Losing Love for Coco

By Rita Plush

Cruising T.J. Maxx for designer markdowns and admiring ambitious women are two of my non-guilty pleasures. So when I first heard about Coco Chanel and how she started out as the illegitimate child of street peddlers and ended up a fashion icon and one of the most powerful women of the 20th century, I was hooked by my dolman sleeve.

My exposure to fashion goes way back, “bias cut” and “peplum” having been among the first words I probably ever heard. My father, you see, was a dress designer and pattern maker who spent his working life — more than 75 years — in women’s dresses. He knew more about a dress than a dress knew, and he passed his design know-how on to me.

Not that I can craft and cut a pattern, but fabric and color, texture and form, and how they work together have always intrigued me, directing me to a long career as an interior designer and teacher of the decorative arts — my favorite design period being the ’20s and ’30s, the heyday of Art Deco, when Chanel was in her prime.

While I was researching Art Deco for a course I was giving, Coco Chanel kept coming up. The things she did. The people she knew. The remarkable life she led. And I said to myself, “This gal deserves her own lecture.” So I began to study her, and let me tell you, she was quite a study.

Determined, confident, unafraid of her instincts, she taught women a new way to dress that allowed them to move freely inside their clothing. Out with crinolines and on with pants! Chanel created a 20th-century woman never seen before in the Paris of the 1920s, or for that matter anywhere.

She gave us knit sweaters and short pleated skirts, turned-back cuffs on our man-tailored shirts. The turtleneck? Thank you, Chanel. She slung rows of phony pearls around our necks, and made it chic to wear junk with the real thing. She draped us in jersey — prior to Chanel, jersey was only used for underwear. Cardigans, flap pockets, and quilted leather — derived from the quilted vests jockeys wore — were all part of her visionary approach to fashion: the masculine transformed into the feminine.

Daring and audacious, everything she did was different, including Chanel No. 5. She not only taught women how to dress, she taught us how to smell — the perfume that Marilyn Monroe said was all she wore to bed. Cloaked in drama — a Chanel cloak to be sure — the formula was shrouded in secrecy and said to have been stolen from another company.

Anyone worth knowing, Chanel knew. She bedded Picasso and hunted wild boar with Winston Churchill, who in a letter to his wife said, “. . . she is very agreeable — really a great strong being, fit to rule a man and an empire.”

Agreeable, yes, to those she liked, and very generous. She gave money to Sergei Diaghilev, the impresario of the Russian ballet, to keep it going. The ballet was high Parisian entertainment in the ’20s and ’30s, and chronically in debt. She also bankrolled her brother, who was always in and out of trouble. Not out of love, but to keep him away from her and her past.

Well known for her vicious temper, the woman was not without flaws. She was spiteful and never forgot an insult or a slight. One reason she charged so much for her clothing was to get back at the socialites who had snubbed her in the early days of her career. “One day, I’ll make them pay,” she had said. And she did. Through the nose for her clothes.

She was sexually bold, and though she had both women and men as lovers, she openly hated gays. A known anti-Semite, maybe learned in her convent school and never unlearned — Jew-hating was taught in convent schools in that era, and fashionable in society — she warmed her bed with like-minded bigots.

Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, or Spatz, as his pals called him, was her lover for many years and a Nazi intelligence agent who posed as a sun-worshipping tennis man while building an espionage operation to spy on the French Navy. The Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, Bendor to those in the know, was another. “I cannot bear those bloody Jews,” he said after one too many whiskeys at a dinner party, a Rothschild in attendance.

And there lay her darker side, the side that for me threw a shadow on her many accomplishments and took away her shine. Fashion maven, trendsetter, savvy businesswoman, kudos to that. But what was in her heart and how she thought about her fellows left me cold.

Today, the House of Chanel is worth in the neighborhood of $2 billion to $3 billion — nice neighborhood, right? It’s owned by the Wertheimer brothers. That the Wertheimers are Jewish is a bit of irony worth noting.

Rita Plush will give an illustrated talk about Coco Chanel at the Montauk Library on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. She is the author of “Lily Steps Out,” a novel, and “Alterations,” a collection of stories.