Visiting the private apartments of Coco Chanel above her boutique at 31 rue Cambon is to enter a rarefied atmosphere of perfection. My friend Carol invited me to join her on a rare tour and for the next hour we were bewitched. The spell begins as you climb the famous mirrored spiral staircase, carpeted, as Mademoiselle directed, in “a color like sand.” When attendants at the Ritz across the street, where she slept and kept a suite, alerted her staff that Mademoiselle would soon be arriving, they carried out her wish and sprayed this stairway with Chanel #5, her signature fragrance.
Leaving the Chanel store behind at street level, we entered her apartment on the third floor and the magic of Chez Chanel is immediately apparent – everywhere luxury is made remarkably simple. In the sitting room, ancient wine-colored Chinese coromandal screens, featuring her Camellia flowers, are cut and fitted as wall coverings, placed next to barely visible simple copper-gold paper.
An oversized sofa covered in suede, unheard of in its day, is as inviting now as it must have been to Mademoiselle and it’s easy to imagine her stretched out and reading, or possibly napping, after a tiring day.
Rare objects are everywhere, beautiful mirrors, and crystal globes reflect soft light. Lions, a reminder that she was a Leo, stand along side gilded wood, and statues of various eras and origins.
Bronze shafts of wheat (and when she was in residence bouquets of fresh wheat) stand as personal symbols of her later prosperity and a childhood when bread was scarce. Two walls are flanked with simple wooden bookshelves, almost roughly painted, holding a magnificent collection of leather bound volumes. Overhead is a chandelier of crystal, amethyst, and topaz featuring interlocking 5’s and double C’s.
The dining room holds a wooden table surrounded by 6 chairs upholstered in a soft muted no-color color. The table can be extended to hold 8 but Chanel preferred to keep her diners small. And as she always preferred pairs of objects, side tables have as their base bronze figures depicting seasons. Above the tables are magnificent mirrors that surely reflected intimate gatherings of the most interesting people of the day.
Chanel lived her until her death in 1971 and everything is exactly as she left it; the desk still holds her eyeglasses, fan, and personal notepaper.
On the floor below Chanel’s apartment are haute couture dressing rooms and some of the most prized exemplars of collections past. Looking at them makes it hard to agree with Mademoiselle’s own assessment that dress design is a craft and not an art.
Back down at street level in the boutique there is a display of Chanel fragrances sold only here in Paris. Carol and I sprayed delicate whiffs on the provided testing papers and after concentrated comparisons decided that the richly mellow “Coromandel” was our favorite. I slipped the paper into my purse and the next morning upon opening my bag the captivating scent, like Proust’s madeleine, whisked me immediately back to those deliciously magical rooms.