The chauffeur polishes the bodywork of Coco’s new Rolls-Royce. He has been waiting over an hour for her to emerge from the house. Stepping out eventually, she takes a look at her new purchase. She likes its straight lines, its simple assembly of squares, and she likes the color: black.
Hot air warps around the car. Its dark metal gleams. The engine sets up a powerful hum. On opening the door, she’s immediately besieged by the heat trapped inside. She removes her hat and fans herself rapidly. A prickling sweat spreads across her skin.
The traffic in the capital is motorized and noisy. The avenues are dense with people, the air thick with stirred-up dust. Coco smiles. It’s good to be back, she thinks. Her inner space craves the bigness of the city. This is where she belongs.
She plants her hat back on as the car draws up outside her shop in the rue Cambon—a narrow but affluent street backing on to the Ritz Hotel. The name CHANEL is stenciled in thick black letters above number 31.
She glances at the outfits displayed in the window: a sleeveless evening dress, a gray silk jacket edged with fur, and wool jerseys with broad pockets. A brooch on one catches the light and glitters.
Though she has been working hard at home, she has not visited the shop in over a week now. Usually her arrival is well telegraphed. On this occasion it is unannounced. There is a measure of disquiet and flustered activity among the girls in the shop. She has heard from Adrienne that they are demanding a pay raise. God! The minute she turns her back, there is unrest. Ungrateful bitches! Why, she considers, should she pay them more? Don’t they realize that working for Chanel gives them unprecedented opportunities to meet rich lovers? Can’t they see that some of them might even get a husband out of it? What more do they want?
Only Adrienne is unequivocally pleased to see her. Although almost the same age and often mistaken for her sister, Adrienne is in fact Coco’s aunt. They have supported one another loyally for the last twenty years. Of the two, Adrienne is the more matronly and straitlaced. Coco has always been the leader. Together they ascend the helix of white stairs to the apartment on the third floor. Coco smiles to see again the Venetian mirrors and smoked crystal chandeliers, the white flowers and satin drapes of her home. She picks up one of the carved wooden animals from a table and examines it for dust. It is spotless.
She reapplies her lipstick after the journey, then bites on a handkerchief, leaving a red kiss. Adrienne quizzes her about the last two weeks. But she finds Coco strangely reticent about life back in Bel Respiro and particularly reluctant to talk at any length about Stravinsky.
“He’s a cold fish,” remarks Coco. Her right hand cups her chin. She hooks the little finger into her mouth and toys with the nail between her two front teeth.
“Yes, but he’s a big fish.”
She looks accusingly at Adrienne, resisting her suggestion that she might be out to catch him. Her features soften. “Actually, he’s quite small,” Coco says, with a winning smile. They both laugh.
She lets slip how difficult Madame Stravinsky is, detailing her persistent illness. She thus avoids having to disclose very much about Igor. She’d find it hard, anyway, to articulate what she thinks about him. She’s not sure herself. It’s like the snags that happen in their conversation, the opacities that slide between Russian and French. She has yet to find the key to decode exactly how she feels. Maybe nothing at all. Who knows?
Briskly she moves on to talk about the shop. She asks to look at the accounts. Scanning the columns, her eyes register the usual July torpor of sales. Coco sighs. “About as good as could be expected.”
Eager to raise Coco’s spirits, and keen to prove her own managerial acumen, Adrienne tells her how hard everybody has worked in her absence and how diligent they have been.
“What’s all this about them wanting higher wages, then?”
“That’s the French. The others don’t complain at all. They’d be happy to work longer hours for less pay!”
“So it’s the natives causing all the trouble, eh?”
“Don’t worry, they’re not going to revolt!”
“I can handle things. Trust me.”
Slowly Coco breaks into a smile. She closes the ledger, clapping her two hands on the top. “I’m sorry. You’re doing a great job.”
Returning downstairs, Coco pauses for a moment. Unseen, she leans over the mezzanine rail and scans the scene below. There are her designs made flesh: crêpe de chine belted blouses, sleeveless evening dresses in black tulle, and cropped tweed jackets with patch pockets and turned-back cuffs.
She watches clients run their hands across the textures of the dresses. She loves that. The touch of the stuff. The friction of the material as it slides between the fingers. It gives her a thrill just thinking about it. She can’t wait to return to work.
A generalized chatter percolates upward, from which she can discern as much Russian spoken as French. She has to smile. Here she is, it occurs to her, an uppity Frenchwoman of humble stock, lording it over these dispossessed princesses and countesses. The flotsam of the Revolution. The cream of the Moscow and St. Petersburg drawing rooms, all modeling and selling for her!
Coco has an idea for a dress she wants to try out.
One of her dark-haired models is on hand to oblige. They work in the room above the shop, surrounded by several mirrors. The model stands as near stock-still as she is able. Coco shuffles around her, first on her knees, then on all fours, then standing up, then sitting down. All the time she mutters incomprehensibly to herself. A pair of scissors dangles from a ribbon tied around her neck. Consulting a blueprint on a muslin toile, she works on the fabric directly.
It is a beige silk dress with an uneven hemline and a collar like a crossed scarf. Adjusting a ruche here, straightening a pleat there, she simplifies the line of the dress inch by inch, allowing it to flare softly at the bottom. Then she attends to the arms. “I can never get the damn sleeves right!” she moans.
Bits of material clutter the floor. Coco holds the pins in her mouth, sideways as you might a rose or a knife. When the model moves slightly or shifts her weight, Coco screams, “Can’t you keep still even for one minute? What am I paying you for?”
The model is new and unaccustomed to these tantrums. Chastened, she freezes into a stiff pose until she can stand the weariness no longer. And when inevitably she loses balance or alters her stance, she is subjected to another faintly hysterical round of abuse.
“Stand straight, girl!” The need to keep the pins between her lips stretches Coco’s mouth wide as she shouts.
It is hot above the shop, and she works furiously. Already afternoon, they have not stopped for lunch. Worrying obsessively at the sleeves, she nimbly pins and tucks until eventually she is content. The dress is dispatched downstairs to be made up for a customer. A magnet is passed over the floor to pick up any stray needles and pins.
Coco relaxes with a cigarette on one of the square suede sofas. Her body makes the shape of a Z. Idly she wonders what Igor is doing back in Garches. She’s surprised to catch herself thinking like this. The intuition hits her: she misses him.
He is just such a presence, she finds. At the moment, he acts as a kind of ballast in her life. This is terrible! She went back to work partly to see how she’d feel being away from him for a couple of days. Earlier, she found herself writing his name over and over on a napkin, like a young girl practicing her signature. Afterward, she felt pathetic.
She’s fond of Igor, and he is different from other men: more serious, more mature. She admires his independence of mind, his musical genius. She recognizes something of herself, too, in his dedication to work. He’s not dashing, perhaps, but he’s no dullard either. She finds him stimulating.
She orders a present for him. Knowing he loves gadgets, she has bought him a mechanical bird. It’s an intricate little windup thing and comes complete with its own cage. Its head tilts as it claps its beak, and its wings twitch into life. It even whistles shrilly. If he ever lets them play with it, the children might like it, too.
From downstairs the clangor of the shop bell restores her focus on the afternoon. She finishes her cigarette and descends, affecting an almost regal air. She knows the rest of the staff will have heard her berating the model. This is good. It will help keep them on their toes. Such strictness is necessary if standards are to be maintained.
With Coco away at the shop for two days, the villa seems suddenly still.
In her absence, a numbness spreads through Igor’s body. A warp appears in the shape of his day. He finds he cannot concentrate. His thoughts continually bend toward her, and his mind slides from his work. He sets down his pen, leans back in his chair, and shoves his glasses up onto his forehead. An insect wanders across his manuscript like a demisemiquaver with its multiple legs.
On an impulse, he rises. The house is silent. The children are with their governess. With a new sense of decision he steps out into the corridor and advances in long strides up the stairs. Moving quietly so as not to disturb his wife—relations have been strained since their fight the other night—he creeps toward Coco’s room.
The door is unlocked. Trembling, he enters. A sense of daring pushes him on, as well as a need, a longing, to be close to her and her things. Inside, sunlight projects shadows sharp enough to cut against the walls. Noticing photographs of Coco, he moves closer to inspect. One captures her at a stable, a touch of the equestrienne about her, a hint of cavalry braid on the sleeve. Another has her reading on a terrace, her hair tumbled loose. A third frames her relaxing in a sailor jacket at the beach.
Turning, he sees her bed: the cool of pillows, the intimacy of silk sheets. He notices some clothes draped over a screen. Resisting an impulse to touch them, he has a superstitious fear that something of her still inhabits these fabrics: a ghostly presence that, if touched, might ripple into life. The air around him thickens as he imagines her nearness.
He catches a glimpse of himself in the dresser mirror. A flaw in the glass generates a blurred patch by the door. For an instant he thinks someone is coming in. Fear seizes his body. His heart races. His image ricochets off the mirror, burning holes into the wall. But the moment passes; everything is still. Slowly his blood recovers. Something in him screams to leave, but the impulse to remain and root around is overwhelming, almost criminal in force.
He spies the door leading off to Coco’s bathroom. Intrigued, he walks inside. Immediately he hears the different pitch of his shoes as they move from carpet to cold hard tiles. A flattened sound. A minor third.
The fixtures gleam so whitely, they almost hurt his eyes. This is the bath she must lie in, he thinks, and these the taps that she must touch. He imagines her emerging all rosy and self-forgetful from the tub, her chin tilted upward as if in an advertisement, her limbs slick with oil, and her breasts prinked like paradisal flowers. A shiver of longing runs through him. His palms grow moist. Something catches in his nose: a powdery scent. He turns.
Above the sink, he sees shelves brimful with colognes and spices, fragrant pomades and scented soaps, bath oils and dye pots, shampoos and aromatic balms. Rarely has he seen these things in such profusion, and never so artfully arranged. It reminds him of a fabled Arabian store. Warring with one another slightly, the odors fight off a collective rot to yield an overpowering sweetness.
He lifts an atomizer of perfume, inhaling the fragrance in a couple of drafts. Something occurs to him. And with a thrill which seems illicit, he undoes two buttons of his shirt and dabs the liquid experimentally upon his chest.
He realizes how swollen with goodness he feels here in Garches. He seems able to breathe more easily. It could be the climate, the open spaces, but there is also an aura that Coco exudes. The air becomes richer in the exhilaration she gives off. He has found new reserves of oxygen to draw upon, a delicious renewal of energy to affirm the certainty that he is alive. And he knows it is Coco who has given him this.
Returning furtively to his study, he sniffs at his wrist where a scribble of veins runs just beneath his skin. He smells the echo of the odor on his fingers. Then he slinks back with delicious indolence into his music and the middle of the afternoon.
That evening, Coco and Adrienne make the short walk to a restaurant. The two women are soon joined by their friend Misia Sert.
“I don’t want to make this a late night,” Coco says. “There are things I have to do tomorrow, and I want to be back in Garches before it’s dark.”
Adrienne remarks, “That makes a change.”
“You normally get up late and work until late,” adds Misia.
“Can’t I change my work habits even for one day?”
“No need to get tetchy,” Misia says, with a wink at Adrienne.
Coco is not amused. They both see that. Adrienne attempts to cajole her, telling her everything is taken care of, but Coco throws her a determined look. She’s not to be contradicted. Adrienne relents. In a mute gesture of surrender, she taps the ash from her cigarette.
Over dinner, Coco eats less and drinks more than usual. She watches the waitresses glide by like low-grade ministering angels. “Why can’t my girls work like this?”
“Oh, come on! What’s the matter?”
Pressed by Adrienne after several glasses of wine, Coco confesses she feels drawn to Igor. “But he’s married,” she complains.
“So?” Misia says. “I’ve been married three times already. It needn’t be an obstacle, believe me.”
Coco has seen Misia distraught often enough to know her flippancy is hard-won. “He has children, for God’s sake!”
“That will keep Madame preoccupied, then, won’t it?” Adrienne says.
Coco wonders why she’s attracted to him, anyway. He isn’t handsome, exactly. He certainly isn’t wealthy. He’s married, with four children. And she knows that, if she wanted, she could easily get other men. She’d be crazy to get involved with him, she reflects. And she cannot stand to be hurt again. Not after Boy. She shudders again to think of his death.
Fortified by wine, Adrienne blurts, “To hell with marriage. There are few enough men left after the war without worrying about that.” She’s half joking, but Coco doesn’t smile.
“Oh, this is serious!” says Misia, in a moment of revelation.
Coco sips a little water and blinks quickly. Then something within her trips. “I don’t want to talk about it any more. I don’t propose to humiliate myself. He cares too much for his work even to think of getting mixed up with me.” Suddenly sitting up: “And frankly I care too much for my own business, too.”
Offered more wine, Coco, newly resolute, clamps her hand on top of her glass. She’s already drunk too much. “Anyway, I have other things to think about.”
The redirection of her attention seems to energize her. She talks about introducing an in-house perfume into the store. Misia is enthusiastic. Adrienne is cooler about the project, fearing it will compromise the design side of the business. She is worried they might overreach themselves.
Coco says, “A new fragrance.”
“Most people don’t even wash,” Adrienne says.
“A woman should smell like a woman, not a rose.”
“I need a new scent. Something less floral,” Misia says. “I’ve been bitten twice in the last few days.” As evidence she offers two small lumps on the back of her arm.
Adrienne winces in sympathy but is quick to counter. “People won’t care so long as it masks the stench of their bodies.”
“People will change,” Coco says.
One thing the nuns taught her: to be clean, to wash properly. If women want to smell nice with her fragrance, then they’ll have to rinse themselves first. It’s that simple.
“You stand to lose hugely if a venture of this sort fails.”
Coco twists her glass in a ring of moisture, casting hoops of light on the tabletop. “You have to take risks in life.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Misia says.
Adrienne speaks with exasperated emphasis. “You’ve taken enough risks already to last a lifetime.”
“It’s worked for Poiret, hasn’t it?”
There’s a silence.
“The business will expand massively if it proves a success. It’s simply a question of manufacturing the stuff. Once it’s developed, the hard part is over. It’s not like clothes where you have to design something new every season. You just churn the perfume out.”
“But why jeopardize everything you have for this . . .” Adrienne casts around for a more contemptuous word but fails to find one. “. . . scent?”
“It will give us a bit of distinction, enhance our standing. Think of it as an exercise in style.”
What she has in mind is not just another toiletry; it’s something totally new, something unprecedented, something enchanting and sublime. She wants a perfume so splendid that, at the merest whiff, a man will be intoxicated. It will be glorious, she thinks. Along with love, she feels perfume is what makes a woman complete. And if one inspires the other, then so much the better.
Sensing the wine at work within her, Adrienne says, “Don’t you have to research it first?”
“Darling, I already have. I’ve chosen my perfumer.”
“He’s French, then.”
“He’s from St. Petersburg. But he works in Grasse.”
“Another Russian!” Adrienne exclaims.
“His father was perfumer to the czar.”
Misia says, “You really go for these Slavs, don’t you?”
“Oh, stop it, you two!” She clenches then unclenches her hand. “He’s working on samples for me now.”
“It’s your money,” Adrienne says, with qualified grace.
“It’s not the money I care about,” Coco muses, “it’s the independence.”
Misia says, “That’s something you realize after husband number three!”
Resignation thickens Adrienne’s voice. “I suppose.”
“Here’s to us all, then,” Coco offers.
“And all our independence,” finishes Coco. The three of them raise their glasses to the light and clink hard.