There aren't many things that can detract attention from Audrey Tautou's performance in up-coming film Coco Before Chanel. But, as you might expect from a biopic about the early life of legendary designer Gabrielle 'Coco' Chanel, the exquisite costumes are one of them. The Breton striped top, a beautifully cut mannish suit, and a classic LBD set against a ballroom otherwise filled with frothy pastel colours, they help tell the story of just how revolutionary Coco Chanel was as a designer. So you might think the film's costume designer Catherine Leterrier would feel a certain amount of pressure. ‘Of course there is pressure because Coco was the greatest. It is like, for an actor, when you play Shakespeare. But then I just approached it like any other film,' Catherine, who trained as a couturier herself and has worked on countless other fashion films, revealed to Grazia.
Her biggest challenge was that the film is based on Coco's early life. As a child she was abandoned by her parents and struggled to survive by singing and sewing, and there was little information about her wardrobe then. Catherine spent eight months researching the period in museums and ‘invented' what Coco might have worn in that style. And then there were the Chanel archives. ‘They are very generous people and gave me open access to the archives, which are huge. Everything is hidden under white cloth or in drawers as the fabric cannot see any light. To request something, you give the archivists a number from a catalogue and days later the piece appears.' For the final scene in the film, where Coco presents her first show, Chanel allowed original pieces from the archives to be used and Audrey wears a skirt suit and pearls from the 1960s. ‘We shot it in Coco's actual apartment and the Chanel staff were there as the audience. It felt like a real show.' Even, Karl Lagerfeld approved. ‘He was not involved but I met him once. I had to show my designs to him but I was shy so [the director] Anne Fontaine did it for me. He said 'she is very good looking' but didn't say anything about the designs. I took that as a testament.'
So, after studying Coco obsessively for almost a year, what does Catherine think is the secret of the designer's success? ‘She was the first good-looking couturier and because of her own strong look, everybody wanted to copy her. She was an artist who intellectualised couture for the first time,' she explains. And after Coco Before Chanel is released at the end of this month, expect to see a flurry of copycat designs as the early influence of Coco inspires a whole new generation of designers.
Coco Before Chanel is released on 31 July