Chanel No. 2

Chanel No. 2

French star Audrey Tautou plays the secretive French fashion icon


Originally published on on September 2009

Photo by Chris Betros

Photo by Chris Betros

For reasons that no one can seem to figure out, French fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is in vogue this year. The iconic creator of the “little black dress,” who died in 1971 at the age of 87, has so far been the subject of two films. First, Shirley MacLaine played the older Chanel in the American production Coco Chanel, and now French actress Audrey Tautou portrays the designer as a young woman in the French-language Coco avant Chanel (“Coco before Chanel”).

Tautou, 33, is a fitting choice for the role, as she’ll also be the new face for Chanel No. 5 perfume, taking over from Nicole Kidman in a series of international ad campaigns starting in November. Making her fourth visit to Japan, the tall and slender actress said she had learned some unexpected things about Chanel.

“What surprised me most of all was that she never had any interest in becoming a designer when she was young. She had aspirations to become a singer and dancer. She saw that as her way out of poverty.”

Directed by Anne Fontaine (The Girl From Monaco) and based on a book by Edmonde Charles-Roux, Coco avant Chanel looks at the events that shaped the fashion designer’s early years. After being orphaned, she worked as a seamstress while singing at night. Eventually, she clawed her way up in French society thanks to some opportune relationships with highly placed men. “There is no doubt that she was ahead of her time,” said Tautou. “Her independence and fierce spirit were like a beacon for women to come.”

Tautou, who shot to fame in France in the 2001 film Le fabuleux destin d’Amélie Poulain (known as Amelie overseas), is perhaps best known to English-speaking audiences for co-starring with Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code (2006). She said she likes playing strong-willed characters, but added that she really didn’t have much in common with Chanel. “I didn’t try to copy her mannerisms or anything. Being born in the same month and in the same region of France is about all we have in common.”

The film has come in for some heavy criticism overseas for omitting the controversial aspects of Chanel’s life. One of her lovers was a Nazi spy in occupied France, and the designer herself was arrested for being a collaborator (though war crimes charges were mysteriously dropped). She was also allegedly anti-Semitic and homophobic.

Tautou dodged all that, emphasizing that she just wanted to show how Chanel’s formative experiences might have shaped her creativity. “It was hard to find out much about her early life,” she said. “There are very few records of her having spoken about it.”

The actress, who naturally wore Chanel during her official functions in Japan, said she likes the simple and elegant hallmarks of the designer’s creations. “Millions of women owe Coco Chanel a lot of thanks for liberating them from corsets and padding.”

The Chanel story will continue in January with yet another film, Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky, which looks at the rumored affair between the two luminaries. “Her life had so many interesting episodes,” Tautou said. “I don’t think anyone knows how much is true or not, but her influence on the way women dress, even today, is undeniable.”

Chris Betros is the editor of Japan Today (