Elle, Gabrielle.

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Over the years, I bought a great many books on Coco Chanel. Not only because I’m into fashion, her achievements in fashion are more than just outstanding, she was the designer of the century, there was no competition to question that, Balenciaga surely was an artist, carefully designed perfection-to-wear, he was born to give Mona von Bismarck her raison d’être, and Dior gave the world the New Look, a look so very old now, so very démodé, visited today by millions in a museum in Paris, next to the Mona Lisa, a woman whose mysterious smile has turned into a grimace when it had become that liveless cliché it is today, a smile so rarely if ever smiled back at, merely admired, like moth balled haute couture on mannequins, but Chanel’s iconic inventions live on, they are out, on the streets, they breathe and move, they were born free, copied, reinterpreted, updated, backdated, timeless, but all of that, all these hats, buttons, pearls, fake and real, all these two-tone shoes, suits and little black dresses, all that comfy beige tweed and that refined soft lace, these numbers 5, 19 and 22, olfactory revolutions, all of it bears the same genes. Style galore. We owe it to the little black-haired girl from humble beginnings whose genius outlived it all: the Belle Époque, the wars, the Roaring Twenties, the rise and fall of countries, people and fashions, she met and loved Dukes and Grand Dukes, Englishmen and Russians, she encountered Picasso, Stravinsky, Cocteau, Reverdy, Diaghilev, basically le tout Paris of the last century. Two books by Isabelle Fiemeyer, published by Flammarion in English and French, introduce us to some of the traces such a life left behind, we are allowed a glimpse, however long, of private belongings, on letters and jewels, on golden artifacts and worn clothes – these intimate details are treasures not to be missed.

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Life saving chicken soup.

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My mother believes in chicken soup to cure anything. Anything that makes you cough and feel like la dame aux camélias at least, even if your name is neither Marguerite nor Violetta and you have never worn a single camellia in your entire life. Not even in your lapels on Coco Chanel’s birthday. Anyway, in my case, tragically a less romantic one, my mother came to kill the germs that caused my pneumonia – which quite boringly I did not get by kissing a guy while becoming acquainted with enough of his germs to catch such a disease, as Dionne Warwick keeps suggesting, and even more boringly so it’s just a severe case of pneumonia and not tubercolosis, so I still won’t make it to the Magic Mountain (prosaically known as Davos-Dorf) and be able to feel like one of Thomas Mann’s tragically coughing heroes.

But I’ve been digressing, let’s get to the point: my mother came with pigeons that appeared to have led a happy life from her weekly market instead of chickens as she deeply disapproved of the chickens the supermarket had in stock and remembered that the Buddenbrooks always had “Täubchen” when they needed some strengthening, you see my family and I refer a great deal to Thomas Mann’s literary outcomes, one could say on a daily basis, anyway, along with the pigeons she brought multicoloured organic vegetables, green, orange and red for colour and vitamins, in other words red peppers, carrots and leek, she also brought chillies, the ones that set your tongue and throat on fire, bayleaves, olive oil, the slightly bitter one as only bitter olive oil is to be trusted, the rest might be useful to fry French fries in, alright, at McDonald’s or what ever they call these places nowadays, you see, my mother wildly disapproves of junk food, but you might have guessed that by now, anyway, she also brought organic pepper, black and white, to be crushed in absurd quantities into the soup, and vast amounts of French garlic, it’s very important that it is from France, please forget all about the one from China.

I ate it all up. It was very yummy. And indeed, I feel a little better. Just my tongue’s still on fire.

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Schiaparelli.

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In 1982, I was 14 years old and we got our first cat, a black beauty that I named Schiaparelli, although, truth be told, no alternative facts here, I pronounced it German, not Italian. Not at all Italian. At the time I only spoke German and French, and some Luxembourgish if you consider that a language. Still, I was a huge fan of Elsa Schiaparelli although I can’t recall when I first heard about her, she wasn’t in fashion at all then, I suppose it was an article in some smart magazine, for instance, I was deeply fond of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Magazine at that time, I cut out a photo of a young, barely dressed, or probably naked Jean Marais from it, photographed by Horst. Years later, as a student at university, I had it on my kitchen wall, still fond of the young Marais. Anyway, Schiaparelli was the loveliest cat ever. Utterly elegant. And believe it or not, she always – always! – smelled like my mother’s loose Christian Dior powder, I think it’s been discontinued, 600 Plus Qu’Invisible, at the time still sold in these pink old school boxes, completely old fashioned even at that time, we all wondered how she did it, she would come in after extended walks in the neighbourhood, after days sometimes, she was quite a tramp, from rain or snow, her paws covered in mud and dirt, but she always smelled like Dior. But don’t judge her by that alone. She was quite destructive. She mocked the craftsmanship of my mother’s antique prie dieu, a kneeler from the 1850s whose original upholstery she made look as if Jeanne d’Arc had left it behind in battle, but we left it that way, she seemed to enjoy her iconoclasm, it was only restored after her death, in black silk cotton, in a neverending mourning period style. I think Elsa would have liked her, Coco Chanel maybe not so much.

A diplomat’s scent.

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I really don’t know why people are making such a fuss about No 5. Okay, it has been the world’s best selling perfume since 1921, Marilyn Monroe wore it, apparently mostly when naked and in bed, but so did the doyenne at my very first agency, and rest assured, although she was the sweetest person who used to feed me with biscuits, I’m pretty sure no one pictured her in bed, let alone naked. Anyway, I digress as usual, my point is, I like Ernest Beaux’s No 22 from 1922 so much better. And like Karl Lagerfeld, I only care about my opinion. No 22 is like dessert. A very fine dessert, that is. Made of tuberoses and vanilla, cream and candied roses, with a little whisky in the cream, a single malt of course, even a harsh one, Lagavulin, just a tiny dose, a hint, but enough to add the strangest depth to it, transforming the femininity of all those fragrant flowers into a gentleman’s dessert, into some sort of diplomat cream, I once made one, a so-called crème diplomate Couloubrier, but it turned out as a real culinary disaster, marshmallows are sour in comparison, only my father who has the world’s sweetest tooth, would eat it, but that’s another story, where was I? Right, No 22. To put it in a nutshell, this perfume is an olfactory diplomat cream, and as this dessert was named after the famous Russian diplomat Nesselrode, known for his love for English puddings and desserts, No 22 is quite a manly scent. One cannot be any manlier than a Russian, can one?

F. Scott Waugham

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It was a page that I didn’t turn, the one in W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “On Razor’s Edge” that had his narrator guess who designed his hostess’ elegant dress this time, this time being an afternoon in late 1920s Paris. Lanvin or Chanel? The dress turned out to be by Jeanne Lanvin on the following page, but I had already drifted away, to a world where Coco Chanel was alive and kicking, where I, the 14 year old that I was, was strolling through Paris, from couture house to couture house, stopping at Cartier and Goyard, sniffing my way from Guerlain to Caron, not buying, just looking, with my coral cigarette holder, the one I knew from Saki’s unbearable Bassington, wearing one of the exquisite shirts I had borrowed from J. Gatsby, and with a best buddy next to me, some partner in crime, like Sebastian Flyte’s companion Aloysius, a teddy bear friend, serving as alter ego and advocatus diaboli at the same time.

F.Scott Fitzgerald, W.Somerset Maugham, Evelyn Waugh, and Saki – these were not only my favourite authors for their exquisite stories, but more importantly, these refined guys introduced me to style in such a convincingly romantic way, that I was changed for life. Mousey will confirm all of it.