During the 2004 election coverage, I repeatedly cringed at the unflattering ensembles I saw woman politicians and the wives of politicians wearing on the campaign trail. Seeing such sexless politico-wear brought to mind the Chanel suit I have always left on its hanger in my various closets. Prophylactically separated from the rest of my clothing by the dry cleaner’s plastic wrap, the suit has hung neglected, unworn but not totally unappreciated. But now, the country had spoken; I did not want to harbor the uptight, conservative costume any longer. No matter the cachet of the House of Chanel: I felt ridiculous owning clothes so clearly made for (as our President would say) “the haves and the have-mores.”
The suit’s original owner was my friend Jenny. For Jenny, the summer of 1986 was all about Chanel. She spoke about the brand as if it were a religious practice, a vision quest, a spiritual initiation. Like any truth seeker, she wanted to touch the Platonic originals. To buy the suit, she worked seven days a week at a health-food store in our hometown of Westport, Conn., filling her journal with interlocking Chanel CC doodles during breaks. With an additional, substantial monetary gift from her father, Jenny reached her target. One day in late August, she took the train into the city and returned that evening with armloads of thrilling, shiny packages: a Chanel suit, a Chanel silk shirt, a Chanel chain belt, a pair of Chanel shoes, Chanel pearl clip-on earrings, a Chanel quilted handbag, Chanel beret, Chanel gloves and a jar of white Chanel pancake makeup. She spent $5,000 in 45 minutes. I was both repulsed and fascinated.
Three years later, Jenny renounced the world of material things, left New York and moved to Norway to live off a remote fjord, in a town with a population of exactly five. (From this 400-year-old farm, she now orders all her clothes from an Amish catalog out of Pennsylvania.) I got the suit.
After 16 years of dragging the Chanel around, dutifully wrapping it in plastic wrap, sealing it shut in plastic garment boxes and garment bags, periodically conducting moth-hole checks and replenishing the cedar chips in the suit’s pockets, I had never worn it once. Did I even want to be associated with a garment such as this, one that screams patrician upper-crustiness and blatant wretched excess?
When I pulled the jacket and skirt from my closet, I really saw red-Republican red. I saw, as if for the first time, that Karl Lagerfeld had been channeling the Reagan administration when he conceived of my suit’s Social Darwinist silhouette. Slipping on the jacket and turning to the mirror, I saw that I looked like a majorette for a partisan marching band. With its large, lofted shoulder pads-at least four inches high-and double rows of military-looking gold buttons, the dark navy wool suit had always had a Sgt. Pepper feel to it. Now it seemed downright aggressive, even militaristic. I looked like the Headless Horseman, or a five-star general-or worse, a Republican First Lady. Better get rid of this thing now, I decided. Sell it, as a kind of political protest.
A dispiriting chat with vintage couture expert Clair Watson at Doyle New York’s auction house dashed any hopes the thing could pay off a few credit-card bills; she assessed Chanel suits of that era at about $300 to $400. “You can see them offered on eBay,” Ms. Watson said, a faint disdain in her voice.
I wasn’t sure $300 was enough to make me part with the Chanel. But if I were going to keep it, I was going to have to wear it. That would mean it would have to be radically de-Republicanized, requiring drastic surgery. Whom to trust with such a task? Surely I couldn’t bring a Chanel to my usual tailor in Brooklyn, who is also my dry cleaner? I called the Chanel boutique on 57th Street and was immediately connected with the “alterations manager,” Gigi Farag. “Bring it in,” she said. “We can fix anything!”
Lacking a proper garment bag, I poked the hanger’s hook through the bottom of a black Hefty trash bag, flattened the fluttering plastic down around the suit and hopped on the F train.
The current collection on display at Chanel was nothing like the woolly uniform I had under my garbage bag. The new suits were lightweight, fresh and super-sexy. I felt a switch flip in my head. Could my dowdy Chanel possibly be salvaged, saved and sea-changed into a wearable hip garment for the 21st century?
Up in the third-floor dressing room, I explained to Gigi my fears and desires. After much pinning, she cocked her head and took a step back. “See, we take this in here,” she said, indicating one nip. “We remove the shoulder pads and put in smaller ones. Reduce the extra room here; pull the collar in a bit. We can change the buttons to black. It will be perfect.”
Not bad, I thought, gazing into the mirror. I didn’t look like Kate Moss, but I didn’t look like Lynne Cheney, either. I could almost forgive Coco Chanel her love affair with a Nazi in occupied Paris for the exquisite garment her couture had inspired. I loved the jacket’s side vents and those flirty slits at the hip. One giant shoulder pad had been ripped out so I could see the rational, Democratic, human-sized shoulders emerging. The best part was, it was going to cost a mere $80 for the alterations and only $10 each for 12 genuine, 100 percent, double-interlocking CC buttons. “So, see, now for $200 dollars you get a new Chanel suit!” said Gigi, thinking like a true Yankee. “Come back next week to talk to Ms. Tobon and to pick out your buttons,” she sang.
Back downstairs on the store’s first floor, peering into the jewelry display case, I nearly crashed foreheads with a woman whose tiny dog was peeking out of her ample leather purse. There was plenty of shiny, cool stuff in these cases. My mercantile heart stirred, shamefully. A gold and diamond charm. Belts, bracelets, scarves, gloves. Oooh. I started to do what I do in the presence of luxury items: look for something small and beautiful that I can afford, maybe a small frippery to truly update my new little number?
No, no, no. I settled for a dab of No. 5 behind each ear and forced myself toward the door.