Hard times arouse an instinctive desire for authenticity.
— Coco Chanel
I didn’t really have any living or close female role models growing up. So I turned to books… and when the books got boring, there was Vogue.
In the absence of a woman to show me how to grow into another, I tried to create that woman from a collage of twentieth century female narrative: faces, words, actions and style. (Thankfully, I was raised by wolves and didn’t hear of Barbie until it was too late).
So at the wolf cabin of my childhood and teens, while my mind chewed on Simone de Beauvoir, Susan Sontag, Anaïs Nin, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath and other femme fatale of the written word because something about them felt safe and solid, timeless, wolf-like and heroic, my eyes were hypnotized by all the vintage fashion icons of the “better times” — led by Audrey Hepburn, with Brigitte Bardot at her left and Coco Chanel at the right.
To me, Coco Chanel set the first example that it was possible to care about both, your mind and looks equally, to cultivate and excel at both, the inside and the outside, to turn your defeats into opportunities, your weaknesses into strengths, to be both, an artist and an entrepreneur, to embrace your light and your darkness as equals — not just in your heart but also let your yin-yangs reflect through your style and the way you move and show yourself to the world.
She made vulnerability ferocious and rebellion, sexy; she made the practical, elegant, and elegance — a visible result of a style revolution that must begin inside, when you decide that all your parts (mind, body, heart & style) are created equal and none should be sacrificed at the expense of another.
To a great extent, I’d say that, both as a feminine and feminist icon, Coco Chanel has taught us how to take life by the hand, instead of letting it take us by the throat, and learn to celebrate ourselves and our femininity at the same time as we are fighting for our life.
We learn by imitation and there is nothing more powerful and influential than a woman showing up in both, her beauty and her brains, and unapologetic about either, but using both to help her pioneer new breakthroughs.
For those who think Fashion = Vanity, I’d need to write a preamble to this, explaining how Fashion is an Art, while Vanity…well, Vanity is a prostitution of the mind, and it can poison any kind of fashion, style, art, mindset or behaviour alike.
But if you are already aware that the way you package yourself and present yourself to the world, the Medium (your appearance, physical container) through which you display everything that lies within you, should match the message (the real You dancing inside), then Coco Chanel is a great (if not the greatest) teacher.
Here is a 3-minute magical tale of how she came to be and later how she made herself, by recycling her poverty and apparent limitations into the greatest fashion revolution of the twentieth century and a still-growing empire:
Inside these sayings are some of the most essential lessons on being a woman taught by This Woman through her story, along with some of some of my own sidenotes. All quoted text by Mademoiselle.
My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.
You are the director of your movie. Nobody owns your copyrights, but you. This might be the most powerful lesson of my life to date.
Innovation! One cannot be forever innovating. I want to create classics.
Not everything you do must be a revolution.
Those who create are rare; those who cannot are numerous. Therefore, the latter are stronger.
And this is why, when you decide to be among the first, you need to be prepared to swim upstream.
I invented my life by taking for granted that everything I did not like would have an opposite, which I would like.
I’m applying this equation to all my current issues.
Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.
What you resist, persists. Find another way through or around it. Take creative action.
Speaking of which, this is how she created one of the most popular scents in history: Chanel Nº 5.
And just because everything sounds better in French, voilá l’original: Pour la première fois…
Fashion changes, but style endures.
And it also adapts to any outside trend or passing fashion, if first cultivated inside.
I imposed black; it still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.
When I find a colour darker than black, I’ll wear it. But until then, I’m wearing black!
All future generations will thank you for this gift.
Be classy. Anything but trashy.
Vulgarity can make a momentary impact and surprise with obscenity, but it won’t take you far.
Look for the woman in the dress. If there is no woman, there is no dress.
Fashion begins inside.
If a woman is poorly dressed, you notice her dress, and if she’s impeccably dressed, you notice the woman.
We are superficial creatures as much as we are profound. As part of our human “packaging,” clothes have a great impact on the immediate, unintentional way we judge people by their appearance. It’s an inevitable subconscious association, so instead of fighting it, make it work for you.
All human interaction, from the smallest to the greatest, is an act of communication. The more you want this message to stand out, the better care you need to take of the medium in which it is presented. And this applies to anything — life, communication, relationships, business — not just to fashion.
I love luxury. And luxury lies not in richness and ornateness but in the absence of vulgarity. Vulgarity is the ugliest word in our language. I stay in the game to fight it.
This is why, through her fashion, she made women comfortable and at the same time she gave them wings.
There is nothing more comfortable than a caterpillar and nothing more made for love than a butterfly. We need dresses that crawl and dresses that fly. Fashion is at once a caterpillar and a butterfly, caterpillar by day, butterfly by night.
I wanted to give a woman comfortable clothes that would flow with her body. A woman is closest to being naked when she is well-dressed.
And so you did.
Women think of all colors except the absence of color. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.
She embodied this yin and yang more graciously than any other woman of her time.
I don’t do fashion, I AM fashion.
Because fashion is not an object but an art, it’s not a piece of clothing but a process, not something you wear but something you practice. So we ARE fashion too.
This short, beautifully created video (part of the Inside Chanel series), describes some of her greatest influences and breakthroughs:
Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.
Elegance comes from being as beautiful inside as outside.
Elegance is not the prerogative of those who have just escaped from adolescence, but of those who have already taken possession of their future.
Elegance springs from confidence, not insecurity. It comes as a result of being at peace with oneself, of having accepted your shortcomings as well as your brilliance and carrying yourself through life at your own rhythm and not the one imposed by fear, life clocks or opinions.
Adornment, what a science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance!
I don’t know why women want any of the things men have when one of the things that women have is men.
She practiced a superior kind of feminism. Wink Wink.
It’s probably not just by chance that I’m alone. It would be very hard for a man to live with me, unless he’s terribly strong. And if he’s stronger than I, I’m the one who can’t live with him. … I’m neither smart nor stupid, but I don’t think I’m a run-of-the-mill person. I’ve been in business without being a businesswoman, I’ve loved without being a woman made only for love.
The two men I’ve loved, I think, will remember me, on earth or in heaven, because men always remember a woman who caused them concern and uneasiness. I’ve done my best, in regard to people and to life, without precepts, but with a taste for justice.
It’s probably not just by chance that I’m alone either.
There is no time for cut-and-dried monotony. There is time for work. And time for love. That leaves no other time.
What else is there to do?
On Life & Attitude.
Women have always been the strong ones of the world.
No one is young after forty, but one can be irresistible at any age.
Capel said, ‘Remember that you’re a woman.’ All too often I forgot that.
Nature gives you the face you have at twenty; it is up to you to merit the face you have at fifty.
She re-created herself, time after time. It is perhaps this ability to deconstruct herself, revise what doesn’t work and be reborn into a new, more powerful and even more original version, that I admire most about a woman warrior and strive to cultivate.
A woman who cuts her hair is about to change her life.
I am about to cut my hair…
You live but once; you might as well be amusing.
I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all.
I am so busy creating the life I want that I simply don’t have time to mind the people and the things I don’t want.
In 1919 I woke up famous. I’d never guessed it. If I’d known I was famous, I’d have stolen away and wept. I was stupid. I was supposed to be intelligent. I was sensitive and very dumb.
There are rich people, and there are those who have money. They are not the same people.
Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.
I didn’t understand this thought when I first read it… But now I do. The fear of failure is worse than failure itself, as it keeps you from the natural failures that lie on the other side of success. The fear of greatness keeps you from both — the greatest places and the inevitable falling and leaping you will have to execute in order to experience these places.
Much has been said about how or how not to be a woman, about what women want or don’t, or can or can’t, or about how they should or should not look, act, smell, or feel… you name it, my head hurts.
But here’s a simple, more palpable, common truth at the bottom of all Acts of Liberation we still carry under thousands of years of blood and soul and revolutions:
A woman is first and foremost a Creator of Life — whether it is through a baby, a project, a business, a home, a piece of art, an adventure, a job, a creative rebellion or any other life-giving act. She is the vessel through which LIFE enters the world, in one shape or another, seeking to find its most beautiful, fulfilled expression. And secondly, she is a nurturer of the life that she helps channel.
The first part of this deal with the Universe brings POWER. There’s nothing like the adrenaline of creation running through your veins, the ability to turn a dream into fact, to create a world from scratch, to start a revolution. The second part of this deal brings RESPONSIBILITY. Power won’t stick or grow or deepen unless it is nurtured, persisted and worked on. A revolution won’t change much, unless you bleed it long enough to break through hundreds of years of concrete and replace the stagnant that surrounds us with our creative, flowing nature.
This is, after all, the most important lesson of my life: that no matter what I encounter on my 80-year journey (or less) on this planet, I am ALWAYS the director of my movie, the writer of my book, the main character of my story, the designer of my life, and the ultimate architect of my destiny; and that I don’t just have the power but also the responsibility to demand and help create the world I need to live in.
What Coco Chanel did was add a Third Step to this formula: POWER –> RESPONSIBILITY — > STYLE — that is, your way of moving, breathing, walking, thinking, dressing, operating, existing — from the most profound to the most superficial side of you. Style is the comma that separates our sentences, the medium without which the entire meaning of our message would be changed, the breath that moves through both, our dreaming and our doing.