Robert Stein 1924-2014

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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A Phone Call from Coco Chanel

Nothing can make you feel more ancient than a celebration of the 130th birthday of someone you knew. So it is with fashion icon Coco Chanel, remembered not only for her elegant clothes and the scent Chanel No. 5 but her wisdom about women’s lives that I helped spread with a monthly column in an America magazine half a century ago.  

It started during the “youthquake” of the 1960s, when miniskirts were making women look as if they had been caught in the rain wearing children’s dresses. I had lunch with Julie Christie, an actress of delicate beauty, who was dressed in one with a hemline stretched above her upper thigh.

“Why,” I asked, “are you wearing that?”

“Because it amuses me,” she said.

“But you don’t have to look at it” was my charmless response, which could only be excused by exhaustion from a running battle with my editors to keep McCalls’ fashion pages from being filled with those shrunken eyesores.
Chanel helped ease the pain. I sent an American journalist in Paris, Joe Barry, to interview her. “A newspaper,” she told him, “says the miniskirt has killed Coco Chanel. It hasn’t, but fashion isn’t feeling so well.”

Soon the miniskirts went. Chanel remained.

She had dominated fashion for decades after defying convention by tanning her skin and wearing pants in public, living openly with a married British nobleman and creating clothes combining comfort with high style. I asked her to do a monthly column of observations, “Collections by Chanel.”

It was good to have her in the magazine when women’s lives, and not just their fashions, were in disarray. She talked in aphorisms. 

On love: “Silence separates more than distance.” On beauty: “Charm is better, it lasts longer. You don’t need money, you need richness of heart.” On aging: “At forty, forget how ravishing you were at twenty. Nothing ages more than trying to look too young. You can be irresistible at any age.” On individuality: “The most courageous thing is to think for yourself. Aloud.”

One day Chanel phoned unexpectedly. As she chatted briskly in French, I grasped every other word and replied “Oui, madame” or “Merci.” After “Au revoir,” I was gripping the phone hard. For all I knew, I might have doubled her space or her fee or given her the magazine.

 I called Joe Barry, who told me she only wanted to say she was pleased with the look of the column. I asked him to tell her the pleasure was mutual.

Half a century later, it still is for me.

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