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Icons: Coco Chanel

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The grand dame of fashion was born in 1883, living a colourful, inspiring life till her demise in 1971. Coco’s spirit lives on in her bottle of Chanel No. 5. Read on to know more…

Of all the perfumes I hoard lovingly, Chanel No. 5 occupies top shelf space. Not because it is in scarce supply or particularly divine but because it represents an icon of the fashion world, one who will always hold a special place in my heart.

Visiting her apartment in 31 Rue Cambon in Paris was an unexpected delight and I barely knew what I was in for. As I began walking up that now celebrated symbol – the mirror panelled curved staircase, it slowly dawned on me what a treat this was. Coco Chanel’s apartment is a lush, artistic mess – in sharp contrast to the stylish interiors of all her high-end stores, this was her personal space and she truly lived in it like the diva she was. It was masterfully cluttered with artefacts from around the world – paintings, sculpture, mother-of-pearl embellished furniture, accessories like silk fans and ivory-inlaid cigarette cases lying cheek by jowl with brass buddhas and marble lions. It was overwhelming and soothing by equal measure. Standing there, I could almost imagine her hosting ‘salons’ for the socialites and intelligentsia alike, creating a refuge during the war and after it, where the rich and powerful could mingle with the visionaries and artists of the time.

But Coco was not a dilettante, a commanding and influential designer; she set trends way ahead of her time. And her unflinching belief in the power of fashion to change lives, nay, the world – was what drove her to create iconic looks that are now revered classics. And oh the stories behind each creation…! Her little black dress emerged from her wearing one to her lover, Arthur Boy Capel’s funeral. Her irreverent replacement of the ever-popular cashmere with jersey fabric was a result of it being all that was available when the war was ravaging Europe. And her banning of sewing machines in favour of hand-stitching was simply because the finish was neater, more delicate-looking but also more durable, and easier to manipulate than the sub-standard machines that were available at the time.

Without branding herself a feminist, Coco paved the way for women’s lib in her own unique manner – designing clothes that would release women from constrictive corsets and large bustles, and even putting them in trousers because World War 1 meant the rich women had no maids to dress them and poor women had to work day and night in factories. Rarely seen without her pearls and a cigarette dangling from her scarlet lips, Coco is one of the most inspiring rags to riches stories I’ve ever known, and yet, she is so much more than that. Something I identify with vicariously whenever I spray on some of that Chanel No. 5.

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