The fashion world loves a scandal. Naomi and the Dirty Diamonds, Cocaine Kate, Galliano's Fall from Grace, and so many shocking tales about our bad-tempered glitterati have turned the industry into a gold mine for gossip. But couture's first-ever loudmouth was Coco Chanel, nee Gabrielle on August 19, 1883. And if she were alive today, she would certainly be the biggest bitch this world has ever seen.
Her signature two-piece suits and streamlined silhouettes deserve credit for freeing French women from the tight corsets and bouffant skirts of yore, but Chanel, who was once called "the first modern woman," spent the last years of her life an anti-feminist, spending her days bitterly alone.
Chanel stirred controversy throughout her entire career. When she started her business, she was criticized for a rumored affair with a Nazi officer while France was under German occupation, during WWII. According to several biographers and 1999's Coco Before Chanel, a biopic focusing on her early years with Audrey Tautou in the title role, Chanel's alleged liaison allowed the double C to thrive, while her competitors had to close shop or make do with hand-me-down materials to survive.
Near the end of her life, Chanel had become a recluse, sleeping in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, in Paris. In her rue Cambon studio, she always kept the curtains closed, and received the occasional guest in complete darkness. Between 1968 and 1969, the designer, then in her mid-80s, gave a series of scandalous TV interviews in which she expressed her disgust for modern society and what women wore. "There are only three important women in the world, not more," an aghast, emaciated Chanel was filmed saying. The designer, who came from a modest, provincial background and used her ambition to build a fashion empire from scratch, had turned into a misogynist and a misanthrope. In the first minute of the interview, she recalls seeing a man slap a woman on the street in front of her. "She deserved it," Coco quipped, as the nation watched.
Click here to read a transcript of the interview in English.
A victim of her own legend, sour and sullen, Mademoiselle Chanel despised youth, models, and women's knees. "It's awful to show one's knees when one doesn't have pretty knees," she muttered in her last interviews. "Most women with ugly knees have thick hips, they're made for bearing children." Yet, Chanel rejected pants for women, which she saw as the end of French refinement ("I go to dinner and I see 70 percent of women wearing pants. That's sad.")
Tired of fame, the ageing designer hated being stopped on the street by strangers ("I find it tiring. People coming over to say hello. No, I don't know them...but you have to pretend to be polite.") She died on January 10, 1971, at 87, in the presence of her maid. It was shortly after she had started a feud with a thirty-something Yves Saint Laurent, who she accused of coyping her designs. "The more he will copy Chanel, the more successful he will be," she said. The younger couturier responded, with controlled shade, that having a Chanel dress was like owning a Louis XV suit: a great piece of history.