The Designer COCO CHANEL

She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves

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Coco Chanel wasn't just ahead of her time. She was ahead of herself. If one looks at the work of contemporary fashion designers as different from one another as Tom Ford, Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Donatella Versace, one sees that many of their strategies echo what Chanel once did. The way, 75 years ago, she mixed up the vocabulary of male and female clothes and created fashion that offered the wearer a feeling of hidden luxury rather than ostentation are just two examples of how her taste and sense of style overlap with today's fashion.

Chanel would not have defined herself as a feminist--in fact, she consistently spoke of femininity rather than of feminism--yet her work is unquestionably part of the liberation of women. She threw out a life jacket, as it were, to women not once but twice, during two distinct periods decades apart: the 1920s and the '50s. She not only appropriated styles, fabrics and articles of clothing that were worn by men but also, beginning with how she dressed herself, appropriated sports clothes as part of the language of fashion. One can see how her style evolved out of necessity and defiance. She couldn't afford the fashionable clothes of the period--so she rejected them and made her own, using, say, the sports jackets and ties that were everyday male attire around the racetrack, where she was climbing her first social ladders.

It's not by accident that she became associated with the modern movement that included Diaghilev, Picasso, Stravinsky and Cocteau. Like these artistic protagonists, she was determined to break the old formulas and invent a way of expressing herself. Cocteau once said of her that "she has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value only for painters, musicians, poets."

By the late '60s, Chanel had become part of what she once rebelled against and hated--the Establishment. But if one looks at documentary footage of her from that period, one can still feel the spit and vinegar of the fiery peasant woman who began her fashion revolution against society by aiming at the head, with hats. Her boyish "flapper" creations were in stark contrast to the Belle Epoque millinery that was in vogue at the time, and about which she asked, "How can a brain function under those things?" Something that Chanel can never be accused of is not using her brain. Her sharp mind is apparent in everything she did, from her savvy use of logos to her deep understanding of the power of personality and packaging, even the importance of being copied. And she was always quotable: "Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road."

It is fitting, somehow, that Chanel was often photographed holding a cigarette or standing in front of her famous Art Deco wall of mirrors. Fashion tends to involve a good dose of smoke and mirrors, so it should come as no surprise that Gabrielle Chanel's version of her life involved a multitude of lies, inventions, cover-ups and revisions. But as Prada said to me: "She was really a genius. It's hard to pin down exactly why, but it has something to do with her wanting to be different and wanting to be independent."

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