Virginie Viard’s Chanel haute couture presentation saw us in the romantically overgrown garden of a cloister, set somewhat miraculously in the chilly immensity of Paris’s Grand Palais. The setting suggested a key element in Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s legendary story.
Chanel was 11 years old when her mother died, and as her wayward father—a traveling salesman with a supposed wandering eye—was often away, it was decided that she would be sent to the convent of Aubazine in the remote French region of Corrèze. Here, her unusual and impoverished situation meant that she was among the girls singled out to wear an austere black-and-white uniform, one that she would adapt through the years to dress the richest and most stylish women of her age.
In imaginative retellings of her autobiography, Chanel would refer to the convent’s strict and unforgiving nuns as “aunts.” These taskmasters nevertheless taught the young Chanel to sew and thus gave her the tools to forge a life as an independent woman for herself in later years. The aesthetic of the convent stayed with Chanel forever. Her distinguished future biographer Edmonde Charles-Roux saw in the designer’s “yearning for austerity” or in the moments when she “waxed nostalgic for all things white, simple, and clean, for linen piled high in cupboards, [and] whitewashed walls,” references to “a secret code.” In fact, Charles-Roux posited, “Every word meant only one word: Aubazine.”