In fashion, few names carry such high esteem as Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. The creator of the little black dress and the no.5 perfume that Marilyn Monroe wore to bed has had a huge influence from high end to high street and has been quoted into cliché with soundbites such as “a girl should two things: classy and fabulous.”
Today, a new retrospective of her work opens in Paris. “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto”, at the Palais Galleria has been created with the support of the Chanel brand and invites visitors to “explore a universe and a style that are truly timeless.”
There’s one aspect of Gabrielle Chanel’s universe that does feel out of place in 2020 though: her work for the Nazis.
It’s well documented that she had a relationship with Nazi officer Hans Günther von Dincklage during WWII and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest her collaborations didn’t stop there. Most notably, Hal Vaughan’s book Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War published in 2011 provides evidence that she was also involved in Nazi missions, had an agent number (F-7124) and the code name “Westminster” after her former lover, the Duke of Westminster.
While information on Chanel’s Nazi affiliations are not new, they feel even more relevant in a year when the Black Lives Matter movement has forced us to confront the lens through which we view history. The tearing down of statues of slave owners sparked an important discussion around who we celebrate and acknowledging the good and bad about historical figures.
While, the new exhibition makes mention of Chanel’s Nazi connections, it certainly doesn’t focus on them, something which The Palais Galleria believes is important to shift the focus back on to her work: “Gabrielle Chanel’s life is not the subject of our “Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto” exhibition. Many publications have already dealt with Gabrielle Chanel’s biography, which is now very well documented, but this is not the case for her work, her creations; the public is not aware of her contribution to the history of fashion,” a spokesperson said.
Tansy Hoskins, author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, disagrees that we can separate the woman from the design: “It’s clear that Chanel’s far-right ideologies influenced her designs. She championed minimalism and the austere. It’s very white European.” By comparison, Chanel’s views on women’s emancipation are more widely talked about and it’s often cited how this led her to create clothing that was more comfortable and practical.
Of course, Chanel is not just a historical person, it’s also a very successful and powerful brand that exists today. Much of the storytelling around Chanel’s life has come from, or been influenced by, the brand that bears her name. The look and spirit of Gabrielle Chanel is often recreated in Chanel’s advertising and its website features a timeline and stories from her life. For the 2009 biopic Coco Before Chanel, director Anne Fontaine met with the creative director of the brand at the time, Karl Lagerfeld, multiple times during the process and the brand used Audrey Tautou who portrayed Chanel in the film as an ambassador. The war years and her relationship with von Dincklage are not presented in the film, instead it focuses on the early part of her life.
In 2011, when Sleeping With The Enemy was released, the brand discredited the book as speculation and said “it will no doubt always remain a mystery”. Today, the brand seems more open to acknowledging the standpoint while distancing the current brand from it. A spokesperson told Forbes: “Gabrielle Chanel was a daring pioneer, and the House of Chanel upholds and extends her extraordinary legacy. Her influence on many designers has been significant, and she continues to inspire new generations. However, her actions during World War II are the subject of discussion in many publications and biographies. The actions that some have reported in no way represent the values of Chanel today. Since that time in history, the House of Chanel has moved forward well beyond the past of its founder.”
In the Black Lives Matter era though, many want brands to go beyond acknowledgement. Eric Silverman, an anthropologist and author of A Cultural History of Jewish Dress, believes more can be done: “I believe that all firms which have profited from evil in the past – Holocaust, slave trade, land disposition in southern Africa, mistreatment of women, and so on – have a moral obligation to give something back to the communities that were harmed. A full accounting and an apology is a start.”
In the case of Chanel, unusually, some of those most directly affected by Chanel’s beliefs are those who benefit the most from covering them up. The scholars who have explored Chanel’s Nazism have linked her antisemitism to a dislike of Pierre Wertheimer who invested in her perfume line, one of the most profitable branches of the business, in exchange for the lion’s share of the profits. Under Aryan laws, Jewish people would not be allowed to own businesses, therefore putting the profits back in Chanel’s hands. Of course, this never came to pass, and, despite this ill will, the Wertheimers backed Chanel again when she relaunched her business in 1954. Today, Alain and Gérard Wertheimer co-own the $32 billion brand their grandfather first invested in.
While the Wertheimers may have come up trumps in the end, they were, of course, just one of the many millions of Jews targeted by the Nazi regime, not forgetting the many more homosexual, disabled, Romani, black and other marginalised groups. What’s more, the discussion, or lack of, around Chanel’s history, raises philosophical questions about the type of society we want to live in. Silverman adds, “To fail to confront the past is to live and work in a world of dishonesty and historical illusion, and we have too much of that today.”
Chanel is not the only fashion brand with a dark past, or event present, but it stands out as a crucial one because it marries one of the most glorified fashion icons of all time and one of the most abhorrent political ideologies of all time. And it’s not just the Chanel brand that needs to confront these uncomfortable topics, but anyone in the industry who wants fashion to move forward in a more open, honest and fair way. If we defend our veneration of these people, we will exclude those who could make a better future, explains Hoskins: “We will never be able to get the diverse range of people we need into the industry if we don’t address this.”