For anyone who has visited Coco Chanel’s apartment, above the flagship store at 31 Rue Cambon, Paris, it is not only the famous curved mirrored staircase, her love of chinoiseriepanelling and symbolic objets that draw the eye, but also her extensive library.
Coco Chanel had wall-to-wall bookshelves packed with leather bound tomes of Homer, Virgil and Sophocles in addition to 20th-century writers, reminding the visitor that reading was integral to her creativity. She read to escape as much as to be inspired. For example, did you know that her love of camellias was as a result of reading Alexandre Dumas’ La Dame aux Camelias – in which the heroine wears a white camellia to reflect the purity of her love?
In her social set were many authors and poets including Pierre Reverdy, Max Jacob and Jean Cocteau. When Cocteau wrote and directed Antigone and Oedipus Rex, Chanel designed the costumes for the cast, interpreting the texts in her own inimitable fashion.
Arthur “Boy” Capel, one of Chanel’s lovers, was also a prolific reader and he encouraged her love of literature. After he died in a car crash, Chanel retreated into books. In fact, such was the extent of her reading it inspired an exhibition in Venice’s Ca’ Pesaro, in 2017, entitled “Culture Chanel: La Donna Che Legge”, or “the Woman Who Reads”. Notes, artefacts, books and letters were part of the exhibition.
Perhaps all this was in Virginie Viard’s mind when designing the backdrop to the AW19 Haute Couture collection, in addition to Karl Lagerfeld’s extensive library. The late designer had some 300,000 volumes – many of which he housed in a specially-created library at his home in Biarritz. Stacked horizontally, many of the books could only be accessed by a ladder.
As for the Grand Palais, it was turned into an impeccably stocked library with comfortable chairs, double storey bookshelves and Persian carpets. Rather than distract from the clothes, they amplified the quiet import of the collection. Ms Viard means business.
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