“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud,” Coco Chanel said. And so it is that she lives on in our memory, a silhouette as elegant as she is exacting. She knew, and from this knowledge she created the world in her image. In many ways, Mademoiselle was the first modern woman, creating an empire that glows even brighter four decades after her death. For Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) defined a look that has become synonymous with luxury, a look that liberated the women of her time from the confines of the Belle Epoque.
Stripping women of their corsets and feathers, bobbing their hair, and putting them in bathing suits so that they could get some sun, Chanel introduced modern living to the Victorian world. From costume jewelry to slacks, the classic suit to couture perfume, Chanel was a visionary. “A girl should be two things: who and what she wants,” she said. “My life didn't please me, so I created my life.” In this same way Mademoiselle empowered women to see themselves in the world.
Chanel knew, “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.” And so it is that her star continues to glow, and we enjoy the light she emanates. She reveals to us a side of ourselves that inspires a sense of purpose to be found in the mastery of your craft. It is in this way that Mademoiselle became one of the most important influences in the life of photographer Douglas Kirkland for three weeks in 1962.
Sent on assignment for Look Magazine, Kirkland was just 27 years of age. Mademoiselle was 79. She was in the winter of her years, enjoying renewed fame as Jackie Kennedy began wearing her clothes in the White House. The American public was intrigued with the woman who had been one of the most celebrated figures until the second World War came. Chanel never fully recovered, but the public interest had not died. Kirkland represented a new generation engaging with Mademoiselle’s artistry.
The photographs from their time together has been collected in Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 (Glitterati Incorporated)s, a new limited edition of 100 copies of the book enclosed in a clothbound clamshell slipcase that includes a print signed and numbered by the artist. The limited edition launches in New York at Clic Gallery on December 9 from 6-8pm and in Los Angeles at RonRobinson Melrose Avenue on December 18 from 5-7pm. Guests interested in attending should RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org with "Coco Chanel NY or LA" in the subject line.
Kirkland sits down to speak with The Chic about Mademoiselle, revealing to us another side of the woman who knew, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
In the introduction to his book, Kirkland reveals a telling anecdote. “When I asked Simone [Gauthier, Look’s Paris bureau chief and etiquette instructor for visiting Look staff] why Chanel was called, ‘Mademoiselle,’ she answered, ‘That’s a delicate question. Normally a woman her age would be addressed as ‘Madame’ whether she was married or not.’ But she said that Chanel, a fiercely independent woman, wanted to prove she was above the system and didn’t need a marriage or a relationship to a man to be successful.”
Kirkland observes, “Mademoiselle was elegant and chic. Very few people ever touched her at all. She opened herself up entirely. She was very pleased with the American attention. I never fully understood why Mademoiselle was as kind and caring for me. Some people said she was flirting, but I’m not certain that is really valid. I saw no reason for it. I suspect she may have seen herself in me in some manner, and she wanted to help me move forward, to be bigger and better. She taught me life lessons that have always remained with me. She taught me the power of positive thinking, of really reaching, of doing things yourself. I gained from our time together.
“She allowed me to see her life. She could be quite tough with the people working with her and I never saw anyone questioning her. They were always very focused. We used her time very well. That’s what I wanted to show in the pictures. I felt I had an unusual opportunity to look closely and see what made her tick. Where did the genius come from?
“She gave me this extraordinary opportunity. During that period, other photographers never got as close as I was allowed to be. Here I was, the kid from Canada with no French, and she wanted to help me. I’ve retained that to this day.”
Kirkland continues in the introduction to the book, “It is difficult to describe the excitement I felt as I watched Chanel create a new design, oblivious of everyone. She strived for perfection with scissors and pins, her hands nimbly working a sleeve or a lapel: ‘I sculpt what I design.’ The atelier was the creative nerve center. Once she started working, a beehive of assistants immediately surrounded her.
“As a professional photographer, your hands fall on the right places of your camera. They touch of the lens, the feel of the aperture have the company and the intimacy one feels with a lover. You steer into where you find the image, the perfect frame. To this day, I still feel magnetically drawn as I start shooting. I run through a disciplined checklist: Am I keeping the camera steady? Is the exposure right and in focus? Am I at the best angle and in the right place? Should I be talking, yelling, or silent? As everything goes on, I must be listening as well as finding the pictures. I must be sensitive to my subject. Those are the thoughts that kept running through my head, over and over as I was photographing in the atelier.”
Kirkland discusses his work as a documentary photographer, approaching the experience as a witness to the scene. “As a journalist, you don’t talk much. You get yourself in there and you’re quiet unless there’s a reason to speak. You don’t want to disturb the atmosphere; you want to record it as it is happening. You talk to get accepted and then you watch, recording the time and the individual.”
Kirkland’s photographs capture these moments in an elegant tapestry. Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 is small, intimate volume that brings us together with a woman whose mystique continues to captivate. By giving Kirkland the encouragement, guidance, and freedom to photograph her as she lived, Mademoiselle reveals her assurance as a public person in private life, and gives us, all these years later, a new understanding of a master at work. And it is Kirkland’s work that Chanel’s words ring true, “Elegance does not consist in putting on a new dress.... Elegance comes from being as beautiful inside as outside.”
Visit Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962
Photographs by Douglas Kirkland
Curated by Miss Rosen
Douglas Kirkland by Owen Roizman