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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And in this season of tinsel and trim, we offer an audio bauble now we hope will delight. On a visit to Paris recently, NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg took her microphone to a pretty special place - the apartment of the late fashion designer Coco Chanel.

SUSAN STAMBERG: She lived over the store, 31 Rue Cambon. Downstairs, the Chanel boutique and couture salon, where models showed collections. Upstairs, a sanctum sanctorum, where closest friends were entertained. Today the apartment is used for press interviews, fashion shoots�

Ms. ODILE BABIN (Chanel Archivist): And, of course, for haute couture clients.

STAMBERG: Odile Babin works in the Chanel archives.

Ms. BABIN: In this apartment, you can understand the universe of Mademoiselle Chanel that's the universe of Chanel today. So it's very important to see the apartment to understand that.

STAMBERG: Coco Chanel had a design vocabulary, which her successor Karl Lagerfeld carries out today - camellias, black, the double C logo, the elongated octagon shape of the Chanel No. 5 perfume stopper. And she surrounded herself with this vocabulary, her inspirations, in the apartment over the store.

To get there, you climb a curved staircase up steps carpeted in beige with white trim. When new collections were modeled, Chanel watched them from these stairs.

Ms. BABIN: During the show, she would sit here on the fifth�

STAMBERG: On the step - the fifth step?

Ms. BABIN: Yes. The fifth floor...

STAMBERG: As in Chanel No. 5?

Ms. BABIN: Exactly.

STAMBERG: Five steps down from the apartment, the stair wall lined with mirrors.

So I'm standing on the step at the curved staircase in front of a wall full of mirrors - slimly cut mirrors - and looking down from here I can see all the audience's reactions to the clothes as well as the models themselves.

But no one could see me - I mean her - Chanel, hidden from view, perched on a step. The upstairs apartment is like the nest of the most exotic bird, filled with antique lacquered Chinese screens � camellias part of the pattern. She flattened the burgundy-colored screens like wallpaper, or folded them at the entryway to her drawing room.

Ms. BABIN: Mademoiselle Chanel hated doors and she hoped that by placing them in front of the door, her guests might not remember to leave.

STAMBERG: Afraid of being alone, a design genius, a self-promoter, a fabulist � she made things up - Mademoiselle was some complicated character. Born poor, a series of rich and powerful lovers paved her way to fame and fortune. One, during World War II, was a Nazi intelligence officer. A pre-war lover, the Duke of Westminster, was the richest man in England.

On a table in Chanel's apartment, some of his lavish gifts: three cigarette boxes.

Did she smoke?

Ms. BABIN: Ooh, a lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. BABIN: A lot.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STAMBERG: Those strong, rich, Gitanes cigarettes. The elongated octagon-shaped boxes are engraved with the duke's coat of arms, silver on the outside.

Ms. BABIN: And gold inside. So the more precious metal is not outside, it's inside. It's a luxury hidden from view. It's a luxury for yourself.

STAMBERG: An important Chanel principle, says archivist Odile Babin.

Ms. BABIN: And we call this notion the invisible perfection.

STAMBERG: Chanel's apartment is filled with visible perfections - crystal chandeliers, gleaming mirrors, pairs of gilded Chinese horses, an ancient Russian icon from her friend Stravinsky, a shaft of wheat painted by her friend Salvador Dali.

Ms. BABIN: It was a special gift for Mademoiselle. Yes, yes.

STAMBERG: It's all so opulent, sophisticated, elegant. And yet...

What I notice is the size of this room, it's very intimate. It's not grand space. You just feel that you could sit with a few friends and have a drink in an intimate fashion here.

Each room is small, and an important room is missing.

Ms. BABIN: Mademoiselle Chanel never slept here.

STAMBERG: No bedroom.

Ms. BABIN: No bedroom. No.

STAMBERG: She had a private suite at the Ritz � with all those Ritzy amenities and service. Every evening, Mademoiselle walked five minutes from rue Cambon over to the Place Vendome, elongated octagon shape, and in through the rear door of the Ritz to retire for the night. And each morning she crossed back to No. 31. Nice commute.

(Soundbite of music)

STAMBERG: She would phone over first so they could spray the salon with Chanel No. 5. Then, in a mist of expensive perfume, Mademoiselle Coco Chanel got back to work.

Susan Stamberg, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can make a virtual visit to Chanel's apartment at NPR.org.

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