“Prodigiously intelligent” is how Francis Poulenc describes Coco Chanel to Marie-Laure de Noailles in the early 1930s, before the two women meet at last, an attribute that also sums up the spirited Marie-Laure, though the traits they had in common did not end there.
Fact and fiction shaped both of their childhoods. Gabrielle, for her part, masked the unhappiness of her early years and went on to invent a legend. Marie-Laure, who was raised in a highly cultivated, privileged environment that was lacking in affection, had a solitary childhood, as the descendant of a wealthy German banking family and a French aristocratic clan whose ancestry can be traced back to the notorious Marquis de Sade. Her eccentric grandmother, the Comtesse de Chevigné, who partly inspired Marcel Proust’s Madame de Guermantes, was to prove a major influence.
Just like Gabrielle, Marie-Laure follows her artistic instincts. The Parisian hôtel particulier that she moves into following her marriage to Charles de Noailles already houses a major collection of Old Masters, from Delacroix to Rembrandt, Goya to Rubens. The couple commission decorator Jean-Michel Frank to redesign the site’s interiors — think stripped back spaces with monastic volumes, marrying rare pieces of furniture and unique materials like straw and panels of parchment with pure forms. This stark aesthetic echoes Marie-Laure’s own look, with her wardrobe of Chanel suits (she owned 40 different styles, most of them black, according to Abbé Mugnier).
In constant pursuit of refinement, Chanel the designer favors the harmony of lines and the simplification of the garment, freeing up movement. Marrying beauty and function, she defines a new modernity.
A rebel and nonconformist like Coco, Marie-Laure gets a kick out of provocation. In 1932, as one of the first to adopt the diamond jewelry designs audaciously presented by Gabrielle to help “combat the economic crisis”, she appears in Vogue sporting a sparkling feather brooch.
Chanel revolutionizes fashion; Marie-Laure as muse and patron, and later painter and writer, contributes to the history of art, amassing, together with her husband, a collection of works spanning Braque, Picasso, Balthus, Mondrian, Giacometti and Man Ray. The couple play host to le tout-Paris and cultivate their knack for scouting new talent, notably the Surrealists. They finance cinematic projects, and lend support to composers like Markevitch, Poulenc and Stravinsky …
More discreet in her support of the arts, it is Gabrielle Chanel who offers shelter to the Russian composer and his family in her villa in Garches. As early as 1924 she designs the costumes for Le Train Bleu, a ballet by Diaghilev featuring a decor painted by Picasso, along with other productions and a film by Renoir. She shares close relationships with the poets of the day and avant-garde artists including Dali, Nijinski and Visconti. Coco also shares a close friendship with Cocteau, for whom Marie-Laure has had an infatuation all her life … Marie-Laure is a hopeless romantic; Coco, who is destined to remain alone, despite her epic love affairs, confesses that, without love, a woman is nothing.
Marie-Laure de Noailles © Henri Martinie / Roger-Viollet