Diane von Furstenberg’s Talk with the Ghost of Coco Chanel

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From the NYPL” some night in midtown Manhattan there were three chairs: one occupied by Chanel biographer and moderator Rhonda Garelick; one by the inimitable Diane von Furstenberg, in a pink-and-black print dress of her own design; and one was left empty, for the ghost of Coco Chanel.
The three were gathered—in a sense—to compare and contrast the lives of two queens of fashion (who had been notably been linked in a 1976 Newsweek cover story about the Princess von Furstenberg—then selling scads of clingy, versatile wrap dresses—who was described as being “the most marketable woman since Coco Chanel”).But did the two have more in common than success?

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And would Coco have liked DVF? “Probably not, maybe yes,” conjectured von Furstenberg.

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“When I was young she may have.” Garelick’s take: “I think she’d be a little jealous of you, Diane. [Chanel] was very competitive with women and had very few women friends.” Here, eight things we learned about Coco Chanel from Diane von Furstenberg.

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On How Chanel Became Chanel
“[Chanel] would never have become who she was if she didn’t go to the nunnery. Her life in the convent was the most formative and that’s where she learned aesthetics, that’s where she learned discipline, that’s where she learned how to sew. I think what really formed her was that.

”On DVF and Coco’s Common Ground“
I’ve often been associated with her. But when I read your book, I couldn’t believe how many similarities there were. First of all, where I identify with her is the very source; how humiliated she was as a young girl and so how much she wanted vengeance, and I really understood all that part so, so well.

”. . . And on Their Not-So-Common Ground“
Now there are things that are not similar: Apparently she was working for the Gestapo and all of that, but somehow reading your book, I really thought that she may have gotten involved with the Gestapo trying to save her nephew, who I believe was her son and so you then sympathize very much with that.

”On the Perfect Fabric“
She made clothes that women wanted to wear, she made clothes that were comfortable, she brought in jersey. You cannot find a male designer who likes jersey fabric. And I understand why. I mean it’s much more beautiful to see a satin duchesse or see some beautiful silk. But women designers really get jersey . . . always, whether it’s Chanel, Madame Vionnet, Madame Grès,Sonia Rykiel, Norma Kamali,Donna Karan. . . . All women designers understand jersey because it’s practical and it feels good.

”. . . And the Ideal Skirt Length“
[Chanel] always said ‘the perfect length is flirtier avec du genou,’ which is ‘flirt with the knee,’ and I always quote her for that.

”On Female Comradeship“
She was jealous of certain women, but she liked women. Well, first of all, she liked women sexually, so that’s liking women.

”On Self-Creation“
The one thing we certainly have in common is that we were our own ancestors. That we invented ourselves. . . . Chanel was the essence of a woman. I always said when I was a young woman, I want a man’s life in a woman’s body. And both of us did that.

”On Why Chanel (the Brand) Is What It Is Now“
She was in a world that wasn’t hers, and then she decided, I’m going to dress them—and so I really relate to that, to that early part, but I’m also so extraordinarily proud and excited for Chanel that a hundred years later the brand is still so relevant and so modern and so edgy and all of that and I like that. It was because there was a real spirit. And because at the end the truth is we make and sell a dream. But it’s not a dream that’s empty. She became the woman she wanted to be.”

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