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Touring Coco Chanel's Old Haunts

There is a famous story about the time fashion designer Paul Poiret stopped Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel on the street in Paris and gazed disdainfully at her shockingly simple frock, an early version of what would become her iconic little black dress. "Who are you in mourning for, mademoiselle?" sneered the man who put women in cascades of Belle Époque velvet. She witheringly replied, "For you, monsieur."

Maybe it's because she was such a tough cookie. Or that she managed to look as chic in 1970 as she did in 1910. Or that she rose from the humblest peasant domicile to the poshest Parisian salon. Not to mention that, with her brass-buttoned suits, jaunty costume jewelry, and comfortable spectator pumps, she almost single-handedly invented modern dressing. Whatever the reason, for years I've been unreasonably fascinated by Chanel and with her Paris, the city of her dreams, the place where she vanquished the ghosts of her impoverished girlhood and scaled the heights of artistic triumph. Though I have been to Paris many times, I have never had the opportunity to indulge in a solid weekend of Chanel hunting—looking up her old haunts and seeking out early examples of her clothing and jewelry designs at the city's best markets and vintage boutiques. This spring, I finally managed to set a few days aside.

Ideally, any Chanel-centric trip includes a stay at the Ritz, where Coco lived for the better part of her life. In her honor, I repair to the Bar Vendôme, ensconcing myself on a little velvet chair and checking out the lapdogs, which are frequently better dressed than their owners. (Even Chanel, champion of casual attire, might wince at the outfits on some guests in her old residence.) The maître d' frowns subtly at a jeans-and-sneakers–clad guest, but softens when he spots the giant Birkin bag on her arm. I wonder if he's impressed with the Chanel ballet slippers I am wearing: a perfect combination of practicality and style, modernity and elegance, and comfortable enough for endless walks around Paris in search of Coco's footprints.

I convince a concierge to let me take a peek at the $8,800-a-night Chanel suite, a vast two-bedroom space with a spectacular view of the Vendôme column. Pricey as the suite is, the concierge tells me, it's always solidly booked during the fashion collections. (He doesn't mention one of the less savory aspects of Chanel's life story: she lived here as a result of an affair with a German officer during the war. Never at a loss for words, when she was arrested for collaboration she was rumored to have said, "Really, sir, a woman of my age who has the chance of a lover cannot be expected to look at his passport.") The suite is indeed lavish, and the Ritz has managed to incorporate many of Chanel's favorite things: a coromandel-inspired armoire hides the television; there's a blackamoor doorstop; sheaves of wheat are arranged near the massive fireplace. I half expect Sergei Diaghilev or Jean Cocteau to pop in looking for Mademoiselle.

It's a short walk from the Ritz to the gardens of the Palais Royal, where I can imagine the small and determined designer, bundled in tweed, heading to see her friendly enemy Colette, who had a flat on the square for many years. (Colette once described Chanel as "a little black bull.") I'm meeting with Didier Ludot, owner of what is perhaps Paris's most eminent vintage-clothing shop, tucked into the arcades of the Palais Royal. At the moment, Ludot doesn't have an iconic little black dress in the house, but he does have an equally hard-to-find little black coat from the twenties, with silk flowers appliquéd to its cuffs. Chanel is generally credited with introducing the revolutionary look of that decade: the dropped waist; the slouchy silhouettes; the radical minimalism that made it easy for shopgirls to resemble duchesses (and vice versa). I want this coat desperately, but so does Ludot. "This I'm not selling!" he laughs. Nor is he parting with a pale chiffon dress from the 1960's, the identical one that Romy Schneider—Chanel considered her the ideal woman—once wore. "Karl wants to buy it! But I say no!" Ludot says gleefully, referring to Karl Lagerfeld, who took over the house of Chanel in 1983.

A few blocks from Ludot's shop is Angelina, the historic Rue de Rivoli tearoom that Chanel was known to frequent, taking rare breaks from her notoriously nonstop workdays. The room is far more Poiret than Chanel, with its riot of elaborate crystal chandeliers, ivory-and-gold–painted boiserie, and pastoral murals. Next to me, a woman in a knitted suit, slender as a reed, digs with abandon into a giant cream puff. Most likely she doesn't know it, but she owes quite a debt to Chanel. No, it's not the joy of dessert (Coco favored plain food, and not much of it). It's that slinky suit, the living embodiment of Chanel's much-quoted maxim that "fashion does not exist unless it goes down into the streets. The fashion that remains in the salons has no more significance than a costume ball."

A working woman who scraped her way out of a charity orphanage in rural Saumur, Chanel arrived in Paris in 1909 (on the arm of a wealthy gentleman), determined to take the town by storm. She began as a milliner, decorating little straw boaters with buckles and ribbons—quite a departure from the massive hats adorned with dead birds that fashionable women of the time balanced on their heads. Her simple chapeaux were admired by the beau monde, who saw her wearing her own creations and demanded to know who had made them. Chanel convinced her rich boyfriend to set her up in business; he agreed, thinking it was just a lark. He was wrong.

By 1920, Chanel had added clothing to her repertoire, and like her hats, her outfits were unlike anything Paris had ever seen. She wore sweaters borrowed from her male friends at a time when such nonchalant cross-dressing was practically illegal; she employed jersey, formerly used only for fishermen's shirts, for her little black dresses. Somehow these disparate elements—the tweedy overcoats; the frocks based on Biarritz bathing suits—looked just right in post–World War I Paris.

Chanel purchased an 18th-century building on a narrow street across from the back entrance of the Ritz and opened her first couture salon. Here, at 31 Rue Cambon, the business is still based. She kept an apartment over the store as a place to house her own clothes and host dinner parties. The address is so renowned that letters addressed simply Chanel, Paris are promptly delivered; it's rather like Santa Claus, North Pole, I think.

As it happens, my friend Bernice Kwok-Gabel, the senior press officer for the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute, is also in town, meeting with Chanel executives to discuss the Met's upcoming blockbuster exhibition. Miraculously, Bernice wangles a tour for me of Chanel's apartment, which isn't open to the public. It's as pristine as a gallery installation, and I'm agog at seeing in person so many iconic items that I have previously glimpsed only in photographs: her coromandel screens, her blackamoors, her Jacques Lipchitz sculptures, the sheaves of wheat she kept strewn by the fireplace, the divan she reclined on in a photograph by Horst. Chanel would arrive at 31 Rue Cambon every morning via the Ritz's back door; the hotel's porter would call ahead so the staff could spray the building's staircase with her celebrated perfume, No. 5. As I descend from her apartment, I linger for just a minute on the fifth step (the designer had a mysterious, lifelong affinity for the number five), where Chanel would perch and view her fashion shows in the mirror. The aroma of No. 5 is just discernible in the air.

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