In the past couple of years, most people will have noticed that Gabrielle, ‘Coco’ Chanel has come under increasing scrutiny. Since 2008, Chanel has been the subject of three biopics, from the rooted-in-realism ‘Coco Avant Chanel’, to the hopelessly miscast Shirley MacLaine vehicle ‘Coco Chanel’ to the strictly hypothetical ‘Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinky’, which charts the alleged affair between Chanel and… well, you get the general idea.
It’s telling that all these biopics state Chanel’s full name in their title – it draws attention to the woman, who deliberately shrouded herself with a fabric of lies, half-truths and misdirections. The fascination is solely on her, her thoughts, her actions, her beliefs. Who was the real Chanel? We are obsessed with uncovering the enigma.
The potential revelation then, that Chanel may not have been just anti-Semitic, but also a card carrying Nazi spy is a huge boat-rocker to Chanel fans, historians and those with very specific business interests. Last week, a Chanel spokesperson denied these fresh claims, set out by Hal Vaughan in the new biography ‘Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War’, citing the many Jewish friends and business partners that Chanel engaged with in her lifetime as their argument.
It brings to mind another particularly jarring episode in the annals of fashion history; that of John Galliano’s anti-semitic tirade and subsequent arrest, trial and firing as head of the French fashion house, Dior. An article published in this month’s Vogue, while obviously trying to remain impartial, also mentions Galliano’s many Jewish compatriots.
In Fashion, people will forgive almost anything. It almost doesn’t matter whether Chanel was a Nazi or not. The vast majority of people will not stop buying. Just look at what scandal has done for Kate Moss’ career. I predict that, unless he has an extremely personal breakdown, John Galliano will emerge into a new phase of his design life within the next eighteen months or so, newly humbled and just as talented.
It’s very easy to look at things in black and white, but I genuinely believe that Galliano’s tartistic output is separate from his personality. I care about his body of work, which is totally unlike any other designer’s.
I shouldn’t think like that. For thousands of years, people have been deifying artists based on their talent and not their personalities. The artist Paul Gaugain abandoned his wife and children, going to Martinique to paint, but also to have sex with prepubescent girls. V.S Naipaul, the Nobel-prize winning author has a repugnant attitude towards women, even acknowledging that his mental cruelty towards his wife may have been a factor in her death.
And yet we are still fascinated. It’s as if we cannot see a difference between the life and the work. We want to believe that because the clothes are so beautiful, the person who designed them must have a serene interior beauty. This is rarely the case.
Nazi or Ally? Racist or colourblind? Kind or cruel? The reality is almost never one or the other. It’s terrible that bad people exist in our world, but even worse if they have a talent that brings joy to a majority. It is an almost intolerable dichotomy. But it’s all that we’ve got.