As a young veteran fresh out of the Army in the early 1950s, Richard Parker found himself in the odd position of being an assistant to an aging designer called forth out of retirement to aid a flailing brand. Her own. Coco Chanel had signed away the rights to Chanel No. 5 in 1924 and spent years trying to get it back to avail. But in 1952, the man who had blocked her for years, Pierre Wertheimer need her help to revive the lagging Chanel Perfumes. His vision involved creating a lavish showroom in New York City with Chanel herself overseeing every detail. Parker returns to his time with the legendary designer in “The Improbable Return of Coco Chanel.”
There’s something unknowable about Chanel, her legend so outsized it easily dwarfs the actual woman. By the time Parker met Chanel she was 70, still Mademoiselle, and wrapped in pearls and neat suits. Her taste was absolute, so precise, it became her character and still endures as her legacy. The showroom was outfitted in her favorite colors of black, white, and beige. The art included everything from Rodin and Rousseau paintings to a collection of ancient Benin bronzes and Coromandel screens. It was elegant yet playful, classic Chanel.
And yet after the showroom opened, when Chanel returned to France, and in 1954, launched Chanel Couture, it flopped brutally. It seemed her pre-war designs had no place in the new fashion world. Rather than retreat from the world again, she took her designs back to New York where they met with far more favor. At 72 she found herself praised in Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Paris soon fell in line and the world was Coco’s again. Her second act lasted deep into her 80s as she continued to design, “a cigarette in one hand, scissors in the other.”
His experience with Mademoiselle changed Parker. Although he went on to a very successful career as one of the Mad Men of advertising, he also became a student of all things Coco, researching her earlier years. In his book he also explores the Coco of myth and legend, a beautiful orphan, a pampered girlfriend, and eventually a hat maker in Paris who began to design clothes after the first World War. In his zealousness he credits Chanel with everything from the age of the flapper to the passion for tan skin. He also defends her honor at every turn denouncing the idea that she was a courtesan and that her last love Baron Von Dincklage was a member of the Nazi party.
Parker’s book doesn’t reveal any new secrets about Chanel, nor shed much light on what drove her incredible work ethic. But it is a strong reminder that second acts are always possible. When in doubt, head to New York City, after all if you can make it there, the rest of the world will be yours once again.