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Douglas Kirkland Meets Coco Chanel

By Sara Rosen   Wednesday September 2, 2015

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883-1971) is a fashion icon unlike any other. She invented modern clothing for women: At the height of the Belle Époque, she stripped women of their corsets and feathers, bobbed their hair, put them in bathing suits, and sent them out to get tan in the sun.  

She introduced slacks, costume jewelry, and the exquisitely comfortable suit. She made the first couture parfum, Chanel No. 5, which remains the most popular scent ever created.

Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 by Douglas Kirkland (Glitterati, 2015) is a distinctly unique and intimate look at the woman who transformed contemporary fashion. No stranger to photographing some of the world’s most beloved icons—including Man Ray, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor, among countless others—Kirkland fixed his lens on Coco Chanel for twenty-one days in 1962.

Sent to Paris on assignment for LOOK Magazine, Kirkland ended up living with Chanel for three weeks, capturing the public and private moments of the legend herself. This collection of never-before-seen photographs is being released in both English and French languages, in trade and limited edition volumes. The limited edition of 100 includes a print signed and numbered by the artist along with a copy of the book, and comes in a beautifully constructed clothbound clamshell slipcase.

In the book’s introduction, Kirkland reveals, “This is about who she as, who I was, and how she affected my life.” From here, the photographer sets the stage: “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.


“I saw everything through small-town eyes. I had left Fort Erie, Ontario, Canda, population seventy-five hundred, only a few years earlier. In New York, as I struggled to build my career I had taught myself to walk, dress, and work with an air of complete confidence, but I secretly knew I was not as worldly as I was implying.”

Kirkland’s trip to Paris changed all that, as his time spent with Coco Chanel was a lesson in enduring beauty, grace, and sophistication from the grande dame herself. Kirkland writes, “Mademoiselle’s hair was black under the hat I never once saw her remove. Her features were sharp and determined. ‘A woman has the age she deserves,’ she had proudly announced on more than one occasion. At seventy-nine she still had impeccable posture and stood as erect as a ballerina. She couldn’t have weighed more than ninety pounds and moved around with great energy. Everyone always showed her total respect. She made opinionated statements, and I don’t ever remember anyone disagreeing with her.

 “Born on August 19, 1883 (she changed that date to 1893), in Saumur, France, about two hundred miles from Paris, Gabrielle Chanel came from humble beginnings. She learned to sew in the orphanages where she lived as a child. After a brief career in cabaret, in 1909 she transformed herself into ‘Coco’ Chanel with the help of wealthy lovers who established her little millinery shop in Paris at 31 rue Cambon. On that street her couture house stands to this day.”

It was at this address that Kirkland photographed Chanel for three weeks during the summer of 1962. As he recalls, “At first, Mademoiselle barely acknowledged me. I looked even younger than I was and was certainly not a known name. Before she would trust me, she insisted that I photograph some of her fashion, process the film, and make prints for her to see….I worked spontaneously, following my instinct. My approach was very simple. I would choose the girl, and after she was dressed and made-up, I’d take her out to the location of my choice: the Place de la Concorde, the TuilerieGardens, or the Louvre—just myself, the model, and the clothes. I wasn’t followed by a staff of assistants, stylists, or hair and makeup people. The models were friendly. In French, they were called ‘les mannequins,’ and they worked full time for the House of Chanel. They flirted with me and treated me like a little brother. Most everyone was very willing and anxious to help me since I represented the influential American publication of the day, Look.

“Ignorant of the fact that Chanel had spent time in England and had almost become the duchess of Westminster, I assumed that, like many French people of the title, she didn’t speak English. Then one morning I turned a corner in a narrow hallway in the atelier and found myself face-to-face with her. She looked straight through me and said, ‘Salut.’ I froze, not knowing how to respond. After a beat, in her low voice, she said in perfect English, ‘I just said hello to you.’

“From that moment on, Mademoiselle took a liking to me, and my work could finally get started. I had been given the green light, and I started spending long hours with Mademoiselle and her staff. Nothing was off limits.”

Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962, by Douglas Kirkland, originally published by The Chic, © Glitterati Incorporated, 2015 is available here. Photographs Copyright © Douglas Kirkland, courtesy Glitterati Incorporated.


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