|Coco Chanel working in her Paris atelier in 1962. Click to see the full image. |
Photograph by Douglas Kirkland
Douglas Kirkland’s best photograph: Coco Chanel at work in Paris, 1962
‘In the three weeks I was there, I never saw Chanel without her hat on – and she smoked constantly’
Interview by Karin Andreasson
Thu 8 Jan 2015
n August 1962, the American picture magazine Look sent me to Paris to shoot Coco Chanel after it emerged that Jackie Kennedy had been wearing her dresses and suits in the White House. Americans had heard of the perfume Chanel No 5, but until then they had no idea Chanel was also a fashion label.
I didn’t speak any French and to begin with she wouldn’t speak to me in English. I was only allowed to photograph the outfits – she didn’t want me near her. But when I developed the first roll of film, I showed her the prints and she gave me a nod. That was my green light to shoot her.
She always wanted to be called Mademoiselle, not Coco, or Madame, which you would expect to call someone of her age in France. And Mademoiselle was very hands-on. She would never stand back and just point at things. She liked to pull things together and pin them. It was like watching a surgeon in an operating room – she knew precisely what she wanted. Her staff would surround her. If she needed scissors or a pin, it was instantly there for her. In this picture, she has one assistant working with her, but she often had two or three. The model stood there like a shop mannequin and I had the feeling that she sculpted her garments, like this sleeveless dress, as an artist would sculpt in clay. It was always quiet when she worked, no chattering voices; the atmosphere was of reverence and concentration.
In the three weeks I was there, I never saw her without her hat on and she smoked constantly. She arrived at work at 9am, having walked from where she lived at the Ritz, two or three blocks away. She walked in a crisp, stately manner – you would never have thought she was 79 years old.
I kept to myself and worked like a fly-on-the-wall at first, but she later took a great interest in me. She was instructive and helped me to develop my work. Despite her tough reputation, I found her extremely warm and generous. I was raised in a small town in Canada and it felt daunting to be on this assignment in Paris. I grew up an enormous amount in that three-week period. I had only been with Look a couple of years and it was an important picture magazine with a circulation of over 7 million per issue.
I have a picture of myself and Mademoiselle. I was a very young-looking 27-year-old, tall and thin, and she didn’t even come up to my shoulder. On my last day, she said we should go to Versailles. It was a Saturday. We had lunch in her apartment and then took a car to the palace. The last photograph I took of Mademoiselle was her walking alone in the gardens at Versailles. It was chilly and had started to rain, even though it was August, so I gave her my raincoat. She put it over her shoulders and it looked almost like a fashionable cape. She said that she often liked to go there because it gave her an opportunity to get lost in time while being surrounded by the magnitude of old French culture. She found it relaxing.
I couldn’t believe it when she asked me to go with her to Switzerland, where she had a house. But when I telegrammed my boss back in New York, I got the curt reply: “Assignment finished. Come home.”
• Douglas Kirkland’s Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962 is published by Glitterati Incorporated.
Born: Toronto, 1934.
Studied: New York Institute of Photography; was assistant to Irving Penn.
High point: “You won’t find a person in my profession who doesn’t have ups and downs.”
Low point: “A dry period at the end of the 1980s when Life, Time, Newsweek, Town and Country stopped calling.”
Top tip: “I’ve been doing this for more than 60 years but I still have to keep learning. You need to have curiosity and excitement.”