Exclusive interview: Three weeks with Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel Douglas Kirkland

In 1962 a fresh-faced and impressionable 27-year-old arrived in Paris, sent by American picture magazine 'Look' to photograph a 79-year-old French woman who had finally pricked up the ears of America. Jackie Kennedy was wearing Parisian tailoring in The White House. Its quilted and embroidered style was ‘an awakening’.

The designer was Coco Chanel, the photographer was Canadian-born Douglas Kirkland. What transpired between the two: three weeks living with and photographing an icon Kirkland knew little about. In his own words: ‘I learned very quickly…’

52 years later, Douglas Kirkland is re-telling his brief encounter over the telephone from his home in Los Angeles. He has also released a new book of the pictures he took, ‘Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962’, which he describes movingly as ‘a story about who she was, who I was, and how she affected me.’

Why now, we ask? It is poignant that Douglas Kirkland has now surpassed the age Coco Chanel was when he photographed her all those years ago. There is a fondness in Kirkland’s voice for ‘Mademoiselle’ as he calls her (‘you didn’t call her Coco’ he asides with relish) and the 21 days he spent at her atelier in Paris, living, breathing and shooting a living legend. According to Kirkland: ‘During this three-week period my life change enormously.’

When asked to set the scene for this three-week affair, the past becomes present once again and the anecdotes come thick and fast. Admitting he knew no French, ‘Mademoiselle’ ensured she had her fun first before putting Kirkland out of his misery.

‘At first she spoke only French to me and I was in a quandary most of the time’ he recalls, ‘then one day after about a week had gone by I was walking down a hallway and I came face to face with her. She said ‘salut’ and she looked at me and I didn’t know what to say. Then she said in perfect English, ‘I just said hello to you’. From that point on she always spoke English.’

The cat-and-mouse teasing continued much to the self-professed ‘unsophisticated’ Canadian's bewilderment. Before the young man was allowed to take any pictures of Chanel herself, he was requested to take photographs of her clothes on mannequins and models first. The film was processed, a Chanel nod granted from ‘Mademoiselle’. ‘After that there was a great openness for me to photograph her’ he admits.

Was she a private person? ‘Unquestionably’, he agrees, ‘but she opened herself up to me in an unusual way. I still haven’t 100% determined what it was even until this day… she seemed to take me in. I sometimes said to myself: was I the son that she never had or the memory of a distant lover in her past?’

The questions still permeate our understanding of Coco Chanel and Douglas Kirkland is clearly still fascinated by his elusive subject. The photographs speak of his enchantment: her story is told in Kirkland’s searching close-ups.

‘I was lucky to be able to get close,’ he admits. ‘In my own mind, what I really wanted to do is what we say in photojournalism, ‘be a fly on the wall’. I kept quiet and watched.’

What he saw - and consequently - what we see now is a commanding woman whose life was lived through her hands. The lines of experience is what Kirkland remembers and treasures the most.

‘To see her working, creating a dress or a coat – it was almost like seeing a wonderful sculpture being moulded with her hands. She used her hands; she did it herself. She preferred it. There’s a picture I have where you see her hands working very closely, and her hands look quite tired. She said: ‘my hands look like they are because they are tired. They’ve seen so much. This is how I speak.’ That was, for me, very important words.’

The gratitude is always there in Kirkland’s words. ‘She took me under her wing’, he finally imparts. Later joining the staff at Life Magazine, Douglas Kirkland’s career now reads like a who’s who of Hollywood’s golden age: Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Judy Garland, Elizabeth Taylor… It is an era arguably lost in our modern Kardashian world yet Kirkland’s tales go some distance to keeping the memory alive.

‘I’ve run my life very much affected by Mademoiselle’, Kirkland thoughtfully concludes. What a life you’ve run, Mr Kirkland…here’s to the next decade.

Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962, Limited Edition by Douglas Kirkland, published by Glitterati Incorporated, http://glitteratiincorporated.com is out now.

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Wednesday 24 August