If you found yourself in New York around 15th Street on the far west side recently, you might have noticed a simple billboard lofted above the High Line (it’s since replaced by an image of a lolling Emily Ratajkowski for DKNY). It wasn’t much, just a black field upon which sat a quote in white block text, attributed to Gabrielle Chanel: “I decided who I wanted to be, and that is who I am.” It was the kind of readymade inspirational aphorism that seems lab-engineered for marketing copy — a “Just Do It” for the two-tone slingback set. Underneath the quote was the invitation to “discover more on inside.chanel.com.”
That address routes to Chanel’s expanding “Inside Chanel” campaign, a swelling multimedia experience that functions like a syllabus for the Chanel doctrine, a dazzling repository of archival Horst P. Horst imagery and a numbing onslaught of brand codes. There are lots of moving parts: graphic distillations, photo animations, and short videos organized into chapters, like some Homeric epic — ”The Iliad” doused in No. 5.
“Inside Chanel” launched in 2012 and has been depositing to its knowledge bank since, slowly accreting information like a couture Carlsbad Caverns, interlocking Cs dripping all over the place like pearlescent stalactites.
This year, as Chanel launched a line of bags and a fragrance under the “Gabrielle” moniker — what it’s described optimistically as “new pillars” of those product categories — the campaign’s locus has shifted to Coco herself. There are the expected celebrity-fronted elements: short films in which Kristen Stewart, Cara Delevingne, Caroline de Maigret, and Pharrell Williams are compelled by Gabrielle bags, haunted by Gabrielle’s restless but benevolent spirit, eerily finding her perfectly reproduced signature scrawled on things. In Pharrell’s scene, her signature appears on the palm of a young (possibly ghost?) boy, which, I mean, really. There are three more less obtuse ones where G-Dragon, Liu Wen, and Willow Smith manage to simply just enjoy their $3,000 bags.
Meanwhile, the latest “Inside Chanel” chapters set out a mythos that suggests entre into Mme. Chanel’s singular vision and enduring legacy, framing Chanel’s life and times as a propulsive freight train of manifest density. These videos — graphic, text-heavy affairs that disgorge a lot of non-sequiturs like FEARLESSNESS, DARE, CREATE, AUTHENTIC, REBEL — unspool like a selection of inspirational canvas wall art. One animation shows a throng of people, clenched fists raised and Chanel banderoles hoisted, as though the proletariat have finally seized the means of production and are demanding couture brand awareness.
“Inside Chanel” also offers a very handy timeline feature. A particular highlight are the years 1931-1945, which, the timeline tells us, were quite tame: Chanel traveled to Hollywood at the personal request of Samuel Goldwyn, staged an exhibition of jewelry in her home in Paris, and, having reached the peak of her fame, employed 4,000 people and operated five boutiques. The lone acknowledgement of WWII, headlined “G.I.’s Love Chanel” and accompanied by a Serge Lindo image of American soldiers lined up outside the shop, animated snow softly drifting down the screen, notes Chanel kept her 31 Rue de Cambon boutique open during the war to meet “high demand among Parisian and American soldiers alike.” It then skips to 1950, as though Chanel were on an extended and not particularly interesting vacation.
In reality, Coco was quite busied with her work as a registered Nazi asset, traveling across Europe with her lover, officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, on sanctioned recruitment missions (her codename was “Westminster,” a bit of Third Reich frivolity alluding to her affair with the Duke of Westminster, another famed anti-Semite). Though it may be jarring to think of Chanel, a paragon of French élan responsible for upending conceptions of women’s dress, as an SS operative, this connection, along with her virulent anti-Semitism, are well known — there have been documentaries and books and reviews of the same in the New York Times and the New Yorker; certainly Karl Lagerfeld, who since 1983 has made a point of illustrating how steeped he is in the history and archives of the House, would be aware of this fact.
That Chanel could escape this blemish so quickly and nearly so completely was not an anomaly. Post-war France largely excused itself, chalking up Vichy as self-preservation. As Hal Vaughan, the author of Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War, noted, “by 1954, most French people didn’t give a damn about who collaborated and who didn’t. De Gaulle had decided that all Frenchmen had been resisters, and all this collaboration business was behind them.”
True though many of France’s major maisons capitulated in some degree to Vichy and Nazi Germany during the occupation, Chanel’s dance card is the most onerous, and the most publicized. So it’s curious that her beatification persists — at this point, it’s a narrative that only exists as a result of a strained and willful gloss of the more unsavory aspects of her life. The self-determination mythology is alluring, but perhaps becomes less so when you note her business acumen includes trying to leverage Nazi Aryanization of property laws to regain control of Parfums Chanel from the Jewish Wertheimer brothers to whom she had sold it. Certainly that fun fact doesn’t look as good on a billboard.
All of this is of course compounded by a resurgence of traveling white supremacy cosplay clubs and our dumb president’s unwillingness to displease them with anything stronger than false equivalencies and bankrupt monument populism. The phrase “literal Nazi” has been applied to these groups, people who gather at Trump rallies and sieg heil each other in Marriott ballrooms. It’s a nomenclature that has shouldered its way toward the front of public discussion, meant to cut through cable news politesse. But in the end, tying on a swastika armband and snarling something incoherent about Jews doesn’t make you a Nazi, it makes you an angry idiot with a loose grasp on 10th grade world history and a dangerous amount of free time. Coco Chanel, by contrast, was a literal Nazi — literally Abwehr Agent F-7124, literally enmeshed with Himmler’s SS — who put her stock into a German New World Order that didn’t pan out and then quietly went back to designing quilted clutches.
Still, none of this negates Chanel’s cultural achievements; being an anti-Semite does not preclude creative genius. Rather, it should and does dilute the power of her name and image as a marketing product. That John Galliano landed at Maison Margiela, a fashion house that doesn’t advertise and whose founder and designers abide by a monastic code of anonymity, should not be seen as a coincidence. It’s the same reason you don’t see lovingly restored archive footage of Henry Ford, whom Hitler called “my inspiration,” adorning Ford Fiesta commercials.
It would be a stretch to suggest Chanel endorses white supremacist collusion (that’s Gucci). But what the “Inside Chanel” and “Gabrielle” campaigns do is further the idea that collusion and anti-Semitism can be waved away by socially accepted achievement, like entrepreneurism. It’s a cynical exploitation of our voguish appetite for feminist iconography. As Christine Dagousset, global president of fragrance and beauty at Chanel, told WWD earlier this year, “We’ve done a lot of research with millennial women around the world and you see very clearly they don’t want to be put in boxes. They want to live their own lives, they want to be themselves, they want to choose their destiny.”
The suggestion is not that Chanel’s wartime extracurriculars and ugly personal belief system should bar Chanel the company from existing today. Rather, those things should factor into a modern company’s marketing decisions, especially ones which elide an uncomfortable history in favor of a sanitized one. In 2017, the erection of hagiographic Gabrielle Chanel billboards in downtown Manhattan should feel as startling as finding out there are Robert E. Lee busts in the Bronx. To say it’s tone deaf is a charitable reading. More likely, Chanel did the math on any blowback and found it worth the market share.