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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

The French designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel invented the little black dress. She freed French ladies from their corsets and created a label and a perfume that remain chic almost 40 years after her death. A new film tells the little-known story of the young Chanel, the orphan and cabaret singer who became the toast of the fashion world. NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.

SUSAN STAMBERG: As an old woman describing her beginnings, Coco Chanel said, I was able to start a high-fashion shop because two gentlemen were outbidding each other over my hot little body!

(Soundbite of Coco Before Chanel movie)

Unidentified Man #1: (French spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (French spoken)

STAMBERG: In the new film, the Coco Before Chanel, those two men, who will help make her an icon, talk about her as if she were property. But because of them, the penniless, canny Mademoiselle Coco...

(Soundbite of Coco Before Chanel movie)

Ms. AUDREY TAUTOU (Actress): (As Coco Chanel) (French spoken)

STAMBERG: ...played by Audrey Tautou becomes the famous, fabulous Chanel.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: The film begins in 1884. Coco was dumped at a dreary convent. Her mother is dead. Her father disappears. Depressed, a wild child, in the convent orphanage the girl will learn a skill that shapes her future.

Ms. ANNE FONTAINE (Writer, Director, Coco Before Chanel): She is going to learn how to sew.

STAMBERG: Anne Fontaine wrote and directed Coco Before Chanel.

Ms. FONTAINE: But at the beginning of her life, she sew - but for her it's a boring activity.

STAMBERG: All young girls sewed in those days. Coco wanted to be special - and she was, even then, in certain ways.

Throughout the film, we see Tautou, as Coco, looking at things and she examines them in a very special way.

Ms. FONTAINE: Animal way, you know, its physical. Its very - its through the hands and through the eyes. She catches everything like that, you know.

STAMBERG: At the convent, bored and miserable, Coco examined closely what the nuns wore.

Ms. FONTAINE: Black and white. And every day she looks at this black and white. It became the fetish colors of Chanel style, you know.

STAMBERG: The colors she liked the best?

Ms. FONTAINE: The best.

STAMBERG: And really the signature of her style.

Ms. FONTAINE: Yes and the black was really very revolutionary to put a dress in black. Because black, it was for the man or for the people who lost somebody -les veuves.

STAMBERG: Widows.

Ms. FONTAINE: Widows.

STAMBERG: At 18, Coco gets a day job sewing for a tailor. At night in the small town she sings in cafes.

(Soundbite of Coco Before Chanel movie)

Ms. TAUTOU: (Singing in French)

STAMBERG: She didnt have much of a voice, did she?

Ms. FONTAINE: No, shes a bad singer. She sings in a very lower-class cabaret.

STAMBERG: But in that seedy cabaret, Coco meets and then moves in with her first gentleman.

(Soundbite of Coco Before Chanel movie)

Unidentified Man #3: (French spoken)

Ms. TAUTOU: (French spoken)

STAMBERG: What was she to him? Was she his mistress, his lover, a courtesan, a whore?

Ms. FONTAINE: If you dont want to say a too much violent word, you say courtesan. And if you want to be more aggressive, you say whore.

STAMBERG: She was aggressive, ambitious, and poor. Her options were limited. That first man, a polo-playing playboy, introduces her to gentleman number 2: Arthur Boy Capel, another polo player; tall, dark, handsome, the love of her life. Boy takes her to the sea at Deauville.

(Soundbite of Coco Before Chanel movie)

Ms. TAUTOU: (French spoken)

Ms. FONTAINE: And she looks at all these women on the beach, and she says that shes like in a pastry shop.

STAMBERG: In a pastry shop? Yeah.

Ms. FONTAINE: Pastry shop because there was these hats and it seems that she have cakes on her heads, you know; very long skirts, corsets, you cant be free.

STAMBERG: Coco begins getting rid of all the clutter. She grabs her boyfriend's sweaters or trousers or jackets and cuts them down to her own slim and flat-chested proportions. She dresses simply, in spare colors.

Ms. FONTAINE: And after that the other women looks at her and say oh, shes so beautiful, chic.

STAMBERG: They want to look like that, like a new woman, free. They ask Coco to make their clothes and they begin to buy her clean-cut, simple hats and jackets and dresses. Those wealthy women help Coco become Chanel, just as her gentlemen friends do.

So here she gets these two wealthy men and loads of others after them. What was her secret, Anne Fontaine? Was it sex, enormous charm, was she so smart - she sure wasnt a beauty.

Ms. FONTAINE: Of course she was smart, but the charisma she has, it was a very free personality. She was not afraid of nothing. Its not beauty. Its something stronger than beauty.

STAMBERG: Gabrielle Coco Chanel was a survivor, and it showed. She survived abandonment, abject poverty, the loss in a car crash of her true love...

Ms. FONTAINE: All her life its a success - of course a successful story, but also with tragedy always underneath, and thats make the life, the personality, and her talent very interesting because its not only a success story.

STAMBERG: The film Coco Before Chanel ends with the 30-something designer on the brink of fame and fortune. By the time she died, at the age of 87 in 1971, Coco Chanel was a legend who made clothes you could easily wear tomorrow, if you could afford them.

Im Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: Coco Before Chanel opens next Friday in New York and Los Angeles, and next month in theaters around the country. To see clips from the film and read reviews of other new movies, go to npr.org. And youll also find more about Chanels designs including that iconic little black dress.

(Soundbite of music)

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