This is about who she was, who I was, and how she affected my life.
Paris, July 1962: when all self-respecting Parisians were off on holiday. I watched Coco Chanel as she approached the atelier, marching energetically down the rue Cambon as she did every morning from her apartment at the Ritz Hotel, her home for more than twenty years. She was lost in her own world, hidden behind dark glasses—a very tiny woman who acted tall and gave off an aura of authority and certainty.
The formidable name “CHANEL” loomed above the atelier doors. But I knew so little about her, and even less about Paris. I was a twenty-seven-year old photojournalist working for Look Magazine, and this was only my second trip here. The first time, I had worked mainly with Americans shooting a story about Art Buchwald of the Herald Tribune. I had stayed at the Hotel California on the rue de Berri, just off the Champs Elysées.
Now I was surrounded by French people, with the exception of my editor Pat Coffin, and was about to be ushered into the rarified world of haute couture. This was a vastly different Paris, imbued with more grandeur than the one I had observed on my first trip: the Place Vendôme, the rue Saint-Honoré, and the Place de la Concorde. The streets and avenues were wide and glamorous, the shops exotic, the city of light sparkling, the nightlife mysterious. I felt a mixture of awe and uncertainty.
Looking back, I marvel at my lack of sophistication. My idea of fashion was Christian Dior’s much talked about ‘New Look,’ which made headlines in 1947 with hemlines almost to the floor. Widely copied, it made its way to my native Canada via Eaton’s catalog and fashion stories in Life, Chatelaine, and other publications that were all the rage with my mother and her style-conscious friends.
I was eager to learn all I could about Paris and the exciting world to which I was being admitted, although I did not speak French. No one seemed to understand English, and I had trouble communicating. When I left New York, it had been hot and humid, and although it was mid-summer, Paris was cool, gray, and rainy. I felt hopeless about how to get around except by asking the doorman of my hotel, the Lotti, on the rue de Castiglione, to tell the taxi driver where I wanted to go.
Photographs and Text by Douglas Kirkland