GABRIELLE CHANEL: ELEGANCE AND THE WAR

In her youth, Gabrielle Chanel gained the nickname Coco from her time as a chanteuse.

By Balthazar Malevolent

GABRIELLE CHANEL: ELEGANCE AND THE WAR

Chanel S. A. is a privately held company owned by Alain Wertheimer and Gérard Wertheimer, grandsons of Coco Chanel's early business partner Pierre Wertheimer.

Throughout World War II, Coco Chanel shut down her boutique at Maison Chanel — leaving only jewelry and perfumery for sale — and moved to the Hôtel Ritz Paris, where she lived with her partner, Hans Günther von Dincklage, a Nazi intelligence agent. After invading France in June 1940, the Nazis set up the Parisian occupation headquarters at the Hôtel Meurice, on Rue de la Rivoli, next to the Louvre Museum, and just around the corner from the trendy Maison Chanel S.A., at 31 rue Cambon.

Coco Chanel.

Meanwhile, in mid-1940, considering the official anti-Semitism of the Nazi occupation, Pierre Wertheimer, an early business partner of Coco Chanel, and his family had fled France to the U.S. Later, in 1941, Coco Chanel attempted to take charge of Parfums Chanel's company but was blocked by an administrative committee that disallowed her sole disposition of the perfumery. Having foreseen the Nazi occupation policy of seizure and expropriation of Jewish business and assets in France by Germany, the majority partner, Pierre Wertheimer, had earlier, in May 1940, appointed Felix Amiot, a French Christian industrialist, as the "Aryan" proxy whose legal control of the business of Parfums Chanel proved politically acceptable to the Nazis, who then allowed the perfume enterprise to continue operating their business.

Occupied France was full of rumors that Coco Chanel was a Nazi collaborator; her clandestine identity was Abwehr's secret agent 7124, codenamed "Westminster." As such, by order of the Sicherheitsdienst's General Walter Schellenberg, Chanel was sent to London on a mission to get in touch with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and discuss the details of a separate peace" which was a plan proposed by Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler, seeking to avoid surrendering Soviet Russians to the Red Army.

By the conclusion of War, after France's Allied liberation, Chanel was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis. In September 1944, Chanel was summoned by the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration, for interrogation re her collaborationism, yet without documentary evidence or witnesses of her collaboration with the Nazis, and due to Churchill's secret intervention on her behalf, the épuration released Coco Chanel from arrest as a traitor to France. After being liberated by Churchill's political grace, the severity of Chanel's Nazi collaboration allegations made it difficult for her to live in France; so Coco Chanel and her German husband, Hans Günther von Dincklage, went to Switzerland for eight years in exile.

In the post-war period, during the Swiss exile of Coco Chanel from France, Pierre Wertheimer returned to Paris and regained formal administrative control over the business holdings of his family — including control over Parfums Chanel, the perfumery established with his venture capital, and successful because of the name of Chanel.

In Switzerland, the news aroused Coco Chanel's anger at having been exploited by her business partner, for only ten percent of the money. So, she set up a Swiss parfumerie to manufacture and sell her "Chanel perfumes." In addition, Wertheimer, Parfums Chanel's majority capital stock owner, saw his business interests threatened, and infringe on his commercial rights because he had no legally exclusive rights to the name of Chanel. Nevertheless, Wertheimer avoided a lawsuit against Coco Chanel for trademark infringement, lest it harms the business image and the creative integrity of his Chanel-brand perfumery.

Wisely, Pierre Wertheimer settled his business- and commercial-rights quarrel with Chanel and, in May 1947, they renegotiated the 1924 contract establishing Parfums Chanel — she was paid $400,000 in cash (wartime profits from the No. 5 de Chanel perfume sales); assigned a 2.0 percent running royalty from the No. 5 perfumery sales; assigned limited commercial rights to sell her Chanel perfumes in Switzerland and granted a monthly regular fixed sum that paid all of her expenses. Gabrielle Chanel closed her Swiss perfumery business in exchange and sold to Parfums Chanel the full rights to the name "Coco Chanel."

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