Coco Chanel’s Past: Ethics Vs Style

During World War II, many large corporations did business with the Nazis. Some merely sought financial profit, while others actually shared the Nazi ideology. In the case of Coco Chanel, it is clear that both motivations applied. Her involvement with the Nazis has been well-established, and methodically documented in the book "Sleeping with the Enemy”, published in 2011.

Coco Chanel’s Past: Ethics vs Style

Companies like IBM, Kodak, Coca-Cola, and Bayer were complicit in profiting from, and collaborating with the Nazi regime. Some have apologized and attempted to make restitution. Hugo Boss designed and produced uniforms for the Third Reich, using around 140 people from concentration camps to work in their factories. Many in these factories were worked to death or eventually sent to Auschwitz and Buchenwald to be killed. In 1999, the company finally agreed to contribute to a fund that compensated former forced labourers.

French Secret Service documents reveal that Coco Chanel was not just a Nazi sympathizer but an agent of the Nazi intelligence organization, the Abwehr. Her secret code name was “Westminster”, a reference to her former lover, the Duke of Westminster, a British royal who was openly antisemitic and named one of his dogs “Jew.” Madam Chanel was already known to be fiercely antisemitic long before the start of the war. In 1933, Joseph Goebbels sent “secret attaché” Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage to the German Embassy in Paris. When Von Dinklage and Chanel became lovers, they moved into the Paris Ritz Hotel, where they stayed throughout Germany's occupation of France. Chanel was the only French citizen allowed to remain at the Ritz, where Goering and Goebbels also took residence.

Coco Chanel’s Past: Ethics vs Style

In 1941, Chanel's collaboration took a darker turn when she began to dispute the rightful ownership of her business. In 1924, she wanted to develop her business but required significant financial backing. The wealthy Jewish Wertheimer family came to her rescue; they funded and established "Parfums Chanel" in her name. On May 5, 1941, Chanel wrote a letter to Nazi party officials, demanding complete ownership of Parfums Chanel. Using her ‘Aryan rights’ to take full advantage of the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property, she wrote: “Parfums Chanel is still the property of Jews … and has been legally ‘abandoned’ by the owners. I have an indisputable right of priority. The profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate.”

Her demand was ignored, but later Chanel was awarded the wartime profits from the sale of her perfume, the equivalent of $25 million a year. This made her the richest woman in the world at that time, but she continued to refer to Pierre Wertheimer as “the bandit who screwed me”.

Coco Chanel’s Past: Ethics vs Style

I've known for years that Chanel was a Nazi sympathizer, just as I knew that actress Hedy Lamarr invented a communications system to combat the Nazis in World War II. I thought these things were common knowledge, but it turns out they are not. In the current climate of brand sensitivity (and lack thereof) toward cultural inclusion, consumers deserve to know the history of Chanel.

It's up to everyone individually to choose between ethics and expedience. Coco Chanel made a choice, just as Hedy Lamarr did. Some consumers are reacting to the Gucci blackface imbroglio by turning to Black-owned luxury brands like Off-White and Pyer Moss. Just yesterday, Burberry apologized for showing a hoodie at London Fashion Week that featured a hanging noose. Prepare for fallout!

Personally, I can't look at those interlocking C's without feeling disgust. I could try harder to separate the product from its history, but I'm not going to bother. I want to feel good about what I buy. Obviously, one can't boycott every brand that uses child labor (Nestle) or that pollutes our rivers (Walmart.) We can choose when to take a stand with our wallets.

It's upsetting when our idols turn out to be flawed. Can we forgive them? We will have to judge them on a case by case basis. Great artists tend to be complicated people. Picasso was a prick, but you know, a genius. Roald Dahl was a terrible father and a misogynist but I still love his writing. Coco Chanel was a Nazi… and for me, that's a bridge too far.