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Elements of Style

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The reason Freud never figured out what a woman wants--Was will das Weib?, as he put it--is that he was asking the wrong people. If he'd talked to either Coco Chanel or Diane Von Furstenberg, he'd have learned that what many of us want is something decent to put on in the morning, for a change.

Both Chanel and Von Furstenberg became millionaires on the strength of this insight. Each made advances in clothing design so simple yet so inevitable that they seem to have been out there all the time, like North America, or beryllium; they seem to have been discovered rather than invented. Chanel's innovation was the simply tailored, easy-fitting suit with pockets in all the right places. Fifty-odd years later Von Furstenberg came up with the cotton jersey wrap, a simple dress you could step into--or out of--in seconds; no buttons, no zippers, no nothing. Chanel is credited with letting women who'd spent centuries corseted and swathed in yards of fabric dress more like men; Von Furstenberg's achievement was making women look sexy in an era when other designers were using women's bodies as a canvas for their own peculiar and sometimes misogynist aesthetic.

Why should anyone read a whole book about the life of a clothing designer? You could argue that these designers' life stories might yield weighty sociological theses about androgyny and femininity, and for all I know they already have. And business students might someday study Chanel and Von Furstenberg as harbingers of a concept that, for better or worse, has reached its full flowering with Martha Stewart: the woman entrepreneur whose life, lived in public, is an ad for her product.

But the real answer is because it's fun. However, Von Furstenberg's memoir Diane: A Signature Life and Janet Wallach's adoring and profoundly superficial Chanel: Her Style and Her Life suffer from the self-importance that often afflicts members of the couture community when they talk about their work. Wallach treats Chanel's accomplishments with a reverence more appropriate to those of Madame Curie, and both she and Von Furstenberg play fast and loose with the word "empowerment." But for those of us who waste hours staring glumly at the contents of our closets, time we know would be better spent cleaning mold off the shower curtain or visualizing world peace, these books provide a guilty pleasure. Helmut Newton's Pages From the Glossies: Facsimilies 1956-1998 is a different story, but I'll get to that.

A whole literature exists on Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel--to date, at least four biographies--and none of it is especially revealing about the person behind the elegant and exhaustively photographed face. (Not beautiful; Chanel was the classic example of the jolie laide, which translates roughly as "Even a homely Frenchwoman can make a pretty American look as bland as a Barbie.")

The facts of her life could generate a miniseries and indeed were the basis for the unsuccessful 1969 musical Coco. She was born in the harsh Auvergne region of France to a sickly mother and a father who was a traveling salesman and inveterate philanderer. Orphaned at 12 and denied refuge by both her mother's and her father's families, Gabrielle and a sister spent the rest of their girlhood as charity cases in a convent school. (Some fashion historians--yes, Virginia, there are such people--see the influence of the nuns' habits in Chanel's later commitment to simplicity of line.)

Sprung from the convent at 18, Chanel set herself up as a seamstress, doing alterations for the Moulins bourgeoisie. But that was only her day job: the young Chanel had theatrical ambitions and spent her evenings singing naughty songs in a cafe catering to young officers from a nearby garrison. (One of the songs, "Qui qu' a vu Coco?," provided her nickname.) What Coco lacked in vocal styling she made up for in je ne sais quoi, and she soon attracted the attention of a young cavalry officer who maintained a stable of women at his country estate. These were mistresses in training, or horizontales--a type immortalized by Colette in Gigi--and Coco was a quick study. A polo-playing coal magnate, Arthur "Boy" Capel, became her first serious lover.

Boy was more astute than his inane nickname and Bertie Wooster-style getups might suggest. Though he never considered Coco presentable enough to take out on the town and eventually married the daughter of a British lord, he found her a shrewd businesswoman and thought the simple, sporty, boyish style she affected might be her ticket to financial independence. (In fact she raided his closet so often that Boy had his tailor make her some men's clothes of her own.) Capel bankrolled her first shop, a millinery boutique on the rue Cambon in Paris, a few doors down from the present location of the Chanel salon, and in 1913 financed another shop, this one on the main street of the chic resort town of Deauville.

Boy provided the cash and the initial vision, but what really boosted Chanel into the fashion stratosphere was the social upheaval of World War I. When the fighting started, women of the privileged classes flocked to Deauville because it was far from the front and began to lead a life unlike any that moneyed women had ever led. Women who'd previously spent hours being dressed in silks by ladies' maids now needed clothes they could get into by themselves. They had to get their own groceries, they had to get themselves to hospitals to make bandages; they needed togs they could move in. Chanel's vision of women's attire was in perfect sync: she designed rubber raincoats modeled on those worn by chauffeurs, skirts you could ride a bike in; a 1917 outfit was advertised as just the thing for those long evenings in air-raid shelters. She got very, very rich. In 1919, at 32, she had "woken up famous."

For the next 20 years Chanel was on a roll. She dressed royalty, movie stars, and--through the trickle-down process--shop girls. Her clothes were knocked off by everyone, and she didn't care; to her it meant her designs were wearable. She expanded into accessories: shoes, bags, belts. She hired a chemist and developed Chanel No. 5, a fragrance as unlike the demure, one-note florals that preceded it as her clothes were different from crinolines and leg-of-mutton sleeves. It quickly became the best-selling perfume in the world.

She became a player in the Parisian artistic milieu as well, entertaining Picasso, designing costumes for ballets by Diaghilev and plays by Cocteau. Though she never married she had an extraordinary series of lovers, each of whom enriched her financially and furthered her career; the pragmatic Coco valued upward mobility in affairs of the heart. Jewels given her by the exiled Grand Duke Dmitri, cousin to the czar, inspired a line of costume jewelry. Yacht cruises with the duke of Westminster inspired Chanel to add striped jerseys, white trousers, and snappy little berets to her line, a costume that became another lucrative signature look for the House of Chanel. The duke, who was the richest man in England, gave Coco a textile factory so she could design suits of Scottish tweed and was even prepared to marry her after his wife finally ditched him. But dukes need heirs, and he reneged when he realized that Coco's horloge biologique had ticked its last.

War had brought Chanel to prominence, but when war clouds gathered over Europe for the second time, they augured the end of the Chanel atelier. By 1939 tastes had changed. Chanel's easy minimalism had become so prevalent that it no longer felt like style. In the arts, surrealism was in ascendance; in fashion this meant that a Schiaparelli hat shaped like a shoe was more chic--more now--than a sleek Chanel beret. She closed the salon and moved to Switzerland for an uneasy retirement.

By the early 50s she'd had enough of life in the slow lane. Taking the wasp-waisted, long-skirted silhouette of Dior's postwar New Look as a personal insult to her aesthetic, the 60-year-old Chanel reopened the salon in what the French press called le comeback. Validation was elusive at first: the French in particular dismissed her pastel tweed suits as retro, matronly, boring. But American buyers loved her, and within a few years she was back at the top of her game, dressing Babe Paley, Princess Grace, the duchess of Windsor. (Even Catherine Deneuve finally got on board.) Chanel died with her boots on, doing fittings for her fall 1971 collection. She was 88.

Even women who'll never get within shouting distance of a Chanel suit--which, considering that they start at around $4,000, is most of us--should give her a quick salute for bringing style into the modern era, but that doesn't mean we should admire her. In fact, throughout Wallach's hagiography lurk intimations of a deeply unpleasant woman. She depicts Chanel as a generous patron of the arts but mentions offhandedly, in a photo caption, that Chanel refused to pay an artist friend for a commissioned portrait when the painting turned out to be insufficiently flattering. Coco's managerial style fell somewhere between Ross Perot and Attila the Hun: when her seamstresses petitioned for weekly wages, paid vacation, and contracts, Chanel fired 300 of them. She tried to use wartime laws against Jewish ownership of businesses to wrest total control of the perfume line from her longtime partner, Pierre Wertheimer. (She failed; Wertheimer, by then safe in the U.S., had signed his interest over to a French arms merchant who was selling guns to the Nazis. Perhaps he and Coco deserved each other.)

Worse yet, Wallach gamely quotes Chanel's own excuse for her three-year liaison with a Nazi spy: "At my age if a man wants to sleep with you, you don't ask to see his passport." Other biographies pull fewer punches: Chanel paid hush money to her lover's superior officer to keep the affair quiet, was briefly arrested at the end of the war, and escaped having her head shaved with the rest of the collaborators only through British political connections made during her liaison with the duke of Westminster. Maybe the moral of Chanel's life is simply that it's good to have powerful friends.

Diane Von Furstenberg can afford all the Chanel suits she wants, yet she spends most of Diane: A Signature Life halfheartedly pretending that she can't. Von Furstenberg--Princess von Furstenberg to you--got her title courtesy of a brief 1969 marriage to Prince Eduard Egon von und zu Furstenberg, scion of a German family so ancient that they own the very Danube. (It bubbles out of the ground in one of their gardens.) But the current Princess Diane is selling dresses at Macy's and has done a silk-pants-with-elastic-waists turn on the Shopping Channel, so it behooves her to tone down the tiara stuff and be a people's princess. God knows she tries: in the book she confesses that she hates her hair just like us, thinks she looks old in her pictures just as we might, and has the usual single-mom struggles with her kids.

But the common touch eludes her; the odd offhand remark gives the game away. She buys a "beautiful family apartment" for herself and her two kids: a cozy 16 rooms on Fifth Avenue in the eighties, overlooking the reservoir. She goes to a family wedding in Monaco--Prince Ranier is Egon's cousin, but you knew that--and reluctantly confesses that "the castle itself was a little disappointing." Diane's son gets married, and her heart swells with Everymother's pride: "All the kings and queens of Europe were in London for the celebration."

Somehow, though, you wind up liking Von Furstenberg in spite of her desperate folksiness and near-pathological name-dropping. After all, she worked hard when those around her were content to be Eurotrash; at age 28 she headed a company grossing $60 million a year. (A Newsweek cover story that year described her as "the most marketable female in fashion since Coco Chanel.") She took risks, lost a lot of money, and came back again. She has terrible taste in men and admits it. She was diagnosed with cancer of the palate and has faced it bravely. But perhaps her most endearing trait is her reluctance to get all sociological about the wrap. "To some, the wrap became a manifesto for the liberated woman of the 1970s," she writes. After all, it did allow "the millions of women going off to work to be well dressed and out the door in a minute." But Diane has no use for manifestos. "I had no idea that one day it would hang in the Smithsonian Institution. I just thought it was a good dress."

Von Furstenberg was born less than three years after her mother was released from the Neustadt-Glewe concentration camp. Her father, a Russian emigre living in Brussels, was a prosperous businessman and something of a roue. Little Diane, tall, skinny, and with the most atrocious curly hair, spent her early childhood in Brussels and then, as her parents' marriage frayed, went to pricey boarding schools in Switzerland and England. Her parents separated, but Diane, by that time 18 and gorgeous, had already established friendships with the glitterati: Stavros Niarchos, Marisa Berenson, J. Paul Getty Jr.

She first hooked up with Prince Egon--his mother is Clara Agnelli of Fiat, but you knew that--at a ski resort. Diane was in the process of casting about for something to do and had apprenticed herself to an Italian textile manufacturer; she thought she might be able to sell Italian cotton T-shirts in New York. (Egon was living there, training to be an investment banker.) She got pregnant on one of Egon's visits to Italy, married him, and moved to Manhattan, where the pair became Gotham's glammest couple.

But Diane was still determined to have a career, so she had a few little cotton jersey dresses run up in Como and schlepped them around New York. Department store presidents were unimpressed by the hugely pregnant designer "stuffed into a Pucci dress," but all-powerful Vogue editor Diana Vreeland liked them. On the strength of her approval Diane decided to start a company. "What do you want to call it?" asked her lawyer, to which she replied, "Diane Furstenberg." "Oh, do Von Furstenberg," advised the lawyer, thereby justifying every cent she would ever pay him. "It sounds much better."

By such chance decisions is retail history shaped. Americans loved the European cachet of the Von, and the line of modestly priced dresses made Diane a fortune of her own. She divorced Egon but kept his name, licensing it to people for products they'd designed. Soon the DVF logo was on luggage and home furnishings, the latter sold by Sears of all places. (Putting an uncharacteristic amount of daylight between herself and the great unwashed, Diane confesses that she hadn't understood how down-market Sears was.) She also continued designing: a cosmetics line, a perfume. She was romantically linked with an odd assortment of men: Barry Diller, Jerry Brown, Richard Gere.

But by the late 70s the bubble had burst. Diane started seeing her name on terrible things: "tacky little girl's dresses with bows everywhere." Worse, she'd let others worry about the bottom line, and they hadn't worried enough; the company went bankrupt. In 1983 Diane sold the cosmetics division to pay off her debts and retreated to Europe with an intellectual French lover named Alain Elkann. (He'd just gotten divorced from Gianni Agnelli's daughter. Small world, no?) There, she says, she rejoined the world of books and ideas--and renovated a luxurious apartment on the Left Bank. Not until 1989 did she move back to New York, scene of her former triumphs.

Von Furstenberg's is not a deeply examined life. While Chanel's biographer continually describes the badinage among Chanel and her friends as "brilliant," Von Furstenberg, alas, self-reports her conversations. Seated next to Alan Shepard at a gala in her honor, for instance, she was "very impressed to meet someone who had actually seen our planet as a little ball and questioned him endlessly about it." On meeting Bernardo Bertolucci, she and the director "ended up late at night discussing democracy and freedom." And she has an intellectual tic common among fashionistas, the tendency to see great historical events in terms of what people were wearing: "The end of the 60s was a time of antielitism and democratic creativity, demonstrated by a profusion of costume jewelry."

Like Chanel before her, Von Furstenberg is determined to make le comeback; in fact, Diane: A Signature Life is her way of announcing that she's still here. She may or may not succeed; rag trade insiders say the redesigned wrap dresses introduced at Saks and elsewhere last spring have met with only mixed success. (Reading between the lines, one can sense Von Furstenberg's surprise that her 70s customers are somewhat broader in the beam, hence less wrappable, than they were a generation ago. Rich ladies evidently don't widen with age.) Still, her name has started showing up on the fashion pages of the Times, so who knows? It's hard to keep a good princess down.

Both Diane: A Signature Life and Chanel: Her Style and Her Life are loaded with great pictures of ordinary--or at least human--women wearing these clothes as they go about their ordinary lives: Diane, Coco, and their friends eating lunch, skiing in Gstaad, lounging on the Lido. Helmut Newton's Pages From the Glossies: Facsimilies 1956-1998 is loaded with great pictures too, but not a single one connects to ordinary life, no matter how loosely you define "ordinary." One of the century's most celebrated fashion photographers, Herr Newton tends to photograph surreal and sinister tableaux inhabited by Amazonian models with blood red lips, slicked-back hair, and dead eyes, all decked out in very expensive and mostly unwearable clothes: a black leather mini and bustier, a transparent blouse. This hefty volume--550 pages measuring 9 by 12--documents Newton's career from 1956, when he took his first fashion photos, to the present; it also documents the development of a truly decadent sensibility. It's a coffee-table book, but I'd prefer not to imagine the household on whose coffee table it might sit.

The opening shots are pictures Newton took for Australian Vogue in 1956. Fresh-faced models wearing sleeveless blouses with Peter Pan collars tucked into their plaid Bermuda shorts scamper up and down sand dunes; dewy innocence prevails. The whole spread could pass unnoticed in Talbots's summer 1999 catalog. But by 1963 we begin to see signs of decay. Newton caused a scandal that year by posing a model in a chic white jacket and cloche hat peering through binoculars over the newly erected Berlin Wall. Treating this symbol of repression as a witty backdrop for expensive threads earned him a slap on the wrist: the head of the German fashion industry called the spread "tasteless," and Vogue banned him from Berlin.

Tasteless soon shaded into decidedly odd. Newton liked the models touching each other, putting arms around each other's waists, "arm in arm like lovers." The girls were a little shocked, he reports--this was still the early 60s--but they did it. Within a few years the touching became erotic. Then men appeared, standing off to one side, impeccably tailored, watching the women. On a couple of occasions dogs were involved; toward the end of the book a model plays Leda to a live swan. These women are wearing $5,000 dresses, mind you.

I reached my personal Newton threshold in 1984, when a Vogue spread pictured Daryl Hannah in black underwear, two men--one her tycoon husband, one her Lawrencian lover--and a real infant, wailing piteously. Nothing explicit actually happens, but the atmosphere is suffused with steamy and not especially pleasant eroticism. I had small kids at the time, and I remember thinking, "What kind of people would put a sweet child in such a setting and then take pictures?" Now I know: Newton confides that the social worker in attendance wanted the shoot stopped because the child was so unhappy but the mother, "doubtless thinking about the money the baby was earning," told him to carry on. This is supposed to be edgy, ironic fashion photography, but I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.

If Chanel represents androgyny, and Von Furstenberg femininity, then Helmut Newton stands for polymorphous perversity. What his images have to do with getting dressed in the morning I have no idea, but I can tell you one thing: they're not about was das Weib will.

Not this Weib, anyway.

Chanel: Her Style and Her Life by Janet Wallach, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, $35

Diane: A Signature Life by Diane Von Furstenberg with Linda Bird Francke, Simon & Schuster, $25

Pages From the Glossies: Facsimiles 1956-1998 by Helmut Newton, edited by June Newton and Walter Keller, Scalo Verlag, $80.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Heather McAdams.

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