Chanel plays down Coco spy tale
It's damage limitation for the brand after its founder was accused of collaborating with Nazis, says Aoife Drew
Published 21/08/2011 | 05:00
WHEN you think of French haute couture, you dream of gowns which display extraordinary luxury and detail, with price tags of tens of thousands of euro, crafted for a rich or royal jet-set. But what happens if this facade is disfigured by ugly anti-Semitism?
Not for the first time, the ghosts of the holocaust are returning to haunt the industry. Sleeping With the Enemy, Coco Chanel's Secret War by Hal Vaughan (an American author based in Paris who has worked for the CIA) reveals that Coco Chanel, the 'high priestess of couture' had a long affair with a German Nazi agent and collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. The book, which Vaughan claims is based on American and European intelligence archives, is causing a furore in France and comments on the Le Monde website had to be shut down last week because of their explosive nature.
Chanel, described as 'fiercely anti-Semitic', had a long affair with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a 'Nazi spy master' who reported directly to Nazi minister Joseph Goebbels, Hitler's right-hand man. This book reveals it was he who introduced Chanel to the Nazi organisation -- her codename was 'Westminster', after the Duke of Westminster with whom she once had a love affair. Her allegiances were not entirely secret even then: at the war's end, Chanel was arrested for war crimes but was never sentenced, most likely due to her friendship with Winston Churchill.
She thus escaped 'epuration': literally a purifying of French society, when anyone suspected of collaboration with the Germans was hunted down and punished. Chanel would have qualified as 'a horizontal collaborator' -- a woman who had slept with the enemy. As Vaughan states, these women "were dragged through the streets. A few would have the swastika branded into their flesh; many would have their heads shaved". If the truth about Chanel had been revealed at the time, her reputation would have been utterly destroyed.
Chanel is not the only fashion house to be tainted with a dreadful past. Earlier this year, designer John Galliano shocked the world with anti-Semitic remarks, saying to fellow patrons of a Paris bar: "I love Hitler, and people like you would be dead today. Your mothers, your forefathers, would be . . . gassed and . . . dead." He was fired by his employers Dior and sent to trial in the French courts, the outcome of which is expected in September.
Just as it was important for Dior's image that the company dealt swiftly with the scandal, much will hang upon how Chanel handles this. When contacted by the Sunday Independent last week, Sarah Brooks, a spokesperson for the company, played down claims Coco Chanel was anti-Semitic: "Such insinuations cannot go unchallenged. She would hardly have formed a relationship with the family of the owners (she sold 70 per cent of her brand to a Jewish family, the Wertheimers in the Twenties) or counted Jewish people among her close friends and professional partners such as the Rothschild family, the photographer Irving Penn or the well-known French writer Joseph Kessel had these really been her views. It is unlikely."
As Coco Chanel passed away in 1971, she cannot speak for herself. The essential difference between the Chanel and the Dior anti-Semitism scandals is that while Galliano made his remarks only this year, Chanel's alleged Nazi sympathies date back over 70 years. As Ms Brooks says with regards to Coco Chanel's war-time activities: "No one knows for sure exactly what happened or what her role was to be. There are several different versions and it will no doubt always remain a mystery." Of course, this is a point the company will emphasize to avoid any damage to its image.
Chanel cannot afford to be associated with fascism. It's extremely difficult for any company to enter world of haute couture, which is in fact a legal name awarded only to businesses that fulfil certain conditions: the clothes must be made to measure; the firms must employ at least 15 tradespeople, hold numerous fashion shows while it takes years to build a brand.
The appeal of the industry is based on dreams but if the beauty of haute couture becomes fouled by anti-Semitism, sales could suffer too.
No doubt France would rather leave its Nazi history in the past, but it still leaves casualties in its wake and it's far from certain if the Chanel brand will emerge unscathed.