It's neither a confidant, a former muse, or dedicated biographer who has published the most touching book on legendary designer Coco Chanel to date. Instead, it's photographer, Douglas Kirkland who was none of these, yet so much more to Chanel in the brief time he knew her. His latest book, published by Glitteratti is titled simply, Coco Chanel: Three Weeks and chronicles in pictures and words, the time Kirkland spent with Chanel in Paris in 1962. At the time he was a bright-eyed 27 year-old who had been sent to Paris to spend three weeks with Chanel by his employers, the new defunct Look Magazine. In twenty-one days Kirkland shadowed and photographed the 79 year-old wherever she went, from fittings with house models to personal moments of reflection. The level of intimacy and access he enjoyed was unparalleled , especially considering how private Chanel grew in her old age. By the end of the trip, the unlikely duo had grown so close that Chanel invited Kirkland to travel with her on a ski holiday. Kirkland relayed the good news to his editors at Look who promptly asked him to decline the offer and return home. Time passed and Kirkland moved on to become an award wining photographer shooting other legends such as Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Marlene Dietrich. Yet as we sat down recently to discuss his memories of Chanel it was clear that only one captured his heart as completely as he captured hers.
Zandile Blay: You took these pictures about forty-six years ago, so what compelled you to publish them as a book now this book at this point?
Douglas Kirkland: Well, there are a number of reasons. This is my thirteenth book, but this is one that's the most special to me. And why? Because it's Chanel, it's a special period in my life, I grew up a great deal. I mean, my eyes were opened in a way that they never had been before. By Mademoiselle, she did that. And she guided me in an amazing way. Why this time? Well, among other things we sort of discovered in the process of putting it together that it was a hundred and twenty fifth anniversary of her birth. So there's that reason, but also, I had the material obviously all these years, original negatives, and I kept looking at them and thinking...I mean, I felt that there was something very special there, and the more I looked into it the more special they seemed.
ZB: The photo you took of Chanel as she is walking through a garden by herself simply grabbed my heart.
DK: You just picked the most important picture in this book to me. You did. It's the last picture in the book, it's also the last picture I took of Mademoiselle. I'd been with her three weeks, and my editors at Look had mixed feelings within the publication whether this story should be done or not. Myself and the fashion editor really wanted to do it, we pressed to have it done, and we arrived in Paris and I was able to do it. I was able to shoot, and Mademoiselle opened her world very much to me and the story of course is: this is the last day I spent with her. It was a Saturday, and she knew the time was winding down but she said to me, "Why don't you come on Holiday with me to Switzerland and keep photographing?" I thought, this is just getting bigger and better! I mean, I was ready to explode I was so happy. I knew this coverage was rich because she had opened herself so much to me and I just thought it's gonna be bigger and better than ever. I could barely wait to get back to the small office we had in Paris and type up what was called the telex in those days, which was a very clunky machine. I sent a message to New York and I told them, "Mademoiselle has asked me to come to Switzerland with her," and I got a two word reply, "Come home." And that was it; they didn't want me to go anywhere.
ZB: Do you regret it? Do they regret it?
DK: Oh, they don't regret it, they're gone. In fact, that's a whole other story. Now, let me talk about this picture specifically. So on, um, what seemed like the last day, Mademoiselle asked me to have lunch with her at the (some French word I couldn't understand). It was very elegant, and as usual she pointed out things to me. She was becoming, in some ways, a part-mother, part caring sister, I don't know how to refer to her, and I never fully understood the dynamic. Here I am a twenty-seven year old, slightly ungainly boy from the country, and here is Mademoiselle, the essence of elegance and chic, but she was interested in me, and she wanted to help me. So we had the lunch, and we rode out of the city to Versailles, she wanted to show it to me. She'd asked me if I'd ever seen it and I said no I haven't, she said, "OK, I'm going to show it to you," and we went out. It was a cold day, amazingly, even though it was July. It was probably 17 degrees Celsius or something that day and it started to, sort of a misty rain, very light rain and I gave her my raincoat, my Burberry, and she put it over her shoulders to protect herself from the rain and she went walking on her own. Sort of a quiet time, a private time, and it was a time I felt I shouldn't bother her. Something else was in her head. But at a certain instant, I couldn't restrain myself. I saw her there, and I felt maybe it wasn't appropriate, but I'm glad I did it now. I lifted the camera up, with a tele-lens, took this one click, and that was the last picture I took. That is it. As she walked in Versailles, you'll see that I'm sort of looking through a fence here, that's because I didn't want to be seen, but also it framed her in a beautiful way. So that's the essence of that picture. It's so meaningful to me because that's my memory, my ultimate memory of Mademoiselle. She was physically small, but as an individual in business, and the world of fashion and everything else, one of the greatest giants of all time. So that's what this picture means to me.
ZB: Did you get the sense that she was lonely, at that point in her life?
DK: I never did get the sense that she was lonely. It's possible, but I don't know, because she was so surrounded by a sea of people and she was always occupied, always busy. I think she was quite driven, she was raised from poverty. In fact, she was literally born in a poor house for the destitute. When she was 12, her mother died, and her father disappeared. She was raised in an orphanage by nuns, which is where she first learned to sew, and she later learned a more sophisticated way of sewing from some of her relatives when she was off in summertime. She lived an incredible life. She lived in England and the Duke of Westminster asked her to marry him, and she refused. She had many opportunities to be with a man if that's what she wanted, but she seemed to be surrounded by everything and her life seemed full. The mannequins, the models, the girls working for her, they surrounded her and she enjoyed being in their world. She loved to gossip with them, and you can see it in some of these other pictures. They're playing together. That's who she was. So they were, in many ways, her family. That was part of her world. Isn't that amazing?
ZB: What do you think makes this particular book on Chanel different from the myriad of books about her?
DK: Well, that's very simple. What makes this book different than any other? Frankly, and honestly, this is a very personal story. It's this personal story told from an individual whose life was changed. I saw something on the internet about the book which read, "There are many Chanel books, with a lot of facts and figures in them, and very significant information, but this is the most personal one." This is an easy read, it's a personal story, and I'm literally telling a story to the reader. So that's the essence of it. I'm talking to you, the person holding the book.
ZB: So do you think that 50 years from now, she'll still continue to be relevant?
DK: Chanel is here forever. She changed fashion, she changed culture, and she changed how people dress. In her early life, before she had any command of fashion, when she was just a young woman, women were wearing tight corsets and they couldn't move around and it was very uncomfortable. Fashion was like a cage. Like a prison. She opened it up so people could live comfortable, like this classic suit she created. And it all came together. Shorter hair, shorter skirts, it became the essence of what people wanted, and what we're comfortable with. And that's not going to go away. And, today, in 2008, when Francoise, (my wife) and I travel, when we step out, whether it's Shanghai or in Moscow or in Los Angeles, we keep seeing the name Chanel. In the airports, everywhere. Chanel is everywhere. Pick up a magazine. You'll find Chanel all over it. That's the imprint that she had. I mean, she did so much. So that's what Chanel means to me.
Coco Chanel Three Weeks is Available For Sale Here.