Suite Française

The Ritz on Place Vendôme, where Coco Chanel returned to sleep each evening, has played a vital role throughout her label’s illustrious history. Following Karl Lagerfeld’s Métiers d’Art show, Justine Picardie explores the enduring relationshop between these two icons of Parisian style.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

The Ritz on Place Vendôme, where Coco Chanel returned to sleep each evening, has played a vital role throughout her label’s illustrious history. Following Karl Lagerfeld’s Métiers d’Art show, Justine Picardie explores the enduring relationshop between these two icons of Parisian style.

My Reading Room

When Karl Lagerfeld staged Chanel’s 2017 Métiers d’Art collection at the Ritz in Paris, it was a long-awaited homecoming. The Ritz is a key component of the Chanel legend: It’s just a few steps from Gabrielle Chanel’s first couture salon on Rue Cambon, and a place where she lived from the 1930s onwards, until her death in 1971.

“It’s good for us to be here, no?” said Lagerfeld after the show. And indeed, it was a welcome reminder that the City of Light could still sparkle, even in the dark days of an uncertain world. Hence the lightheartedness of the presentation, entitled “Paris Cosmopolite,” with smiling models dancing their way around the tables where we, the lucky audience, sipped flutes of champagne. The extraordinary expertise of Chanel’s ateliers was evident in the intricately jewelled embellishments and delicate feathered tulles; as swift and nimble as Lagerfeld’s finest work for Chanel in the 35 years or so that he has been Creative Director of the brand.

And of course, it was impossible not to think of Gabrielle Chanel herself because of the setting. If the mirrored staircase at Rue Cambon is the backbone of the House of Chanel, then Chanel’s bedroom at the Ritz might be the hidden heart. For while her public life was conducted in the couture salons, and her richly decorated apartment on the second floor above the boutique, Chanel never slept at Rue Cambon, preferring to slip along the street, and into a side entrance of the Ritz, to her quiet bedroom on the top floor, with a view over the rooftops of Paris.

Chanel’s hotel room, where she died at the age of 87, was a study in simplicity: White linen sheets, white walls, austere as the convent orphanage that had been her childhood home, after her mother’s death, when her father abandoned 11-year-old Gabrielle and her two sisters, to be brought up by a traditional order of Catholic nuns. While I was researching my biography of Chanel, I stayed at Gabrielle’s bedroom at the Ritz whenever possible: Not in the splendid suite that now bears her name, but the smaller bedroom that she’d moved to during World War II, and where she’d remained thereafter, at the back of the hotel, away from the bustle of Place Vendôme.

My Reading Room

That side of the building had not yet reopened at the time of the “Paris Cosmopolite” show, after a fire delayed the Ritz’s extensive refurbishment, so I was unable to return to Chanel’s room, which had proved to be such an atmospheric place for me to write in the past. It was there that I had met one of Chanel’s last surviving friends, Claude Delay, who told me about the couturière’s declining years, when her courage and loneliness were equally apparent. We’d talked for several hours, while dusk fell and the room darkened, and Delay’s eyes filled with tears, her voice soft and gentle, remembering Chanel’s sadness towards the end of her life. 

“I often found her alone here,” said Delay, “sitting at her dressing table, gazing down into the garden, looking at the chestnut trees. She was still so slender, thin as a girl in her white pyjamas, her eyebrows washed clean of their black makeup, her jewels put away beneath a chamois cloth, a silk scarf tied around her hair. ‘One shouldn’t live alone,’ she’d say. ‘It’s a mistake. I used to think I had to make my life on my own, but I was wrong’.” 

Chanel was still famous then—as she has continued to be, her legend increasing with each passing year—but she was no longer the great beauty who had entertained her loves at the Ritz (among them Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia, Igor Stravinsky and the Duke of Westminster). In the late 1930s, at the height of her power and influence, Chanel was photographed at her magnificent suite in the Ritz for Harper’s BAZAAR (several years before she moved into the more modest room where I met Delay). Then in her fifties, Chanel represented the sophisticated, independent woman who conducted life on her own terms, an iconic embodiment of her brand: So much so that she decided to use the BAZAAR portrait to advertise her perfume, Chanel No. 5. That image of strength and elegance remains as memorable today as it was 70 years ago, but for me, at least, the glittering halls of the Ritz still contain a fleeting reminder of Chanel’s shadow—her darker, more elusive self. 

After her long days at Rue Cambon—where she carried on working to the end, still perfecting her rigorous vision of style in a couture collection that she did not know would be her last—Chanel returned to the sanctum of her bedroom at the Ritz. There, she would give herself a nightly injection of Sedol, a form of morphine that she had relied upon for many years to help her sleep. The ritual was not a secret: Claude Delay witnessed it, the phial of prescription drugs taken out of a small metal box in the bedside drawer, the syringe carefully sterilised in surgical spirit. Eventually, Delay came to believe that Chanel’s dependency on the drug was more complicated than a physical addiction: “Her injection was a substitute for love... Sedol was her last defence against the night—the ultimate and solitary penetration.”

My Reading Room

On 10 January 1971, a Sunday, Delay came to visit, finding her once again at her dressing table, applying her makeup carefully. The two women lunched together at Chanel’s usual table at the Ritz, and then left for an afternoon drive through the streets of Paris. By the time they returned to the Ritz, the sunlight had disappeared and a full moon was rising. Delay said goodbye, and as Chanel disappeared through the door into the hotel, she called out that she would be working again at Rue Cambon, as usual, the following day.

Instead, later that evening, suddenly struggling for breath as she tried to administer her nightly injection, Chanel died. When Delay heard the news, she returned to the Ritz, and kept vigil over her friend’s body. “She looked very small,” Delay told me, “dressed all in white, almost like a little girl taking her first communion.” The funeral was held nearby, at L’Eglise de la Madeleine, Chanel’s coffin covered with white gardenias, orchids and her beloved camellias, along with a single wreath of red roses. So many of her old friends and lovers were dead by then, but Yves Saint Laurent came to pay his respects, as did Cristóbal Balenciaga, Jeanne Moreau, Salvador Dalí, and all of Chanel’s models. Two weeks later, the same models appeared in Chanel’s final couture show at Rue Cambon, in ivory tweed suits and graceful white evening dresses. Many of those in the audience found their eyes drawn to the steps at the top of the mirrored staircase at Rue Cambon, where Mademoiselle Chanel used to sit, watchful and intent, hidden from view; forever hidden now...

All of this, and more, played on my mind after seeing Lagerfeld’s collection, accompanied by Irving Berlin’s unforgettable song, “Puttin’ on the Ritz”. It provided the perfect soundtrack to a fairy-tale show: A hopeful vision of Paris at its most alluring. Did I feel blue? No, and how could I? Because there I was, where fashion sits… still putting on the Ritz.