Then a young photographer for the magazine LOOK, Douglas KIRKLAND is sent to report on one of the eminent figures of fashion: Miss Chanel. Ignoring him at first, Coco CHANEL takes him under his wing.
In 1962, LOOK magazine asked Douglas KIRKLAND to produce a photographic report on the great Gabrielle CHANEL. He is young and at the beginning of his career, but the three weeks he will spend in France with this fashion icon will leave an indelible mark on him. It is a challenge, a test but also a sign of confidence on the part of the magazine. He leaves to capture Miss CHANEL’s image in order to show it to the United States. At the time, the country did not really know this person, although she was famous in France. It was Jackie KENNEDY, one day wearing a CHANEL suit in the White House, which attracted the curiosity of Americans.
It was not going to be a simple job. Douglas KIRKLAND did not speak French, so he could only rely on the language skills of the people with whom he worked, and forced Coco CHANEL to speak to him in English. First contact was not easy. Initially Gabrielle CHANEL did not accept the presence of the photographer at her side and did not really want to appear in his photographs. Douglas then stays in the background and discreetly photographs the designer but focuses mainly on models wearing suits, dresses and jewelries. A few shots come out. They are joyful, full of lightness and youth. You can feel the happiness of Gabrielle’s models, who are surely aware of the chance they have to participate in part of the history of fashion.
He developed these photographs to show them to Mademoiselle CHANEL. After a few moments she changes her mind and accepts Douglas at her side. Then began the photographer’s work alongside this incredible woman. A real complicity will be created between the two people. Little by little, trust will settle in and Douglas KIRKLAND will be able to photograph the creator in her private place of life, in total intimacy.
Gabrielle CHANEL then reached 79 and somehow took the young boy under her wing. During these three weeks she shared her wisdom and experience with him. The photographer told in an exhibition of this series in Hong Kong in 2011, that, thanks to this meeting, he has enriched himself with an incredible level of perfection and that he has benefited throughout his career from the influence of Coco CHANEL.
The artist described a woman of character who was not the type to ask others to do things for her. She was still working in her studio and as can be seen in many of the photographs in this series, she would not leave her dressmaker’s scissors and would work on the clothes directly off the models. She sculpted the clothes on the girls’ bodies to reflect exactly what she had in mind. Never leaving her cigarette or hat, Douglas says that in three weeks and even after spending time in the creator’s private living spaces, he never saw her without a headgear.
One of the great strengths of Douglas KIRKLAND is to bring out the best of the people he photographs. This is the very essence of his work. This series succeeded by overcoming the obstinate and strict image of the designer. It is a work of relationship and artist who pauses his particular vew on a subject. It was not common to see Coco CHANEL laughing or smiling. However, in a few weeks, a relationship of trust was established between the two people, thanks to which we can now admire intimate and touching photographs of a happy CHANEL among her workshop girls.
Knowing why and under what circumstances Douglas KIRKLAND took this series of photographs, we understand its almost documentary structure at first and it then become intimate and personal. He had come to France to introduce the United-States to this great fashion house. But during his stay, he also discovered the charm and art of living that she carried within her. He was certainly influenced by that and it shows in the result that is all the more pointed and true.