Behind the scenes at Coco Chanel’s showroom by Wendy Darling

Here is another of our popular short stories to read online. So why not make a cup of tea and take five to read this fascinating true story from guest contributor Wendy Darling…

Perhaps  I should give you some background details as to how I came to meet Coco Chanel and how I even managed to have the honour of working with her, however brief.

I’m afraid I need to go back many years to be able to paint a picture of those glorious 2 days in Paris when I worked with her. I need to tell you the story because otherwise nobody will ever know how it happened and nobody will ever know about one man who made it possible.

Before this meeting I was a mannequin in London and was thought of as one of those very top mannequins who travelled the world and lived a life of total luxury, well on the catwalk maybe, but not in real life. I had just finished a show in Paris for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and decided that I should quit whilst at the top…so I hung up my 3 pairs of eyelashes, let down my enormous ‘beehive’ hairstyle and announced to the press that I was retiring…

I did retire, but only from the ‘catwalk’ but I had secretly been planning with a girlfriend to open a boutique, that’s the name Dior used for his accessories shop in Paris.  I called my little shop HARRIET BOUTIQUE.  NOTE…I am pretty sure that I bought that word to the UK over from Paris before it became so misused.

Well Harriet was to start with, a great success, the magazines loved the story of a mannequin designing dresses, and all the celebrities crammed into the little attic room, so we had plenty of publicity, we had plenty of clients too, but the richer the clients the slower they were to pay!

My life was hectic as I also had a lovely daughter called Sarah who was only one year old, and I was trying to juggle everything, but it was not as easy as I thought. Especially as I couldn’t rely on sales at the boutique to cover all my expenses, remember I was a big earner as a mannequin, now I had to adjust my lifestyle.

Years earlier my mother had insisted that when I left school, aged 15, I should take a business course, much against my wishes, but she was right. The knowledge I gained there was to see me through my business life, there I learnt about CASH FLOW problems…and that’s what we had now. I knew I had to address the problem but knew it was not something that I could sort out overnight but……….

One evening I had a call from a great friend, John Bates, who worked in ‘display’ at Harvey Nichols, he was regarded as the top of his profession, and he had just been ‘head hunted’ by WALLIS SHOPS. He couldn’t believe the salary he was offered and although it wasn’t exactly ‘Harvey Nicks ‘the money was over the top, so who could refuse! That same evening after work John introduced me to a man called Jimmy Hamilton, Jimmy designed the first CHELSEA BOOT, he was a one-man band and I gather was finding it hard to manage his new business. He too had had a call from Jeffrey Wallis, one of the brothers who owned Wallis shops, the offer was too good to turn down, so he joined the team.  Jimmy was to become ‘head of special sales’ whatever that was supposed to be! It was a mystery but had nothing to do with me!

JEFFREY WALLIS

Several days later I had a call from John Bates saying that his great friend Lady Claire Rendlesham, who worked on Vogue magazine, had had A CALL from Jeffrey Wallis asking to meet up and the outcome of that meeting was that she too joined this team/group/whatever!

Again nothing to do with me I still had baby problems and cash flow problems.

Then I had a call, it was Jimmy Hamilton. He asked if I could come to Brewery Road, Wallis’ head office,  and have lunch with him. Well, lunch is my favourite meal I agreed. When I arrived I was ushered into the executive suite and there was Jimmy and another man, which I presumed was Jeffrey Wallis standing and looking rather awkward I remember thinking.

Jeffrey was a strange character,  he seemed nervous, but really I think he was just out of his comfort zone, we had nothing in common, well so I thought at the time. We exchanged the usual rubbish about the weather and the traffic etc over a brief lunch and then Jeffrey seemed to explode, he pushed everything out of the way and grabbed a pile of papers and put them firmly in the middle of the table, so I gathered that was lunch over and done with!

Then without really looking at either Jimmy or myself he almost shouted at me “Wendy we would like you to join this team of some of the most talented people in the fashion industry, we want you to be the DESIGN CONTROLLER of all 147 Wallis shops! Between us, we are going to create a group of the highest affordable fashion shops in the UK. We are going to bring PARIS HAUTE COUTURE to Great Britain. Then as he began to unravel his plans for the future of Wallis shops I could tell that he was completely immersed in the business. He was making his dream come true. Although I didn’t know him, I thought then, how amazing is it to have a dream come true! A few months later with the help of this incredible team, his dream did come true.

Jeffrey’s assistant put the papers in order and pushed them towards Jimmy, he scanned the documents and raised his eyebrows, then he slowly slid it across the table towards me…and followed with a pen.   I looked at them and then looked again. Wallis was prepared to pay me a very large salary, very large. I was very cool; my heart was thumping but I was in control. I looked and then turned to Jeffry and thanked him for having such faith in me, but he had to understand that I had a lucrative boutique to run, well he didn’t know the truth, and I also had a daughter who needed me. Then thank goodness I slowly said “but I might consider 3 days a week at a salary of £3000 a year…I didn’t add take or leave it as Jimmy was gaping at me and I thought he was going to choke.

Jeffrey played the game and said ‘DONE!’ I had just landed the most prestigious job in London at the highest salary imaginable!

Well now you have the background I will tell you about COCO CHANEL!!

There was a memo from Head Office on the first day I started work for Wallis Shops…..  Welcome to Wallis hoping that we can make Wallis a name to remember. We leave for Paris tomorrow at 6 am please have all your documents in order.

Signed: Jimmy Hamilton.

Well, perhaps I should have run away then. How was one supposed to arrange one’s life with 24 hours notice?

Well of course we all managed it. My situation was worse than anyone else’s as when I arrived at the airport, I was confronted with Lady Claire Rendlesham in her full-length mink coat, I wore my, in-fashion, mink tie! You know how you can tell immediately that someone doesn’t like you…well, Claire just flashed a smile at me and chatted to Jeffrey. It didn’t matter to me as I was only doing this for the money, the money to save Harriet and then I was off.

We arrived in Paris and were staying at the George V which was a good start, just my style, the best hotel in Paris. We all had supper and retired early as we realised Jeffry had a full day ahead planned.

Another memo was pushed under my door and a suggestion was that I arranged a 7 am call. We should meet in the foyer at 8.30 am. Goodnight!

The list was scary, amazing, and terrifying.

9 am: Yves St Laurent show

11 am: Coco Chanel

2 pm: Courreges

4 pm: Meeting in the foyer of George V

I hardly slept that night, mainly because I was so excited but at the same time, I just wondered what the hell I was doing there!

The Yves St Laurent show was amazing, with such classic lines, such glamourous designs, I fell in love with every outfit. I had to make notes and, in those days we couldn’t use cameras, so we had to sketch important features, such as the length, the shape of the garment, colours, buttons, fabrics…it was almost impossible, but I was lucky as I had a photographic memory, which I still have.

COCO CHANEL

At the end of the show, we stood in the street to discuss the collection. There was no time between shows, and we were taken in a cab to Coco Chanel’s show. This was Jeffrey’s favourite and he whispered to me that I had to take every detail in as he had arranged a meeting with Coco, and she was allowing me and one designer to have an hour to spend with my choice so we could look at the construction of the garment. He also arranged with her to buy a toile for I think £1000 which was a huge amount in those days.

The show was magical. The mannequins slid up and down the catwalk clutching a number so we could choose our favourite styles. I looked up and there at the top of the stairs was Coco. She sat with her hands twisted awkwardly and looked so nervous and fragile, I wanted to just pick her up and cuddle her.

Well, I chose what I thought was a winner. After the show, Jeffrey, Michael, my favourite Wallis designer, and I crammed into a cubicle and the garment was brought in. Michael sketched every possible detail, I felt the fabric and made notes about the braids. Jeffrey was so excited he whispered to me rip off one of the buttons. I looked shocked and just said “NO. Then I whispered to Jeffrey that It was a piece of art, you can’t just rip things off.”  He was furious, but I didn’t budge so he opened a seam and clipped some of the fabric out and pulled at the beautiful tweed fabric, it was really upsetting, but he was just grabbing at anything he could. I was almost in tears, and I think he realised how badly he had behaved. So he calmed down.

Coco and Jeffrey had decided that if Chanel was going to do big business in the UK the British figure had to be taken into account. As I was a perfect size 10 in those days I was asked if I would work with Coco and her team of pattern cutters for the next day to perfect the British shape. So the next day I went to the showroom and stood like a statue whilst Coco and her pattern cutter worked around my shape. Of course, they didn’t understand how incredible it was for me to be there, I was shaking with excitement, but it seemed she didn’t notice, she hardly glanced at me, but she stuck a few pins into me, unintentionally…I think.  A few hours later it was over, she smiled at me and said ‘merci ma petite!’  That was it. I say I worked with her, but you can see it was more in my imagination I suppose but I remember it to this very day.

The other shows were all incredible. The one that stood out for me, and for Jeffrey was the Ungaro collection it was revolutionary, after the show, I excused myself and left the showroom.  I stood outside at the edge of the pavement looking down and just cried. I turned and saw Jeffrey Wallis standing beside me and he was crying too. We bonded after that moment.

Well if I thought that was hard work I was definitely not prepared for the next 4 days. Jeffrey announced the dream that he had conjured up. We were going to present something called PICK OF PARIS. It was to be set up in the Marble Arch Branch, the flagship branch. The workroom, under the talented eye of their amazing pattern cutter, whose name I can’t remember, was going to create an exact replica of the most important piece from each collection.

It was exhausting, it was exhilarating, it was magic!

We did it, we re-created the Paris collections in a window in Oxford Street.

WALLIS IN OXFORD STREET

The press department managed to get all the important magazines lined up outside the big windows at 9am. The curtains slid open ….and there it was…PICK OF PARIS!

There were cheers and tears, hugs, and flashing bulbs. Amazing, bloody amazing, Jeffrey you did it, we did it!

I will remember that moment until I die. There is more about Wallis, but you need to buy my book to read about it!

AS A SPECIAL OFFER TO OUR READERS WENDY IS OFFERING A SIGNED COPY AT THE DISCOUNTED PRICE OF £15 CLICK HERE AND USE THE CODE ‘HARRIET‘ AT THE CHECK OUT. We also have a review of Wendy’s book by BackPacking Granny which is HERE.