House tour: inside Coco Chanel's historic and art-filled Paris apartment
When I think of Coco Chanel, I think of a staircase — more specifically, the mirrored staircase that winds through the centre of her home like a glittering spinal cord. Each vertical pane is set at a different angle so that when she sat on the fifth step from the top (number five, of course) as the models trod past, she could scrutinise her clothes from every angle. Also, during showings, she could witness her clients’ reactions — without being seen — as they sat downstairs. There could be no mistakes.
One enters Chanel’s abode at 31 rue Cambon, Paris, just off the fashion epicentre that is rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré. Up one flight of mirrored walls, and you reach the salons. Up another and you get to Chanel’s own apartment.
The apartment remains as she left it when she died in 1971 and isn’t open to the public. When Karl Lagerfeld was in charge from 1983 until his death earlier this year, he would spend time here soaking up inspiration — in her home, one can absorb her. It led him to design collections inspired by the eight Chinese Coromandel screens that line the walls. It led him to embroider and add wheat ears into jewellery and on shirts, honouring the wheat motif that peppers the apartment in brass bouquets and table legs. In 2010, at the Grand Palais, models circumvented a 12-metre-high golden lion, based on a little bronze one found in the apartment (Chanel was a Leo).
And when Vanessa Paradis whistled and swung in a birdcage in 1992, it was director Jean-Paul Goude’s ode to the tiny birdcage ornament in the living room. Chanel did not sleep here, though. Every night, she retired across the road to the Ritz, where she kept her bedroom. Rue Cambon was for daytime activities, such as socialising and work — the floors above her apartment were, and still are, the Chanel ateliers, where some 200 seamstresses work tirelessly.
The apartment, in contrast, encompasses only a few rooms. A dark, serious foyer comprises sculptures and the 18th-century white satin armchair on which Horst P Horst photographed Coco in 1937. A dining room leads into a living room and onto an office, the spaces linked together by golden wallpaper and a palette of brown, beige, black and white. Like the classic Chanel tweed suit, there is detail in every crevice: sculptures by Jacques Lipchitz, a hand by Diego Giacometti, a blade of wheat painted by Salvador Dalí, a quilted suede sofa reminiscent of the house handbags. Even the chandelier features wrought-iron 5s and interlocked Cs, and a crystal pendant Hubert de Givenchy found on the living room floor still resides where he put it — inside the mouth of an ornamental frog gifted to her by dancer Jacques Chazot.
As we walk in, musician Pharrell Williams walks out. Working on the Chanel Pharrell collection, he too comes to the apartment for inspiration, we are told. He beams “Bonjour” as he walks by, entourage in tow. We return the greeting in French because being here feels like being in church: voices are hushed, heads are bowed, conversation feels impossible. And he’s off to shop, anyway — the flagship Chanel store is on the ground floor of the townhouse, where it has been since 1918. We wander down and join the throng, walking in the footsteps of this remarkable woman.
Scroll down for more photos inside the exquisitely preserved apartment.