INSIDE CHANEL'S HANDBAG: An Interview with Justine Picardie

Mar 18, 2014 7:41PM

In advance of our Luxury Handbags and Accessories sale (March 18-27), we spoke to Justine Picardie, Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, who is the author of Coco Chanel: The Legend and the LifeMy Mother's Wedding Dress, and If the Spirit Moves You, among other books.

Picardie spoke to us about the vagaries of fashion, the importance of a daily uniform, and what Coco Chanel and Margaret Thatcher have in common.

In an article in the Telegraph, you talk about how Margaret Thatcher’s Asprey handbag is her armor. It seemed very revealing when she would place it on the table during Cabinet meetings.

There was that phrase that arose from Thatcher’s era, which was ‘handbagging’ — to be ‘handbagged’ — which arose from the idea of Thatcher as it were. Of course she didn’t, literally [beat] a cabinet minister with her handbag. There is possibly an element of sexism to that as well — that she had to be seen within the context of her handbag. She had to be reduced by equating her with her handbag, rather than her formidable brain. And yet, I am fascinated by Thatcher’s handbag.

Interestingly, when I was doing research for my Chanel book I spent some time in the Winston Churchill archives at Cambridge University, but adjacent to the Churchill archives are the archives of Margaret Thatcher. Chanel was great friends with Winston Churchill. I did, I have to say, take the opportunity to request seeing Mrs. Thatcher’s handbag in those university archives. It’s a very compelling object.

It is something a woman carries with her every day. Everything is inside it. It ends up being very revealing.

The contents of a woman’s handbag — there’s something terribly intimate about it because it’s hidden. When I was researching the book, I saw one of Coco’s own original handbags in the Chanel archives in Paris, and it was a little black bag, but inside the lining was this crimson –– the red of lipstick. But there were also little secret compartments for lipstick but also for a letter, so when you see something like that, you think, 'Well, what did Chanel have inside? Was it a love letter? What was it?’

How do you use color in your look?

Well, I fall back on that old staple where I probably wear quite a lot of black, but perhaps it’s not surprising given my mother’s little black dress that I then wore. And I do love a little black dress, and I love the classic Saint Laurent Smoking Jacket or Dior trouser suit — all of which in black. I’m a big fan of Erdem, who does the most wonderful prints. As I sit and talk to you today, I am wearing an Erdem floral print dress. It’s a black background with quite a sophisticated floral. I’m wearing a lot of navy and black at the moment. I think that’s quite chic.

You write about the dignity Chanel afforded herself when she was adapting her wardrobe for different phases in her life. I think that idea of dignity within fashion is fascinating.

It is, because men have always had the opportunity of dignity through a tailored suit, and I think the remarkable thing about Chanel was yes, even at the times in her life when she felt very humiliated and vulnerable, she did literally sew together a sense of her own individuality and a kind of dignity. I believe that really, really strongly: that clothes should make women feel good about themselves, not bad about themselves, and that’s number one. Number two, I’m not interested in clothes that make women look ridiculous.

In the April issue of Harper’s Bazaar, you talk about ‘timeless style.’ Can you elaborate on that idea, as demonstrated by Coco Chanel and your mother’s black dress?

Well, if we start with my mother’s black wedding dress, which was made from a Chanel pattern… to me, you can’t really separate the idea of ‘fashion’ or ‘style’, from emotion, and perhaps that’s when something becomes timeless; it transcends being purely fashion. I mean, various people, including Chanel and [Yves] Saint Laurent have said things along the lines of, ‘fashion fades, style lasts forever.’ But for style to last forever, perhaps it’s because there’s emotion attached to it.

So when I think about that perfect black dress, my mother’s wedding dress, yes, it was perfect, it was timeless. Because there’s something about the Chanel ‘little black dress’: It was timeless almost from the moment it launched. If you look at a picture of the 1926 Chanel little black dress, if one were to have a copy of it made now it would look perfectly modern. But the reason it had such significance to me is because it’s the dress my mother wore to get married in, and I was born eight months later (laughs). Make of that what you will.

How does nostalgia or sentimentality inform fashion?

Well, nostalgia definitely does, whether it’s the feel of a particular piece of cloth, or it can have the same effect as smelling something. The scent of one’s mother’s or grandmother’s perfume is going to bring back that wave of memory, emotion, nostalgia. And then there’s something more powerful than nostalgia perhaps. People can be very primal, can’t they, about clothes when they’re very, very angry? There’s all those stories about women cutting up their husband’s suits when they’ve found out they’ve been unfaithful to them.

Or throwing them out the window!

That’s a much more primal, emotional response. Whenever I’m thinking about clothes and fashion, I’m always interested in, “what’s the depth beneath the surface?” Because I think quite often mainstream culture can dismiss fashion as being purely frivolous, and it’s not taken necessarily as seriously as opera or, sometimes, sports.

It’s interesting, when you look at mainstream media and see the amount of attention given to sport, and fashion gets a tiny amount in comparison. As a result, what is often lacking — and what I always aspire in my ambitions in my own writing and at Harper’s Bazaar — is [an exploration] beneath the surfaces of style, because sometimes we forget there can be no surface without depth.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Christie’s presents Luxury Handbags and Accessories, an online-only sale running from March 18-27, 2014. For more on this and other online-only auctions at Christie’s, see