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THE great virtue of Coco's early (and present) clothes is their straightforward design and use of ordinary fabrics. They can be easily copied, cheaply mass-produced. Copied they were, and Coco loved it, refusing to join the cabal of other Paris designers who tried to prevent style piracy. "Thirty years ago," she says proudly, "I went to dinner at Giro's. I remember counting 23 Chanel dresses in the room. But I was sure of only one: mine. I found that a very pretty compliment."
In 1939, with the war coming on, Coco retired. In 1953, to boost lagging Chanel No. 5 sales, Pierre Wertheimer, owner of the perfumes, asked Coco to resume designing. Since then, she has proved that for all the random fads and seasonal excitements, perhaps the surest touch in fashion is still Chanel's.
She is no innovator for novelty's sake. She devotes her energies to barely noticeable refinements of detail of her suits and dresses, e.g., jackets are shorter this year, a little closer to the body. With scissors hanging from a ribbon around her neck and her four fingers firmly together in a characteristic Coco gesture as she pats a new suit in various places, she may say: "Make a pleat here, an intelligent pleat." One of this year's suits was changed 35 times after being made up before Coco was satisfied.
Such perfectionism comes high: $700 a suit to a private buyer, almost twice that much to a buyer who wants to copy the model for mass distribution. Even so, the House of Chanel loses money every year on its fashion division, which is carried by the perfume profits. Some 80% of Chanel sales are made abroad, and her clothes have been copied all over the world, right down to a U.S. cotton model retailing for $10. The secret of fashion is simple, says Coco: "One always begins by making dream dresses. Then one has to take away something. Always to take off, never to add. Some people think luxury is the contrary of being poor. No, it is the contrary of vulgarity."