If the heart of Chanel is Paris, then the soul of Chanel lives at 31 rue Cambon. This iconic address is not only Chanel’s flagship boutique, selling ready-to-wear collections,
handbags, cosmetics and perfumes. It is also the headquarters of Chanel haute couture — a private world of astonishing luxury where daywear begins at 50,000 euros.

Enter the lobby and mount the famous beige-carpeted staircase, surrounded by mirrored wall panels, which leads to a mirrored door with a tinykeyhole. This was Mademoiselle Chanel’s private apartment. None of the scores of photos in magazines and books — of a languid Chanel, draped over a chair and smoking a cigarette, surrounded by heavy gilt mirrors, enormous chandeliers, leather-bound books and costly bric-a-brac — reveal how warm and easy the apartment really is. Her favourite tokens abound: number 5s, sheaves of wheat, lions, deer, a tarot deck, a Buddha, the famous Chinese Coromandel screens. Her motto — “True luxury should be hidden” — comes to life in a collection of simple vermeil boxes, given to her by the Duke of Westminster, that, when opened, reveal a lining of pure gold.

Return to the hallway and you’ll see your splintered reflection, like a cubist painting, in the mirrored panels. As you climb the staircase, it becomes narrower and narrower. On your right, a door: “Mademoiselle Privé.” This is
Karl Lagerfeld’s office, where he reviews the haute couture creations, revising sketches and correcting designs — and sometimes cancelling them. This is an off-limits room — the inner sanctum of the inner sanctum.

Still farther upstairs are the ateliers. This is the engine of haute couture where, stitch by stitch, highly skilled women create suits, dresses and gowns.

Peek inside the atelliers on the next page …

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One atelier, headed by Madame Cécile, concerns itself with
flou (light dressmaking); the other, run by Madame Jacqueline, focuses on tailoring. They are bright spaces with windows, and scores of women work at long tables covered with fabric, scissors, sketches and large bowls of candy.

Tomorrow is the fall/winter 2009 haute couture show, and the pressure is on. Everyone is behind schedule, yet the ateliers are quiet — the only sounds are the rustle of moving fabric as forms are draped (each form is built to the specific measurements of a client — Penélope Cruz, for example) and the occasional whoosh of steam from an iron.

The high-stakes game of haute couture comes with its own super­stitions, and the
petites mains, as the seamstresses are called, have a few:

If a dress falls off its hanger, it will be a good seller.
If a box of pins falls to the floor, there will be a dispute.
If scissors are dropped, there will be bad news or even a death.

Pin pricks mean different things depending on which finger on which hand is pricked. The left hand usually refers to personal issues; the right hand, work-related issues.

It will be a long night for the
petites mains. Lagerfeld is supervising the final dress rehearsal. Each eyelash, each accessory, each outfit must be perfect before the mannequins can walk down the fabled staircase and be photographed for the archives. There will be long delays before the first of the young, very thin women emerges from behind the Mademoiselle Privé door and negotiates the long gown and the stairs to stand in front of the photographers.

Tomorrow evening at the Grand Palais, clients, journalists, celebrities and a few gate-crashers will witness the biannual spectacle that is haute couture. On the same day, another French couturier, Christian Lacroix, will show his final collection prior to shuttering his atelier due to economic reasons. For Chanel, however, with 50 dedicated haute couture clients around the world, the future looks as sparkling as one of its crystal-embroidered gowns.

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