Coco Chanel, consumed with disappointment, humiliation and revenge, once let a large uncut emerald slip from her hands, into the sea. She had found the gemstone hidden in a crate of vegetables, delivered to her on board The Flying Cloud by her lover at the time (she had many), Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, who was attempting to make amends for an affair.
He was the kind of man whose wealth could provide her with infinite financial security, even if she chose not to accept it; but whose fidelity could never be guaranteed. Before the Duke, there had been the friends and eventual rivals, Etienne Balsan and Arthur Capel; two lovers who simultaneously stole Chanel’s young heart, and together helped her set up the business that metamorphosed into one of the most successful brands in the history of haute couture. Later there was the economically challenged Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia, who was dependent on her for financial support. But with the Duke of Westminster, a six-foot tall 44-year-old, and the richest man in Britain, she faced the hopeless question of whether love, like money, could be counted upon.
Chanel, much like the empowered – with a flair for the dramatic – Diana Vreeland, Cindy Sherman and even today’s Sheila Heti, was an unwitting precursor to feminism who mentored, inspired and liberated countless women both in and out of the fashion industry. She was a thinker, a rebel, a pioneer, an aficionado, artist, and a hard-currency machine. She freed women for the 20th century, replacing their corsets, democratizing elegance with sailor shirts, wool jersey, and the Little Black Dress. She could be ruthless and cold; she was, after all, her own master, dependant on herself alone, as she told her friend and confidante, Paul Morand. But she was also a lover. And love, “an irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired,” as the poet Robert Frost once wrote, trumps all.
After six years, the Duke was determined to find a wife who could bear him a son (Chanel was 46), and even though their affair was not yet over, he wasted little time in marrying a young Englishwoman, Loelia Ponsonby. Months later his 28-year-old bride was confronted with the legendary French designer, who wore, as a certain kind of armor, jewels as heavy and delicate as the heart on her sleeve. “When I saw her she was hung with every kind of necklace and bracelet, which rattled as she moved,” Ms Ponsonby recalled, 30 years after their first introduction.
“Frantically searching around for something to say, I mentioned that Mrs George Keppel had given me a Chanel necklace as a Christmas present. At once, I was made to describe it. ‘No’, said Mademoiselle Chanel. It had ‘certainly not’ come from her. She would ‘never dream of having anything like that on sale.’ And then the conversation dropped with a bang,” she said.
Coco Chanel left more than a legendary quilted handbag and a trail of tweed in her wake after her death in 1971, at the age of 87. She succeeded in making a fortune, becoming a someone who was dependant on no one, just like her male contemporaries. But sometimes, desire trumps dedication: because she also left behind passionate, controversial love affairs and a broken heart, five times over. “I don’t know why women want any of the things men have, when one of the things that women have is men,” she once said.