

and well-know members of London society

lend their services

for this his elegant fashion display

in aid of the War Service Legion,

for which Mademoiselle Chanel crossed the channel

in order to give the British materials

her experienced Paris cut.

Exit the Prince of Wales.

Enter one of his vassels, the Duke of Westminster.

Chanel now takes up residence in Eaton Hall,

a modest [indistinct] on a 10,000 acre-plus estate

in Cheshire.

When the couple isn't holding court in its reception halls,

they are to be seen in any of the numerous hunting lodges

that Westminster owns across Europe.

Chanel loves this outdoors life.

Voiceover: I rode horses often.

In winter, we'd go hunting with the hounds three times a week,

to track wild boar and fox.

Narrator: While in Scotland, Chanel makes a strong impression

on a certain Winston Churchill,

who writes the following to his wife.

Churchill: She is very agreeable.

Really a great and strong being

fit to rule a man or an empire.

Narrator: For a brief moment,

Chanel appears to be on the verge

of realizing the dream of all commoners.

Reporter: The ceremony is over.

In the shadow under the canopy of the west door,

the duchess has her ermine wrapped adjusted,

the duke standing beside her.

Narrator: However, Chanel will never be a duchess.

Churchill himself makes it plain to the duke.

Chanel will never be accepted in the court of England.

It's a tough lesson.

Her past as a kept woman is thrown right in her face.

Never mind, though.

If she can't rule over the British Empire,

she will build an empire of her own.

She throws herself into her work,

and spends nearly all her time on managing her troops

with an iron fist.

[ Speaking French ]

[ Speaking French ]

Narrator: The cramped quarters from Chanel's start

as a milliner have grown considerably.

They now span several numbers on Rue Cambon.

The upper floors hold the atelier

where seamstresses work on patterns and suits,

the storerooms with the stocks of fabrics,

and the design studios where Chanel works.

[ Speaking French ]

The ground-floor boutique sells perfumes

and accessories of all sorts,

including costume jewelry that wows and delights rich customers

more accustomed to grand jewelers' finery.

To present her new collections in the reception rooms,

Chanel's troupes of in-house models

descend a spectacular staircase lined with mirrors.

♪♪

♪♪

After the Great Depression,

Chanel breaks with her minimalistic aesthetics,

and designs more sophisticated collections for customers

who now want more for their money.

[ Speaking French ]

In 1932, all of Paris rushes to Chanel's townhouse

to admire her first luxury jewelry collection,

and try to catch a glimpse of her latest beau, Paul Iribe,

an illustrator with a steamy reputation.

Iribe proposes to Chanel,

much to the dismay of her friends --

Collette in particular,

who writes the following to actress Marguerite Moreno.

Voiceover:I've just been told that Iribe marrying Chanel.

Are you not horrified for Chanel?

That man is quite an interesting demon.

Narrator: Iribe dreams of reviving

a flailing satirical and nationalist review, Le Temoin.

It had stopped printing due to lagging readership.

Iribe lacks the money.

But Chanel, now nearly 50,

is thrilled by this unexpected proposal.

She whips out her checkbook, as always.

Chanel is totally under Iribe's spell.

She becomes his muse,

the silhouette of the national emblem Marianne,

dressed in blue, white, and red,

landing on the cover of a review that plays on the fears

of an increasingly conservative French society.

Iribe molds and shapes a new Chanel --

an intractable warrior willing to go to any lengths

to preserve her privileges

threatened by the rise of Bolshevism.

This nefarious influence, ends suddenly, in 1935,

when Iribe dies from a heart attack

right before Chanel's eyes.

The damage has been done.

Chanel is more isolated and bellicose than ever.

♪♪

When the jolly fellows of the Front Populaire

infiltrate Chanel's workshop, she objects vociferously.

300 workers go on strike, picketing on Rue Cambon.

Their demands include a weekly salary, paid vacations,

controlled work schedules, and employment contracts.

Furious, Chanel instantly fires them all.

Her seamstresses, however, won't take "no" for an answer.

They occupy the premises.

Chanel capitulates, vowing to herself to take her revenge

at the first opportunity.

Chanel only caves in

because the date for her new collection's show

is approaching fast.

This is hardly the moment to give the competition an opening.

That means Elsa Schiaparelli,

that cursed foreign fashion designer

who Chanel refers to as "the Italian."

Schiaparelli steals her clientele

by offering a line of fanciful garments

in contrast with Chanel's sober style.

[ Speaking French ]

When Time magazine put Schiaparelli on its cover,

Chanel's disdain for the woman crystallizes into hatred.

At a costume ball,

Chanel put Schiaparelli to the test

by inviting her to dance with her.

She maneuvers so craftily and expertly that the Italian's

costume catches fire once beneath the chandeliers.

The editor of the American edition of Vogue magazine,

Bettina Ballard, remembers the incident as amusing.

Voiceover:Guests took devilish delight in putting out the fire

by spraying Schiaparelli's head

with seltzer water from the buffet.

The incident fueled conversations in Paris

for weeks.

Narrator: Living year-round in a suite at the Ritz,

Chanel can keep a close eye on her fashion house

mere steps away, and rub elbows with Parisian

and European elites whose lifestyle and ideas she shares.

The most notable is her neighbor,

the former Edward VIII, now Duke of Windsor

after abdicating the throne to marry a twice divorced commoner.

The couple corresponds regularly with Hitler,

and even pays him a visit in 1937.

♪♪

Chanel shares their infatuation

for this little bellicose mustached man.

She sees Hitler as a rampart against communism --

her greatest fear.

As for his laws against Jews, Chanel doesn't mind,

especially now that she is engaged in a battle

with one of her business partners, Pierre Wertheimer.

This Jewish industrialist

owns a distribution network of cosmetics.

He has been manufacturing and distributing Chanel's perfumes

since 1924.

At the beginning of their relationship,

however, Chanel had trusted him.

The man was reputed to be loyal in business.

Plus, they both had a passion for horses.

She is indifferent to their contract,

which only gives her 10% of the shares

in their perfume company.

Voiceover:Business.

Financial reports bore me to tears.

To count, all I need are my 10 fingers.

Narrator: In reality, Chanel knows very well how to count.

And when her 10 fingers are not enough to add up the profits,

Chanel concludes that her partner isn't paying her enough.

Voiceover:Our dear Pierre is fleecing me.

Narrator: She hires a lawyer to check the accounts.

Despite the transparent result,

the audit damages their relationship.

And so begins a cold war that will last 30 years.

[ Speaking French ]

September 3rd, 1939.

France declares war once again.

Everyone assumes this conflict will only last a few months.

People still feel like having fun.

[ Speaking French ]

Piaget and [indistinct] turn out pieces

named "Secret Service" and "Furlaud."

They support large pockets for carrying money, jewelry,

and papers down into bomb shelters

in the event of an alert.

[ Speaking French ]

Skillfully relayed by the press,

the fashion designers' message is clear --

looking pretty also means being patriotic,

for fashion is all about know-how,

and it is an industry that must be preserved.

Chanel, however, is hardly patriotic.

She chooses to desert.

She files her 3,000 female employees,

and shudders her fashion house.

She claims that, as long as the war is on,

her customers won't want new dresses.

Only her perfume shop stays open.

It provides her a comfortable living.

In June, 1940,

like several million other French people,

Chanel flees the advancing German troops.

[ Speaking French ]

By the fall of 1940,

Parisians recover from their initial stupor,

and return to their usual activities

despite the Wehrmacht's daily marches.

Chanel returns to Paris to keep an eye on her perfumes,

but also to try to obtain the release

of her orphaned nephew, Andre Palasse.

After being mobilized,

Palasse was taken prisoner early in the war.

And so begins a murky period in Chanel's life,

as shady individuals try to manipulate her.

Chanel becomes romantically involved

with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage,

a German military intelligence officer

who passes himself off as an embassy attache.

She gets permission to continue living at the Ritz,

even though the Nazis have requisitioned it.

Chanel is lodged in a wing

reserved for civilians collaborating with the Germans.

Soon thereafter, the German intelligence service

takes interest in her power-wielding contacts in London.

They intimate the possibility of getting her nephew released.

In July 1941,

the Abwehr, the Nazis main intelligence service,

registers Chanel under the codename

"Westminster F7124."

♪♪

They lead Chanel to believe

she is working for a German agency

seeking economic and political common ground with the British.

Her first mission aims to test her,

and determine how well-connected she is.

It takes her to Madrid.

There, from the British embassy,

Chanel must contact Churchill,

and get his permission to go to London.

Mission accomplished.

She returns to Paris.

On November 11th, 1941, her nephew is released.

[ Speaking French ]

Meanwhile, Chanel perfume company finds itself

listed as a Jewish firm,

and placed under temporary management

by the Vichy authorities.

Chanel pulls out all the stops to prevent it

from falling into anyone else's hands but hers.

Before leaving France at the start of the war,

anticipating the anti-Jewish laws,

Pierre Wertheimer signed a secret pact

with long-time business partner Felix Amiot,

an aviation industrialist.

Early in 1941 and undeniably Aryan Felix Amiot

buys Wertheimer's shares in Chanel's perfume company,

and fudges the minutes of the board of directors.

Chanel tries to assert that Amiot is merely a cover,

and that Chanel Perfumes is still a Jewish company.

Voiceover:To the provisional administrator,

I wish to confirm my intention herewith

to acquire the totality of the shares in [indistinct],

currently in Jewish hands,

and which you are mandated to cede to Aryan citizens.

Gabrielle Chanel.

Narrator: But Amiot is partnered with a German company

that makes aircraft for the Luftwaffe.

This billion-franc contract makes him untouchable.

Chanel is forced to admit defeat.

[ Indistinct shouting ]

[ Gunfire ]

In 1942, the situation changes

when the Allies land in North Africa.

♪♪

German officers begin to doubt whether Hitler can win.

Several officers seek solutions

for negotiating a way to end the war.

Chanel receives another request to help.

She goes to Berlin to meet the head of SS intelligence,

and Himmler's right hand man, General Schulenburg.

Schulenburg asks Chanel to return to Madrid

in order to take a letter to Churchill.

♪♪

This second mission, codenamed "Model Hoot Models Hat,"

doesn't take long.

Chanel is unmasked shortly after her arrival,

and must go home empty-handed.

♪♪

♪♪

In the days following the liberation of Paris,

citizens engage in quick and savage justice.

A cruel and humiliating treatment

is inflicted on women labeled

and taunted as "horizontal collaborators of the enemy."

Given the skeletons in her closet,

Chanel fears what may lie ahead for her.

Everyone knows about her affair with a German officer.

She tries to divert attention

by handing out free bottles of perfume

to American soldiers who flocked to her shop on Rue Cambon.

When the French resistance fighters arrest Chanel,

she goes with them pale, but with dignity,

"like a queen stepping up to the guillotine,"

said her friend and ballet dancer,

[indistinct],

a witness to the event.

After a brief interrogation, she is unexpectedly released.

Some suspect Churchill intervened.

Cautious, she opts for exile in Switzerland,

with hopes of being forgotten.

Nevertheless, she continues to stay in touch

with her Nazi lover, and with General Schulenburg.

She financially supports the general

from the time he leaves prison to his death.

Man: Schulenburg, how plead you to this indictment?

Guilty or not guilty?

[ Speaks German ]

Narrator: In 1946, Chanel's Abwehr file

is sent to French judicial authorities.

Chanel is suspected of having spied for the enemy,

and listed as being on the run.

Upon one of her returns to Paris,

she is summoned to appear before a judge.

The interrogation lasts hours.

Chanel categorically denies everything.

Voiceover: I protest these claims.

They are fiction, and are obviously implausible.

Narrator: The court concludes that, unbeknownst to Chanel,

the Abwehr recruitment officer had gone overboard

in registering her as an agent.

On January 28th, 1949,

all charges of spying for the enemy are dropped.

When her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer,

returns to France,

he regains control of [indistinct]

Wertheimer pays Chanel a visit in Switzerland,

to announce he has begun making and marketing her perfumes

in the United States,

and to offer her a cut on the sales.

He suggests $15,000 as a full and final settlement.

Outraged, Chanel suspects he has actually earned in the millions.

She declares the perfume war again.

On the advice of her lawyer, she markets new,

improved versions of her perfumes,

which she has made in Switzerland.

Her best-selling N°5 gets renamed "Super 5"

by one of her friends.

It quickly spawns confusion

in the very velvety milieu of haute couture

in American luxury department stores.

A war-weary Wertheimer caves in.

After a long negotiation, led by their respective lawyers,

Chanel wins the perfume war.

She is awarded $326,000 in royalties on past sales

and 2% on future sales,

for a total of $1 million a year.

Voiceover: At last, I'm rich.

Narrator: She tells her lawyers.

Chanel has just won the mother of all her battles,

but she is already preparing a new offensive --

for posterity, this time.

In July 1953, the French parliament votes

a final amnesty law for wartime collaboration.

Chanel can now return home to France.

She yearns to take on the fashion designers

who became prominent after the war.

Topping the list is Christian Dior,

who scrapped all her heritage

only to bring back the corsette.

[ Speaking French ]

Now past 71, la vieille-- the old lady --

as the fashion world not-so-kindly refers to her,

takes on a new challenge, and designs a new collection --

her first in 15 years.

She presents it on February the 5th, 1954.

The reporter from the American edition of Vogue magazine

notes that the French press is waiting for this.

"like cats in front of a mousehole."

Chanel's new pieces are the exact opposite

of the taste of that era --

sober, streamlined, comfortable.

It's a complete disaster.

The paper [indistinct] refers to her new collection

as "1930s dowdy."

And for the daily La Roux, "We rather get the impression

we've stepped into Sleeping Beauty's palace."

They spare her nothing, and even mock her

as a doom-saying Cassandra who resorts to cosmetic surgery.

But neither Chanel nor Wertheimer --

who financed a good half of this defeat --

will take this lying down.

The long-time enemies bury the hatchet,

and forge a new alliance.

Chanel agrees to sell him her haute couture house.

In exchange, the full range of her living expenses

will be covered --

taxes, lodging, domestics and all her personal expenses,

right down to her postage stamps.

She is to continue to receive royalties on the perfumes,

and most importantly, retain control

of all creative aspects of La Maison.

Chanel pours all her might into this battle.

While the French show nothing but disdain,

the American press supports her.

Woman: Well, it's by Chanel, a beige dress with a belt,

worn with a wide sailor hat, also by Chanel.

The big sailor hat is trimmed

with a [indistinct] white [indistinct] band.

Several fashion shows later,

Chanel creates her masterpiece,

the one that puts her in the history books --

the trim tweed suit with a knee length skirt.

With this suit,

Chanel invents a uniform -- better, armor for women.

It improves self-confidence and offers timeless styling.

Chic and wearable for any occasion,

the tweed suit puts an end to a perception of haute couture

that Chanel has been battling since her return.

[ Speaking French ]

The Chanel suit sells by the thousands.

Movie stars love it.

♪♪

First Ladies wear it.

♪♪

New York's 7th Avenue dressmakers copy it.

Chanel does nothing to dissuade the copycats.

[ Speaking French ]

Chanel has pulled off a comeback that nobody thought possible.

♪♪

Now 75, she has win on all fronts,

but it is a Pyrrhic victory.

Henceforth, she stands alone on the battlefield.

All her close friends -- Cocteau, Balsan,

Westminster -- are dead.

The press reports on Chanel with waning interest.

While reporters may attend each new collection's showing

out of politeness,

they are primarily focused on her new competitors.

Courreges is now leading the revolution in fashion.

Constantly surrounded by a handful of sycophants,

in reality, Chanel is more alone than ever.

[ Speaking French ]

Chanel now plays her last character part --

the bitter old lady.

[ Speaking French ]

[ Speaking French ]

The last survivor of a vanished world,

Chanel criticizes her times and her contemporaries.

[ Speaking French ]

Little else in this world pleases her.

The very person who embodied female emancipation

now disapproves of women acting freely.

[ Speaking French ]

On January 10th, 1971, Chanel lays down her arms.

She is 88.

Her last collection will be shown two weeks later.

The audience and the journalists come to pay homage

to the woman who, a few months earlier,

only received a vague and bored respect.

[ Speaking French ]

Chanel is buried in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Spanning no less than four parcels,

her grave is a guarantee of tranquility --

alone for eternity.

[ Speaking French ]

♪♪

♪♪

♪♪

[ Speaking French ]

STREAM ALL ARTS DOCUMENTARY SELECTS ON

  • ios
  • apple_tv
  • android
  • roku
  • firetv

FEATURED PROGRAMS