Coco Chanel was a fashion icon - but she was also a Nazi agent

Attempts to vindicate her by claiming she worked for the French resistance are misguided


French fashion designer Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel (1883 - 1971) at a London hotel, 1932. (Photo by Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

September 18, 2023 17:59

More than 50 years after her death, Coco Chanel remains as iconic as ever. Chanel clothes and bags sell for thousands of pounds and – unusually for such items – retain their worth, while a new retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London celebrating the French designer’s work and life opened last week to widespread swoons from fashionistas.

The curators had even been handed a way to get over the knotty problem of Chanel’s collaboration with the Nazis. New evidence had been found, they claimed, which showed that she was a "documented member of the French resistance" – her name was one of 400,000 recently released by the French government.

Exhibition curator Oriole Cullen told the Guardian that the new documents made the picture of the darker side of the celebrated designer more "complicated" although it didn't "exonerate" her, adding: "All that we can say is that she was involved with both sides."

And a press officer tells me: "The exhibition doesn’t attempt to draw conclusions about the new material or prioritise one archive source over another – instead we have presented the information that is available to us, drawing on these original sources and files."

But the implication subtly whitewashes Chanel. One fashionista tells me: "It feels like they are trying to insinuate she’s been vindicated by her association with the resistance."

The strange thing is, when Chanel was arrested by the French resistance for collaboration with the Nazis at the end of the war, her work with them wasn’t mentioned; nor was it when she went into exile in Switzerland for almost a decade. It also wasn’t mentioned when, after deciding to return to France in 1953 (according to the exhibition this was after she’d heard her rival Christian Dior had said a woman "could never be a great couturier"), she was still mainly unforgiven by her fellow countrymen until she became a hit in America.

Chanel changed the shape of fashion for women; she threw out the corset, introduced the little black dress and made clothing comfortable for women. As a pioneer she is too important in the fashion canon to be cancelled, even for those who believe in the puritanism of cancel culture.

But at the same time, when statues are being pulled down, we need to be unflinching about exploring the darkest sides of our icons.

While the Nazis were bombing London and transporting Jews to gas chambers, Chanel, whose beauty, charm and intelligence meant her lovers had already included the then Prince of Wales (who was to later abdicate his throne) and the Duke of Westminster, was ensconced at the Ritz in Paris, where many of the top Nazis lived, with her lover, the German spy and Nazi propagandist Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

She already had far right sympathies, and had bankrolled a nationalist magazine created by her former fiancée Paul Irebe, whop died suddenly in 1935.

And she wasn’t just von Dinklage’s lover. She worked for German intelligence. Chanel was given the agent number F-7124 with the codename "Westminster" – an indication of how useful the Nazis deemed her ties to high profile Brits.

In 1943, in what was known as by the Nazis as "Operation Modelhut", she made one of two visits to Berlin to see General Friedrich Schellenberg, the head of SS intelligence. One of her missions was to get a letter to Churchill via the British embassy in Madrid – but she was forced to leave Spain in a hurry after being denounced as a Nazi spy.

In the meantime, Chanel also attempted to use antisemitic laws enacted by the Nazis to get rid of her Jewish business partner Pierre Wertheimer, who owned a 70 per cent stake in her perfume brand. But he was one step ahead of her and had already nominally given his share to another non-Jewish French person (which he was to get back after the war).

When Paris was liberated in 1944, she was arrested by the French resistance – but was released after a few hours of questioning. Historians believe that Churchill may have intervened to save his old friend Coco – who apparently knew where the skeletons were when it came to Nazi-sympathising British aristocrats.

Separately, a French judge issued an urgent warrant to investigate her wartime activities, with the charge that she had teamed up with a French traitor, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, who had worked as a Nazi recruiter – which she denied.

As the V&A exhibition shows – to its credit – she was named by at least three Nazis during questioning as one of their assets.

The dark cloud around her collaboration meant she went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland after the war. Visited by friends, this still rich but no longer powerful woman complained that she had nothing to do until, perhaps feeling that the mood would be more conducive to her return, she relaunched in Paris after eight years away.

Her first show (paid for by the forgiving Wertheimer family) was deemed a failure by the French press but she was invited to go to America where the stench of collaboration was perhaps not so strong in a country which had never faced the threat of invasion. She was a success again.

Coco Chanel was many things: fashion icon, inventor, feminist and genius. But she also needs to be remembered as a self-absorbed, manipulative, Nazi collaborator.

September 18, 2023 17:59

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