Homage to home of Chanel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 February, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 February, 1998, 12:00am

There was an unexpected clash of the Titans in Hong Kong last week. Roaring over in the eastern corner were the effects of El 'Boy Child' Nino, the powerful weather phenomenon; limbering up opposite was Karl 'Kaiser' Lagerfeld, artistic director of the House of Chanel.

Lagerfeld was making his first appearance in Asia for Chanel and judging by the inhospitable way he was greeted by thunder, lightning, floods and hail, he could be forgiven for declining a return match. His much-ballyhooed fashion show, scheduled to take place in a specially constructed tent by the Grand Hyatt's pool, was washed out.

The show went on, of course. It was simply brought into the hotel's ballroom which had been transformed into an exact replica of Coco Chanel's apartment in Paris. The idea had been that the ballroom, where 600 guests dined on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, would represent the past; the poolside tent with its catwalk was intended to be the future. But the past won and no doubt that tough, stylish old bird who was Gabrielle Chanel smirked from her Great Salon in the sky as the models had to sashay in and out of her copy-flat.

Chanel in Hong Kong did an impressive job of recreating 31 rue Cambon, Madame's address in Paris which is still the head office for the House of Chanel. The three rooms on the second floor of the actual Apartment of Chanel have been preserved as they were when she died in 1971.

She was fascinated by things Eastern, and the rooms are a mixture of her imaginative love of the Orient (which she never visited) and of the style known as baroque (technically defined as decoration which is bold, exuberant and vigorous, all words which could be used of Chanel herself).

The idea to bring the apartment to Asia was first suggested by Marie-Louise de Clermont Tonnerre, Chanel's head of external relations in Paris, in October. Bonnie Gokson, the company's Asia-Pacific external relations director, based in Hong Kong, was responsible for making it happen. 'We found a French furniture-maker here in Hong Kong, and he went over to Paris and took pictures of the apartment,' Ms Gokson says. 'Because he was French, he understood the mood of it and what we were trying to do.' Those involved in the project began sourcing items, as close as physically possible to the originals, from French antique markets. Ms Gokson contacted art specialists from the universities of Beijing and Guangdong, sent them enlarged versions of the photographs taken in Paris and commissioned craftsmen to execute exact replicas of, for instance, the massive carved mirror which hangs over the French mantelpiece.

Wheat sheaves, covered in gold-leaf, were carefully incorporated into the mirror's base just as they are in Paris: Chanel, who was superstitious, believed wheat brought her luck. The story goes that her father whispered 'How good wheat is!' in her ear when she was a child, and she never lost that happy association with a man she scarcely knew or remembered. At any rate, the grain symbolised abundance and fertility, though she never had children; fecundity existed in the garments she created.

She also adored Coromandel screens - she owned 32, an extraordinary number - so Ms Gokson organised hand-painted reproductions on the mainland of the Paris originals. Detailed coffee-tables which displayed Chanel's beloved silver boxes and many lion figures (she was a Leo) were also faithfully recreated on the mainland. Given Chanel's love of everything decorative from this slice of the globe, there is an apt symmetry to such Chinese commissions half a century later.

All the books on display in the Hong Kong version of the apartment were French and venerable; they were purchased in antique markets as was the magnificent crystal chandelier which weighed 50 kilograms and was a cause of some concern in the early hours of Tuesday morning when the ballroom was being transformed.

'We had to make sure we weren't about to have a Phantom Of The Opera scene,' as Ms Gokson puts it.

The Chanel people worked throughout the night to install the infrastructure of the apartment, which was displayed on two sides of the ballroom. Once that was in place, they could add all the trimmings - the bowls of fresh flowers, the portraits by Jean Cocteau borrowed from the Paris apartment, the crystal balls to divine the future (wet, evidently), the antique Buddha which was similar to the one Chanel bought when her then lover Boy Capel introduced her to the religions of the East.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, it was all dismantled. The furniture and artefacts will stay in Asia and will be used in Chanel-related exhibitions and fashion shows in the region. It is impossible to quantify exactly how much the recreation of Chanel's apartment cost but expenditure on the whole event is reckoned to have been about $10 million. Ms Gokson estimates 400 hours of labour went into conveying the impression that a small Parisienne apartment had travelled 10,000 kilometres to the southern coast of China.

That the flat should have been reborn in a hotel was appropriate. For the strange fact is that Coco Chanel never actually lived in her apartment on the rue Cambon. She went there every afternoon and worked amidst her oriental and baroque possessions but in the evenings, when it became dark, she returned to the suite she kept permanently at the Ritz Hotel where she died at the age of 88.

She hated to be alone. Last week, however, her apartment came to life in another hotel, and hundreds of people turned up to keep her spirit company while the El Nino storms raged outside.