It's A Chanel World After All

On the 100th anniversary of its first boutique, beauty director Carlene Higgins descends upon Chanel-ville and finds she isn't at all immune to the house's globally captivating charms


Death by Chanel. That’s what my epitaph would read, I think to myself, as I speed to catch a flight for my “Chanel trip” as it’s been christened over the past five months. My husband’s text has sent me into terror: “Are u sure your flight isn’t today? A driver just left.” No, no, no, no, no. I was convinced my flight was tomorrow. I race home to pack, my three-year-old daughter, Ines (named after Chanel muse Inès de La Fressange), yelling from the backseat, “Slow down, Mummy! You’re not on the highway!” I shake with frenetic breaths, heavy with the weight of double irresponsibility—endangering my child and my career—as I skid to a halt with a deep hoooonk from a taxi driver.

“Oops, calendar mishap” would not go over well with my editor or the PR executive who arranged my trip. I imagine myself blacklisted. But most of all, I wouldn’t get to fulfill my dream of going to a Chanel show, and the privilege of visiting Coco’s apartment at 31 Rue Cambon. (Notably, a portion of the site will be classified as official historical monuments by France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication this year.)

Like the rest of the world, j’adore those double Cs. The $4,500 quilted chain bags, the bottle-sold-every-30-seconds No. 5 perfume—all iconic, status-screaming memes people lose their minds over. Nothing else incites the imagination or inspires months of salary savings quite the way Chanel does.

Do you know what real luxury feels like? I do. I purchased my one and only Chanel LBJ at a sample sale in 2007. (To the collective chagrin of fashion journos across the continent, the media-only sales have since died.) A bargain—but still a stretch for my associate-level salary—the four-figure price tag was still on it. Several times a year, I remove the satin-lined tuxedo jacket from its linen garment bag, feel the weight of the bouclé, admire the chain-rimmed hem, and instantly legitimize my outfit, whether it’s a cocktail dress or fitted jeans.

Why does Chanel do it better? I’m about to find out.

I arrive on time—a tiny fashion miracle for which I’m still grateful—at the Grand Palais in Paris for the fall/winter collection. In the centre of the tremendous, glass-domed space, a matte black globe 10 times my height is slowly revolving. Tiny lit-up “CC” flags mark the 185 boutiques around the world. The mammoth sphere is in honour of the 100th anniversary of Coco Chanel’s first store opening.


Photography courtesy of Chanel

It’s not unusual for the house’s creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, to mine the Coco files in this way. A survivor, a lover, a liar, an inventor, a partier, a player—her fairy-tale life is a gift that keeps on giving. A real-life Les Mis type, Gabrielle (her given name) was effectively orphaned at age nine, abandoned by her father after her mother’s death, yet she constructed for herself a life fantastique. With every new clothes collection and every new lipstick, the story is endlessly unspooled.

In 1913, a young Gabrielle turned her humble millinery shop into her first full-fledged, made-to-measure fashion emporium in Deauville, France. Mademoiselles immediately took to her functionally fashionable sportswear: never-seen-before menswear trousers for women, swimming costumes and stripey Breton tops. Imagine, with a single new find, escaping the constraint of the neck-strangling lace blouses and ankle-tripping skirts of the belle époque era. Surely we will never have reason to see this kind of pragmatic paradigm shift in fashion again. Now we get to revel in the luxury of nostalgia.

The music begins. It’s Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9, reminding me of tea time at the Windsor Arms. Also known as New World Symphony, it’s about the Czech composer’s first journey to North America in the 1890s, when he encountered African and Native Americans, new thrills and yearnings for home.

A series of models rounds the globe; from my perspective I can see little except the fur “flying caps” in bright pink and hi-there! turquoise, leather waders and covetable chain boots mixed with house heritage tweeds. Lagerfeld must always overcome the danger of the classic 2.55 handbag and sensible cap-toe flats looking too right on the granny who’s had them for two decades—hence the punk touches that keep Alice Dellal types wanting more.

The music progresses into today-world techno beats, finishing with a fast-thumping, machine-like tune by Russian-born DJ/producer Philipp Gorbachev. “Sweet Regina went to China,” repeats the robotic refrain, leaving little wonder where the focus lies in 2013.

Rightly so. This year Chanel jumped from number 5 to 3 (trailing Audi and BMW) in the World Luxury Index, which calculated 6.8 million online luxury searches originating in China. Chanel overtook Louis Vuitton, a victim of consumer fatigue. As antidote, LV has since raised prices to bring exclusivity back to the label (copying a move Chanel made two years ago), reports Women’s Wear Daily. The less likely we are to get it, the more we want it.

But Chanel’s cosmetic arm, developed in the 1920s, may be the muscle boosting the company’s global supremacy. Chanel has clothing, handbags, jewellery and cosmetics, the latter of which Louis Vuitton doesn’t have—yet. This might explain the competition’s sudden interest in beauty. Louis Vuitton’s debut fragrance is in the works, and as of this fall, Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs have their own makeup lines, while rumours that Gucci will enter cosmetics next continue to swirl.

For Lagerfeld, makeup is an essential component of the Chanel oeuvre. Prior to the show, I’m one of only five journalists worldwide permitted backstage. I meet with Peter Philips, the creative head for the runway looks and a former consultant behind the makeup collections at retail. The onetime graphic artist, unafraid to borrow accessories from Chanel’s ateliers for his own purposes, has included in his catwalk creations pearls adhered to the face and hair, eye lace, and bird and flower tattoos (these temporary accoutrements made it to market due to hot demand).


Deconstructed, Philips’ beauty looks teeter on the edge of tacky. Today, the feature is giant silver sequins on the models’ eyes. But his unique craft is bridging these elements to invent ethereal, magical planes—always in good taste, every single time. “The one ‘show element’ is always done with a very beautiful, feminine base, and I think that’s why it becomes believable,” says Philips, in a serene, all-white backstage setting like none I’ve seen in New York or London. “I don’t do high contouring; I don’t do a dark, drawn lip. I’ll make sure there are some soft elements somewhere.”

To counter the disco eyes, he’s creating velvet matte skin. Before applying the finishing powder, he dabs on a new cream blush in shade number 64, Inspiration, hitting counters now. The cheek colours, available in six hues, are replica tints from the Rouge Coco lipsticks, guaranteeing perfect colour harmony when worn together. “My grandmother used to take the little bit [of ] leftover lipstick and put it on her cheeks,” recalls Philips. “I didn’t want too much glitter, so the luminance comes from the cream texture.”

With their wispy, flat-ironed locks, the girls appear angelic. I say quick hellos to les canadiennes, happy to see up-and-coming models Gracie Van Gastel (Saint Laurent designer Hedi Slimane’s new muse), Dauphine, Janice Alida and Senait—Karl’s new chosen ones.

After the show, we visit 31 Rue Cambon, the famous fourplex that holds the street-level store, the haute couture atelier where all the pieces are handmade, the salon for fittings where Coco (who died in 1971) used to host much more conservative shows, and the apartment where she worked, lived and entertained, though never slept (it was zoned as a workspace, so she kept a room at the nearby Ritz).

Museum-like as it is, entry is reserved for staffers to immerse themselves in Coco’s world; celebrities (Rihanna tweeted through last June); select journalists; and VIP clients (Holt Renfrew’s Toronto buyer is hosting two lucky ladies today). “Everything is as she left it,” our guide informs us. “Her glasses, playing cards, fan, writing paper.”

Coco despised the garish florals of the belle époque. She ordered the carpet in sand, to remind her of the seaside, and her beige suede couch would be at home in a condo today. But like her styling mix, the room is rife with symbolic accessories: lions (she was a Leo, born Aug. 19, 1883), camellias (she liked odourless white flowers only) and the number five (hidden within a chandelier).


“She was extremely superstitious; she believed in yin and yang,” we’re told. “She was surrounded by pairs.” Proof of the brand’s continual history-plucking: Fall’s makeup collection has a superstitious focus, the pair element being the lipstick and cream-blush duo Philips revealed to me backstage. I have my photo snapped at the top of the mirrored staircase where Coco used to perch in the shadows during her intimate shows for Paris’s upper crust. It’s a keepsake not unlike the one from my first visit to Disney World. In sharp contrast, the store at Rue Cambon is like an airport Starbucks. International types crowd the counters, pointing to €3,500 handbags, buzzing with indecision as if deciding between a latte or cappuccino. I spot Into the Gloss beauty blogger and street-style star Emily Weiss, seemingly unruffled.

I decide there is no better occasion to purchase my first Chanel bag. I’ve been fantasizing—and running the numbers. Lesser home-country price tag, converted to the Canadian dollar, minus 13 percent tax back at the airport equals convincing enough savings. I visit two shops to ensure I’m buying the best bag for my buck before returning, only to waver some more, overly conscious of the saleswoman’s time I’m wasting.

I decide on the black classic quilted bag with gold chain, but the mini. “Un moment, madame,” she says, before reappearing from behind a mirrored door with the plastic-wrapped purse, fresh from a shipment. (Lesson: There’s more than what’s on the floor.)

On my flight home, I think about my husband’s face when I tell him I spent a paycheque on a bag that won’t fit my wallet. “It’s perfect for work events and drinks with my friends,” I’ll say. He will cajole me in his sweet way, and I’ll remember he hasn’t bought a new shirt in two years and feel a little sick.

I’ll remind him that on our daughter’s 18th birthday, she’ll be the happy recipient of the heirloom. I won’t mind parting with it then, since I’m already planning bag 2.55 to celebrate my 40th birthday in a few years. I’m only sorry I didn’t splurge for it the first time.