Coco Chanel – designer, muse, visionary – was one of the world’s most complex and enigmatic fashion powerhouses. One whose life and life’s work still transfix and inspire hordes of fashion lovers (myself included) decades after her passing. So when I received an invitation to sneak a rare glimpse at Mademoiselle’s private apartment on rue Cambon in Paris, I may or may not have done a few cartwheels around my living room to celebrate.
On the morning of my appointment, I stopped to enjoy the anticipation of the big moment by grabbing a coffee and some viennoiserie at the nearby café, watching the rushing passerby, completely oblivious of my big day. The enormous grin on my face did nothing to conceal my joy.
Upon arriving at 31 rue Cambon, I was treated to a private walkthrough of the Parisian flagship boutique, where one could find an impressively extensive selection of Chanel pieces. Looking for that rare bag? Boutiques on rue Cambon and rue Montaigne are your two best bets. However, word to the wise – it’s ridiculously easy to get distracted from your original mission and end up overspending. It’s all just too tempting, and as I mentioned, the selection is amazing. Proceed at your own risk.
After having the boutique all to myself (crazy, I know), I was warmly welcomed and taken up the winding mirrored staircase on the chicest tour of my life.
On the second floor above the Rue Cambon boutique, I was guided into the Haute Couture salon floor with its large sitting room, several salons, and piece-de-resistance – the haute couture closet. Hanging inside was the spring 2014 Haute Couture collection, worn by the likes of Keira Knightley, Diane Kruger, and Rihanna. And since those exquisite pieces are one-of-a-kind, I actually got to touch the exact outfits that those beautiful celebs got to wear. Don’t be fooled by Rihanna’s seemingly curvy bod, that purple dress she wore to the fall 2014 show was definitely an XS or smaller.
Seeing the actual haute couture pieces inside the closet was pretty surreal. I got to see just how intricate every detail is on each and every single piece, and how dazzling haute couture is in real life. Oh, to one day be able to wear one of those dresses…what a dream!
Before I could embarrass myself by asking to try on one of the dreamy haute couture gowns, I decided that it was time for the main event – The Apartment. One more flight of stairs later, I found myself sitting on the exact step Coco used to favour while her collections were presented below, silently observing reactions of the attendees – the mirrors weren’t there for aesthetics alone. After several photos on said step, we proceeded to the entrance door, ready to walk into the heart and soul of Chanel.
Right away, I was transfixed by the abundance of patterns, textures, and colours – ornate lacquered Chinese screens attached to walls like super fancy (and expensive) wallpaper, golden baroque mirror in the shape of both Place Vendome and the infamous Chanel no. 5 bottle stopper, a pair of Venetian Blackamoors (Coco’s “friends”) welcoming all guests, mixed with decidedly modern sand-coloured carpet. “I take refuge in beige because it is natural, and red because it is the colour of blood”, Chanel said once, and that’s precisely what I remembered, standing in that entrance hall.
Highly superstitious, fond of crystals, camellias, stars, lions (she was a Leo after all), and other animals (always in pairs), Chanel filled her apartment with a myriad of knick-knacks – symbolic treasures that she collected over the years, and that inspired her. She designed the crystal chandelier in her living room, also full of important Chanel symbols – interlocking Cs, W for Westminster, number 5, camellia flowers (makes for a fun game of I Spy!). And that suede beige sofa that could easily belong in a modern living room – also Chanel’s custom design – one that inspired the iconic quilted bags.
As the tour went on, I learned many fascinating tidbits from Chanel’s life, about her childhood, her lovers, her friends, her work…nearly every piece in that apartment had a story to tell. Virtually untouched, the east-meets-west apartment still serves as a place of inspiration for Chanel’s designers and staff, and no wonder – even though she’s been gone for over three decades now, Mademoiselle’s presence is still felt inside the ornately decorated rooms. And every bit and bob from the apartment could pop up unexpectedly in a bag, a clasp, a garment print, or even influence an entire collection, as some have in the past.
At the end of the tour, standing in the now familiar entrance hall, I was invited to sit down in the infamous Horst chair. I tried to look pensive as Chanel had in the iconic photo, but all my face could do was smile…awed and happy.
And while the apartment may not be open to the public, I recently learned that Sam Taylor-Johnson’s photographic exhibition of the private apartment of Mademoiselle Chanel, “Second Floor”, will open at Saatchi Gallery in London this September. The series of 45 photographs captures the private rooms of Mademoiselle Chanel at 31 rue Cambon in Paris, giving visitors a glimpse at Coco’s fascinating life. “Shooting at Coco Chanel’s apartment was an unexpectedly absorbing experience,” says Taylor-Johnson. “The essence of Chanel is firmly rooted there in all of her possessions and I truly believe that her spirit and soul still inhabit the second floor.” I couldn’t agree more.
“Second Floor” Exhibit
Saatchi Gallery, Duke of York’s HQ King’s Road
Friday September 12th, 2014 until Monday September 22nd, 2014
London, SW3 4RY
More photos after the jump!