Original image of Coco Chanel sitting at a desk during a visit to Los Angeles, 18 March 1931. This image comes from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection at the UCLA Library.

A “New Look” at Coco Chanel…

Fashion designer and icon Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is known for “the little black dress,” the No. 5 perfume (that Marilyn Monroe wore to bed with nothing else), and creating a new style that freed women from corsets and enormous hats by offering them sailor shirts and wide-leg pants instead. 

In the past few years, she’s also become known as a Nazi collaborator. Does that affect how the world sees Coco Chanel, the designer, and Chanel, the worldwide company?

The Apple+ series The New Look, about the wartime actions of Chanel (played by Juliette Binoche) and Christian Dior, portrays the designer as a voluntary Nazi collaborator and secret agent. For many, the television series may be the first time learning about the extent of Chanel’s Nazi involvement.

Until recently, Chanel’s Nazi past has been sidestepped. Authors and filmmakers tiptoed around what exactly she did during the war years, as well as her longstanding and virulent antisemitism. Many of the books published and films made about the designer concentrate on her designs, style, perfume, and the more palatable aspects of her history, while her life from 1941 to 1954 has typically been shrouded in vagueness and mystery. 

But many Jewish fashionistas knew the truth. And now, the way Chanel’s story is being told is changing. In 2011, Hal Vaughan’s revelatory nonfiction book Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War was published. Vaughn focused on the “hidden” years of Chanel’s life, from the Nazi occupation of Paris to the aftermath of World War II. The journalist’s research revealed Chanel’s collaboration with Hitler’s high-ranking officials in occupied Paris, including her long-running affair with intelligence agent Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. Chanel also worked directly with Walter Schellenberg, the head of Nazi Foreign Intelligence. 

When asked by The New Yorker why Chanel’s wartime story never received much attention over the years, Vaughn responded, “I have no idea. I can’t figure it out. Either people didn’t want to know or chose not to deal with it.”

If you tune into The New Look, there are facts to keep in mind. Records prove Chanel was indeed a Nazi intelligence operative, codenamed “Westminster,” after her antisemitic and pro-fascist British lover, Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster. She was recruited by her lover Dincklage and introduced to Nazi Intelligence Chief Walter Schellenberg for two undercover missions, including a reckless scheme to pass a message to her former “friend” Winston Churchill in Madrid, on his way back from the Tehran Conference. The (somewhat harebrained) plan—which Schellenberg named Modelhut, meaning “fashion hat”—was helped along by Dincklage and financed by Schellenberg. Chanel’s mission, to use her relationship with Churchill to help Germany broker a separate peace between Germany and Britain, was unsuccessful. 

The New Look gives a fictionalized account of these events. This somewhat sympathetic portrait creates the narrative that Chanel was overwhelmed by the Nazi occupation of Paris, and doing what she could to survive. 

However, what we do know is that Chanel had a longstanding admiration of fascism, and used its aesthetics—symmetry and simplicity, including its stark black-and-white color palette—in her designs. Her clothes are intentionally like a “uniform,” focusing on a young, fit, and slim body rooted in the fascist ideal. Her trademark logo, a double-C insignia, was introduced in 1921, just one year after the Nazis adopted the swastika. Chanel’s fashion and fascism are inextricably linked. Her revolutionary look and fascism both tapped into the desire to belong to a select elite and simultaneously to conform.

Tansy Hoskins, the author of Stitched Up: The Anti-Capitalist Book of Fashion, says we can’t separate Chanel’s designs from her politics: “Chanel’s far-right ideologies influenced her designs. She championed minimalism and the austere. It’s very white European.” 

And Chanel was not just a person, but also a brand that lasts until today. In 1924, the Wertheimer family financed her first fragrance, No. 5, in exchange for a 70 percent share of her company’s perfume division. In the deal, Chanel received 10 percent of the profits. The designer came to resent the agreement, and began to try to take back control of her company, including using the Nazis’ Aryan laws governing France during the war. She ultimately failed.

The current corporate line of the House of Chanel is “Gabrielle Chanel was a daring pioneer, and the House of Chanel upholds and extends her extraordinary legacy. Her influence on many designers has been significant, and she continues to inspire new generations. However, her actions during World War II are the subject of discussion in many publications and biographies. The actions that some have reported in no way represent the values of Chanel today. Since that time in history, the House of Chanel has moved forward well beyond the past of its founder.”

Not everyone is as sanguine. Eric Silverman, an anthropologist and author of A Cultural History of Jewish Dress, believes Chanel’s past must be addressed before the company can really move forward: “I believe that all firms which have profited from evil in the past—Holocaust, slave trade, land disposition in southern Africa, mistreatment of women, and so on—have a moral obligation to give something back to the communities that were harmed. A full accounting and an apology is a start.”

Some people won’t even own a Chanel lipstick because of the designer’s past Nazi ties. Others wear head-to-toe Chanel, such as actress Jill Kargman, whose father worked at Chanel, and who famously wore her Chanel wedding dress to the Met Ball in 2023. 

It is, as they say, complicated. And the mantle of the House of Chanel has been taken up by other designers in the wake of the founder’s death in 1971. In 1983, Karl Langerfeld became artistic director, designing all haute couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories for the brand. He was succeeded in 2018 by Virginie Viard. Viard is currently out and Chanel is looking for a new artistic director. Designers possibly in contention include Hedi Slimane of Celine, Sarah Burton, John Galliano, Kim Jones, Nicolas Ghesquière, Marc Jacobs and Pierpaolo Piccioli. 

In the final episode of “The New Look”, Chanel is asked to apologize for denouncing a Jewish businessman and his brother to the Gestapo. “I will not apologize! I was cornered just like you!” she shouts. But the stakes for her, the lover of a high-ranked Nazi, were quite different from those for Jews.

“Despite there being over 175 biographies [of Chanel], she’s still being written about, and new information is still coming to light,” says Karol Burks, who oversaw the recent V&A exhibit of the designer in London. “I don’t think anyone has quite pinned down who Gabrielle Chanel was. The more you learn about her, the less you know.” 

Personally, though, despite my support for the Werthheimers, appreciation for the new designers at the company, and the philosophy of “separating the art from the artist,” I can’t quite look at those interlocking Cs without seeing Coco Chanel’s Nazi past.

Susan Elia MacNeal is the New York Times bestselling author of the Maggie Hope mysteries and Mother Daughter Traitor SpyMacNeal won the Barry Award and has been nominated for the Edgar, Macavity, Agatha, Left Coast Crime, Dilys, and ITW Thriller awards. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband and son.