6 October 2012

In A whiff of Chanel No31, Celia Walden brings our feet stepping into one of most incredible apartment in the world; Coco Chanel's nest in Rue Cambon, Paris. Prolifically brilliant words she wrote.

Wheat Ear, Salvador Dali 1947

Mademoiselle Chanel is not at home but I am sure that her ghost, severe in a black suit with an angry slash of red lipstick, is present amid a haze of cigarette smoke and her signature No5 scent.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel's private apartment, at 31 rue Cambon, Paris, is a source of wonder that has been preserved exactly as the designer left it when she died in 1971. It is closed to the public but, after months of supplication, the fashion house granted me a rare visit.

The building, bought by Chanel in 1920, still houses the ground-floor shop, the haute couture workrooms in the attic (where 100 seamstresses still work entirely by hand), and what is now Karl Lagerfeld's study. Among the labyrinth of rooms, half-way up the Art Deco stairs that run like a spine through the 18th century building, is the apartment, which Coco called her "nest".

It was in these three small rooms that Coco transformed women's wardrobes. Here, she dreamed up "the new uniform of modern women", as French Vogue christened it (she dispensed with restrictive corsets and fabrics, favouring more relaxed and practical designs), and numerous classics that still enchant today - the little black dresses, two-tone pumps, bouclé suits and quilted shoulder bags.

After Coco died in her sleep at the age of 87, the brand - and rue Cambon - languished until 1983, when Lagerfeld was hired by the Wertheimers (who own Chanel) to rejuvenate it. On the day of my visit, Lagerfeld is tearing around Paris preparing for this week's ready-to-wear shows. But inside Coco's apartment there is a mausoleum-like tranquillity. I am not surprised to hear that Lagerfeld often drops in to seek inspiration.

An anteroom, cloistered in Chinese lacquered screens engraved with camellias - Chanel's favourite flower - welcomes me into her baroque world. Two statues of black slaves direct me into her sitting room, and I'm dazzled by the gilded statues beside the marble fireplace; the extravagant Louis XV desk scattered with fortune tellers' cards; and the enormous chandelier bearing her entwined initials.

Beige, black and white - Chanel's preferred colours - dominate the decor but the apartment is the antithesis of her pared-down aesthetic. Here the whimsy she suppressed in the name of sophistication is aired without restraint.

The apartment is also a cemetery of memorabilia from her many lost loves - including the English industrialist Arthur "Boy" Capel, who lent her the money to buy Rue Cambon, Igor Stravinsky and the second Duke of Westminster Hugh "Bendor" Grosvenor, the richest man in Europe. "She sucked culture from all the men she was with," says Marie-Louise de Clermont-Tonnerre, international PR director of Chanel.

On a coffee table in the sitting room are silver cigarette boxes bearing the duke's crest, and he adorned the lampposts in Westminster with Chanel's initials. But she still refused to marry him. "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster," she would say, "there is only one Chanel."

Behind the coffee table is the caramel quilted suede couch she offered to guests she liked; others sat in an upright chair.

The illegitimate daughter of a travelling salesman and a shop girl, Chanel and her two sisters were raised as orphans when their father abandoned them following their mother's death. It was through her clothes and surroundings that Coco reinvented herself. "She used to pretend that a bust in the dining room was a relative - in fact, she picked it up in an antique shop," says Marika Genty, director of the Chanel archive.

On table tops, carved into chair legs, in wood and marble, are Chanel's two favourite motifs: lions and wheat. "She was a Leo and a great believer in astrology," says de Clermont-Tonnerre, "so there are lions everywhere. There are even five of them curled around her tombstone in Lausanne."

Wheat is a symbol of life and charity and a dusty bouquet rests by the sitting room fireplace, echoing a small painting on the wall opposite. "Salvador Dali knew about her obsession with wheat, so he gave her a simple blade, painted on canvas," says de Clermont-Tonnerre. "When we had the apartment valued, it was by far the most valuable thing."

Chanel never cared much about the value of an object, only the pleasure she derived from it. "She bought a set of 18th-century Chinese screens, ripped them apart and stuck them on the walls like a vulgar piece of wallpaper," says Genty. In the dining room, two ornate allegories support squares of marble that were ripped off a larger table bought at auction. In the middle of the gold-painted room, surrounded by 19th-century Spanish mirrors, is a simple peasant's wooden dining table.

There is no bed in the flat because Chanel kept a room over the road, at the Ritz. "She would arrive here every morning at 11," says de Clermont-Tonnerre. "The hotel porter would call and say, 'Mademoiselle is arriving!', just as we do for Karl today. Only for Coco, a young lady was employed to spray No5 all around the staircase in preparation for her arrival." It was the scent that made Coco her fortune; from its launch in 1921 it has been the world's best-selling perfume.

During the German occupation, Coco closed the salon and spent most of her time at the Ritz, conducting an affair with a Nazi officer. At the end of the war she was arrested for collaboration - though not charged - and spent the following years in exile in Switzerland. In 1954, she returned and her apartment became the epicentre of Parisian society. "The place was filled with artists, actresses and socialites," says de Clermont-Tonnerre. "Cocteau, Dali, Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau, the Rothschilds and Madame Pompidou would come here often."

Her parties were legendary, says de Clermont-Tonnerre. ''As she got older and more lonely, she didn't want people to go home. One New Year's Eve she insisted on escorting her guests down those stairs, stopping on each step to tell a different anecdote. It took over an hour to reach the bottom."

The writer Claude Delay was one of Coco's closest friends during the last decade of her life. "One Sunday, he picked her up, took her to the Bois de Boulogne in her black Cadillac, and escorted her back. She died that afternoon. She always hated Sundays, because for her it was just a day when nobody worked."

Signorfandi, enriching nest...