There are those individuals whose lives seem to reflect back to us the contours of our own dreams. Take, for example, the life of Mademoiselle Coco Chanel. (We use the title “Mademoiselle” because she once objected to the Press’ being too familiar in their addressing her simply as “Coco.” “We’re not buddies,” she said.) Mademoiselle Chanel was, of course, one of the preeminent designers of the modern age who has provided inspiration to many, many individuals, inclusive of Red Scarf Equestrian’s own Italian-Canadian designer Gianna Ranucci.
And, we do so often speak of our dreams, don’t we? We reflect on the dreams of our heroes, our childhood, our teen years and then young adulthood. What is more, however, is that we also treasure the dreams that are not even our own. We treasure those of the young people who encircle us, especially as they leave high school, such that it almost seems as though they are our own dreams too. We think of the teenager, or the little girl, for example, who dreams of becoming an Olympian equestrian rider, or becoming a fashion designer, perhaps just like Mademoiselle Coco Chanel, and desires to produce her own line of clothing. She dreams of the young ladies walking down a runway in Paris, revealing in their beauty her designs to the world. In the autumn air outside, afterwards, the lamps of the City of Light illuminate the evening sky. And then there is the laughter, spilling into the street from a small café on the Champs-Élysées, drinking coffee or wine with the other designers who participated in the show. Already dreaming of the designs that are to follow.
We speak of such dreams with an air of sacrosanctity. They are holy. They are the stuff of life itself. We expect, almost demand, them. But we also need to remember the other side. There are those, too, who struggle to find their path to their destiny and who spend their nights in dreamless sleep. The path to “success” for these ones is not strewn with grand, sweet dreams and great advantages. For these, there is no straight line between their heart and their life and work. But we need remember, also, that these ones are not necessarily destined to a pathless mediocrity. They are worthy of their own path and the support and encouragement that we can provide for them to find their way. Mademoiselle Chanel’s life is, as surprising as it might seem, an example of this other side.
Everything that was the opposite of what I knew seemed enviable... People imagine all doors opened before me, but I pushed them open. – Mademoiselle Coco ChanelIt is easy to presume, of course, that preceding her great success in the fashion world there would need to have been a dream just as big. Yet, for Mademoiselle Chanel it seems that there was no grand dream when she was young. At the time, instead, she was sternly directed by her “aunts” looking after her, apparently referring to the Nuns in the Orphanage where she resided, to learn to sew. This was her early introduction to sewing, and, according to Claude Baillén, Mademoiselle’s dear friend and author of one of her biographies, she had no apparent talent. In the words of Mademoiselle herself:
My aunts used to laugh at me for being so clumsy.
And, again, Mademoiselle Chanel recalled her earlier life:
Everything that was the opposite of what I knew seemed enviable... People imagine all doors opened before me, but I pushed them open.
Perhaps it is not that strange after all, however, given her proclivity to push the boundaries of the expected, that we do not find reference to some grand dream of hers from her childhood to become a fashion designer and builder of an empire. She seems to have found her way there by a series of steps, a series of understandings about herself. Her life was, as she herself suggested that all lives are, an “enigma.” It was more for Mademoiselle, we argue, a series of small dreams which led her on, once she had all but stumbled upon her path.
The life of Mademoiselle is, of course, too large to paint here. There have been a number of biographies written and movies produced to try to capture the life of this woman, a story that remains still, to a degree, as elusive as she seems to have been in real life. Perhaps it is her very elusive nature which captivates us. We seek to hold on to what always strives to slip away. It is as though we feel the need to understand this woman who seems to have so exquisitely understood, and perhaps even to a point helped define, the modern woman. Indeed, Mademoiselle’s life seems too large to be contained within any one of the biographies, or even by all of them. Her life was one given to resisting definition, one given to finding the room to move and live and finding the freedom, above all the freedom, to do so.
We do know concretely, however, that Mademoiselle Chanel believed in the importance of being true to the moment. She believed in the importance of the present, of remaining true to yourself, of not only accepting but of revelling in hard work. She believed in freedom while at the same time remaining rooted, grounded, in who you are. Indeed, her view of her craft as a couturier seems entirely earthbound:
I was very disappointed there wasn’t a special dress for people who made clothes. I thought it would be the same for couturiers as for shoe-makers. It helped people to know where they were.
All of these comments are, to be sure, evidences of self-knowledge which now help to sketch some features of her as a woman, and as a designer. She never gave up in her determination to remain true to herself and to transcend the obstacles before her. Thus, designer Gianna Ranucci sees Mademoiselle Chanel this way:
I love her! Yes, I do. I love her rebellious nature and her persistence to ignore the naysayers and pursue her dream...
It was for Mademoiselle Chanel a pathway of hard work as much as artistic vision. It was a series of moments of getting to know herself: what she liked, what she was good at. There was no one grand leap into instant success. When we think of her name we immediately think of the grand success her brand represents. We are more honest with her history, and with ourselves, when we instead see the great amount of work and pain that went into her journey.
[Coco Chanel] was a scrapper (an orphan) and had to fight hard to change the mindset of fashion at the time. I admire her and other designers for their persistence and their overcoming their challenges and never losing sight of their vision and dreams. – Gianna Ranucci
Perhaps what it means to be a designer is in part to accept oneself for who one is, to allow oneself the freedom to admire what one finds beautiful. It was a freedom that Mademoiselle so often desired. She desired room to move within her clothing, but also room for her to move within her own soul. She allowed herself the freedom to accept herself and her own way of seeing the world. Let us give the last word here on the French designer to our Italian one, Gianna Ranucci:
Coco Chanel was always the first one out of the starting gate and with such revolutionary apparel and accessory design ideas. She was a scrapper (an orphan) and had to fight hard to change the mindset of fashion at the time. I admire her and other designers for their persistence and their overcoming their challenges and never losing sight of their vision and dreams.
Source: Claude Baillén, Chanel Solitaire, Trans. Barbary Bray (London, William Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1973)