How two legends met

The relationship between Sonia Delaunay and Coco Chanel was more than just that of couturier and client, they were good friends for many years and belonged to the same social circle during the Art Deco era.


Sonia Delaunay was of course Russian, like half of the Parisian Modernist-Abstractionist scene of the Art Deco era. And even if you didn’t know this it would be obvious by simply looking at this beautiful couture set by Chanel: who else could combine broad vertical stripes, decorative lacing, complex transitions of the blue shades and the joined optical effect of pleats and the white vertical stripes? The puritanism of the colour palette in this outfit probably comes from Gabrielle Chanel's influence, after all this dress was created in her couture house in 1970. It's highly likely that during fittings for this garment she dissuaded Sonia from her usual combinations of blue, red, white, yellow, black, and green. Chanel had a much more chaste and severe taste than Sonia, but Sonia was not just an artist, but also a star of the avant-garde movement.

The relationship between Sonia Delaunay and Coco Chanel was more than just that of couturier and client; they were good friends for many years and belonged to the same social circle during the Art Deco era. There were quite a few Russian girls in this circle, but they usually filled the niche of ‘muse,’ meaning the girlfriend or wife of a poet, musician or artist. They were typically the hostesses of salons not rather the creators, like Elsa Triolet, the younger sister of Lilya Brik and wife of the famous poet Louis Aragon (Yves Saint Laurent would dedicate dresses to both of them) or Misia Sert, wife of the artist Jose Maria Sert and the closest friend of Chanel, not to mention Gala Dali, Nadia Leger and Lydia Délectorskaya

Coco Chanel with her friend, the dancer and choreographer Serge Lifar

Misia was a friend of Picasso, Stravinsky, and Diaghilev. As a result of this friendship, Chanel was close to these artistic beacons of the time. Chanel created costumes for Diaghilev’s ballet, Le Train Bleu, for which Picasso designed the scenery, and she had an affair with Stravinsky. Chanel always did her best to be a part of Parisian Bohemia in her own right. She wanted to be treated as a creative rather than as a rich modiste; however, her talent was of a practical nature. She failed to become an artist, and her experience with Diaghilev’s ballet did not have any significant continuation.

Sonia Delaunay in her Paris studio

Sonia was not just the wife of a famous artist Robert Delauner, she was also an equally well-known artist in her own right. Born near Poltava, she grew up in St. Petersburg and then studied in Paris, where she became one of the most prominent stars of French abstract painting along with Alexandra Ekster and Natalia Goncharova. Sonia and Robert developed their own branch of abstract painting dubbed simultanism, whch famous poet and art-critic Guillaume Apollinaire referred to as orfism. It was based on colour dynamics and optical illusions. Her Russian roots were evident in this style and could be traced primarily to Kandinsky, as well as Malevich, and even Chagall.

Sonia Delaunay, 1925 год

Sonia met Diaghilev while living in Spain during late 1910’s and created the scenery for his staging of Cleopatra. This was not the only coincidence in the careers of Delaunay and Chanel. Upon her return to Paris in 1920, Sonia had put aside painting to follow her passion for design: everything from interior design items and panel pictures to painting cars, though fashion was her greatest passion. She designed numerous textiles and created fabrics for many clients including Chanel. She started designing and constructing garments and opened her Simultanistic Boutique in 1924 on the Champs Elysees where she sold her dresses. Her favourite painting motifs -- zigzags, stripes, rhombi and her famous concentric circles -- were transferred to her fabrics and dresses, which had a rather primitive cut. She enjoyed huge success in 1920’s and her "optical dress" was even featured on the cover of American Vogue magazine in 1925.

Models showing bathing suits with a Sonia Delaunay print

This success, however, was not comparable to the tremendous success of Chanel’s little black dress, which was released around the same time. Whilst Chanel was unable to compete with Sonia Delaunay in the art world, but when it came to fashion the tables were turned.  The same Sonia was eventually named an officer of the French Legion of Honour and became the first woman with a personal exhibition in the Louvre, In fashion, however, Chanel, was not just an officer but a general, absolutely beyond comparison.

Sonia Delaunay at work

By the time Chanel returned to fashion at the end of the 1950’s after a long seclusion in Switzerland, Sonia Delaunay was a distinguished classical artist of the 20th century, forever written in the textbooks of avant-garde history and a living legend. Chanel meanwhile returned to Paris with the unsavoury reputation of being a collaborator with a dubious past, to put it mildly. However, just two seasons proved enough for her to become a living legend and an absolute classic herself, though only in fashion. The two maintained good relations; Chanel requested prints for her fabrics from Sonia, and from time to time Sonia ordered garments from Chanel.

Sonia Delaunay couture Chanel suit

This unique set, comprising a wide dress and a loose-fitting jacket, is especially precious because it was made in the final years of Coco Chanel's life. You can imagine these two legendary ladies, both over 80 years old (Sonia Delaunay outlived Chanel by 6 years and died in 1979 at the ripe old age of 94,) discussing colours, fabric prints, cuts and detailing. And though any Chanel couture garment is precious, the combination of these two great names makes this haute couture outfit unique in Russia.

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Author: Elena Stafyeva


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How two legends met


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