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Coco Avant Chanel: Costume Design of the Movie

October 7, 2009


We’ve already been feeling lucky to have so many fashion movies gracing the silver screens these past few years (Valentino: The Last Emperor, The September Issue, 11 minutes) and the news about a new movie exploring Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel’s life seems too good to be true.

For fashion connoisseurs, fashion-centric movies are a guiltless pleasure where the art form of fashion design and storytelling are intertwined and offered up for respectable consideration. Who could deny that fashion has an artistic historical past and is integral to character development for any film? No one in any fashion circles, surely. But the reality is that many in the populous sneers at serious discussions of trends, garments and accessories- new or historical. Somehow our society often fails to take interest (and engage in discourse about) the parallel between fashion and culture. Yet we do for visual art; why not fashion? And so the reality often is that watching a fashion movie gives us grounds to shamelessly talk about the clothes.

And there’s a lot to be said about the clothes worn by Audrey Tautou playing the lead in Coco Avant Chanel. The biopic explores the life and rebellious style of a now modern icon.

Costume Designer and French Cesar Award winner (2000 and 2004) Catherine Leterrier designed the costumes for the set based on Coco’s life experiences; many will be surprised to learn that Coco came from very humble beginnings and made her clothes from remnants and men’s clothes because she had nothing else to work with.


Quoting from the press kit accompanying Coco Avant Chanel, we find out about how Costume Designer Catherine Leterrier attempted to trace Coco’s inspiration for many of her iconic looks, including the famous leather quilted hand bag:

As Leterrier explains, “The aim was not to make a movie about the history of fashion. We occasionally had to take liberties with time. To fit in with the storyline, the famous striped mariner’s sweater worn by Chanel in the legendary photos of the 1930s appears earlier in the movie, in the scene where Coco is walking along the beach with Boy and notices the sweaters of the fishermen as they pull in their nets. At another point, as Anne [Anne Fontaine- Film Director] wanted me to imagine how the world-famous Chanel bag originated, I drew a quilted sewing pouch in the shape of the bag, and had it made out of an old, black, flecked cotton canvas that peasants’ clothing used to be made of, as if the young Coco had made it out of a remnant given to her by her aunts.”

A key element of the costume design was to show the influences that shaped the Chanel style. “In fashion, every designer has their own line, color and material codes,” Leterrier continues. “Chanel’s is instantly recognizable. What Karl Lagerfeld did in adapting the Chanel style to the future, I did backwards towards the past. I went back in time, designing the first models that Chanel might have created and which could have fashioned her style. The Chanel style is distinctive in its cut, the supple hang of its fabric and the perfect simplicity of its finish. The costumes designed for the film had to be up to the exacting standards of haute couture.”

Leterrier set up a temporary workshop for the movie, complete with dressmakers’ apprentices and lead hands, that worked full-time to fabricate the extensive costume demands for the film. “For the scenes where there are a lot of extras—the dance hall, the racecourse, Emilienne’s theatre etc.—we made, in addition to the costumes, nearly 800 different hats, created by two great milliners, Stephen Jones and Pippa Cleator. Before she made dresses, Chanel was a successful milliner, and her hats were more architectural and less fussy than those of the times. She made fun of the over-ornate hats that some women wore: ‘With that on their head, how can they think!’”

One particular challenge was integrating the more contemporary looks with the era in which Chanel introduced them. “The difficulty for me was to contrast the elegance of Chanel’s simple and fluid style with the fashion in 1900,” Leterrier explains. “I wanted to keep its beauty, with the blouses that enhanced the bust, the ribbons, lace, feathers and frills, whilst showing its excessive, showy and formal side so I could contrast it with Chanel’s pure, flowing lines.”
For the final catwalk scene, Leterrier chose authentic models and jewelry from different periods in the Conservatoire Chanel. “The collaboration of Chanel was indispensable to us, particularly for the final sequence where it was unthinkable not to have dresses by the Chanel label,” says Fontaine. “In this sequence, all the dresses come from the Chanel Conservatory. I met Karl Lagerfeld several times; we showed him the sketches of the clothes Catherine Leterrier was making.”

To accessorize, the costume designer went on a scavenger hunt. “I hunted down the cotton braids, silk ribbons, buttons and other period accessories at flea markets and antiques dealers,” she remembers. “I even found a platinum and diamond necklace that had belonged to Mademoiselle Chanel at the Louvre des Antiquaires. In the film, this magnificent piece adorns Audrey Tautou’s graceful neck in the restaurant scene where she appears in a black sequined evening dress. Audrey showed great interest in the costumes, and during fitting sessions I watched her concentrate and suddenly metamorphose into Coco Chanel.”

Leterrier also relished integrating Chanel elements into the men’s costumes. As she notes, “For Balsan’s wardrobe, I introduced tweed, which was another of Chanel’s codes, and for his dressing-gown I asked Bianchini-Ferier, in Lyon, to reprint a silk fabric with an old design by Raoul Dufy depicting horses, which I had recolored.”

“My whole team, from lead hand down to trainee, was highly motivated and everyone found it awe inspiring to be making the costumes for Coco Chanel. It’s like doing Molière when you are an actor, for us, Chanel is mythical!”

Excerpts below quoted from an interview with Catherine Leterrier appearing in


On Chanel’s enviable beauty:

“We know Chanel from the pictures of her in her seventies—she died when she was over 80. She was chic, but she was old! When I did all this research on her younger period, I saw how stunning she was, and how modern. She could be in ELLE magazine now! Madeleine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin—they were divine designers, but nobody wanted to look like them. Chanel was a star immediately, even before she was really successful, because she was so good-looking. Everything she had on herself, everybody wanted to have immediately.”


On working with Audrey Tautou:

“She has the figure for Coco Chanel, and she was so intense in her character that when we were fitting, she was already moving like Coco Chanel. She looks very feminine and very tomboyish at the same time.”


On her research:

“I was lucky: Even in the early times, Coco Chanel had many pictures taken of her because she was so beautiful. I read about the kind of life she was living, where she was, her social surroundings, and then I did research about what people of this condition were wearing in France. Like for all other period movies, I went to museums and looked at paintings and photographs. I went to flea markets for fabric, buttons, threads, old hats.”


On the evolution of Chanel’s style during the film:

“She gets more and more sure of her seduction as she goes higher in the social scale. She was always wanting to get to the highest point, but she never wanted to copy the looks of the ladies she so admired, so she found her own way to be admired. She wanted to be copied herself.”


On setting Chanel apart from the other women:

“Director Anne Fontaine asked for her to always look different. So when the others wore colors, she would be dark; when the others were very feminine, she would be masculine.”


On her favorite look:

“I think she looks good with the tweed coat—it’s funny to see her with the big coat that she has borrowed from Balsan. I made him wear tweed when in fact it was the Duke of Westminster that she met later who introduced Chanel to the tweed. I’ve seen pictures of Chanel wearing these kinds of oversize things, which are common for us now. In those days, it was really something incredible—she was dressed as a clown and still had so much beauty and elegance.”


On creating the clothes:

“They were all designed by myself. I imagined what the characters wore, though we don’t have real proof. I re-created the horse-racing suit based on a picture of Chanel. The silk pajamas and the sailor T-shirts—there are pictures of her wearing these kinds of things later in the ’30s.”


On her biggest challenge:

“It was very important to be accurate to the script, and this period is when she was very poor. It was difficult to show her elegance and creativity at the same time as her poor conditions. It was my goal, in a way. That’s why I made her rebuild a new dress mixing an old dress with a men’s shirt—you know, making chic things with nothing, like young girls who have no money do now. I imagine she was like that in her day.”


On Chanel’s greatest contribution to fashion:

“She was her own muse. She was self-conscious, and I think that’s very modern. She believed in herself and decided that what was good on her would be good on everybody else. And for those days, when women were subordinated to men and wearing corsets, that was fantastic. She helped women to become free to wear what suits them, not what is the fashion of the time.”


On working with the House of Chanel:

“It’s as if you made a story about the painter Renoir and there was still somebody called Renoir who was painting in an abundant way. Karl Lagerfeld is doing Chanel now, and obviously it’s very modern. So it’s tricky to be accurate to the real girl of Chanel and to the Chanel fashion of nowadays. I met Karl once and he said ‘Okay, do the film; you’re the costume designer.’ But he opened for me all the possibilities that I wanted. I could have the conservatory. We used real Chanel outfits for the final scene on the stairs, shot on the real stairs of the House of Chanel. We shot on a Sunday with all the staff of Chanel helping us.”

Pictures courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics; interview quotes from and Sony Classics official film website for Coco Avant Chanel.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 11:38 am

    I have been wanting to see this movie for quite some time now. I guess I should get around to it soon….

  2. August 2, 2010 5:27 pm

    I came across a wonderful video of Chanel’s apartment just the way she left it. Check it out:

  3. October 28, 2010 7:08 am

    A handbag or purse in American English, is a handled medium-to-large bag that is often fashionably designed::*


  1. oh coco! « beautiful symmetry
  2. Coco Avant Chanel | zerogstudios

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