The Jacket, by Penny Vincenzi

Like all the best stories, it began with love at first sight and ended happily ever after, with lots of vicissitudes in between. We met, me and my destiny, when I was a (very) young fashion editor of 24, at my first Chanel couture show in Paris, sitting on a small gilt chair in a hot, packed salon; and above me, sitting on the spiral staircase reflected in an angled mirror, was Coco Chanel (yes she really was, it was no myth). The angle was an awkward  one, so all I could see of her was a pair of spindly legs and a pink jacket; that seemed to me wondrous enough.

The show began; coats, dresses, suits, all the signatures, the soft tweeds, the two-tone black and beige shoes, the camellias, the pearl earrings, the pearl and gilt chains. I sat entranced, I would have stayed forever.

I loved it all, all the clothes, but most of all I loved the jackets, soft, easy exquisite things, some edge-to-edge cardigan-style, some with the all- important buttons,  in the prettiest of pastels, in white, in black, some with a lift of sparkle worked into the tweed. And I wanted one: I wanted one fiercely, achingly. Oddly, I couldn’t afford one…

But one day, I promised myself, one day, I would. One of these lovely things would hang in my wardrobe (currently a rail behind a curtain in the bedroom, but time would fix that too) and my entire life would be enhanced.

After that, life (unenhanced ) happened. And it was lovely, don’t get me wrong. Marriage, children (four daughters) houses. The children needed feeding, clothing, educating; the houses needed furnishing, carpeting, curtaining; cars had to be bought, holidays paid for, parties given; it was all very expensive. There was no way a Chanel jacket fitted into things, it was a lovely, shimmery mirage on a very distant horizon. So distant, indeed, that some years I could afford absolutely no new clothes at all, except a few pairs of knickers.

When I was an editor, I told myself, then I would have one; but the Vincenzi financial deficit went on and on and besides, I never rose above the rank of deputy.

The goal posts moved and I began writing books: when I was published, I would have it, I thought, the jacket; but the launch of Old Sins came and went, and … well it was a lovely dress and I have it still but it wasn’t quite Chanel.

When a book got to Number One, that would be the time I thought, it really really would, and I even went into a Chanel shop and tried a couple on, and oh, how beautiful they were; but we moved to a bigger house instead and the grandchildren started arriving thick and fast and we wanted to give them endless treats and take the whole family on holiday, and we undertook some school fees…

I was very very happy … and what after all was a jacket, in the greater scheme of things?

And thus it was that at my 78th birthday party I recounted the story and said oh well, too late now, bit of a shame but never mind.

“Of course it’s not too late,” said Daughter no. 2 briskly, “exactly their market, you are, an old woman …”

“Thank you for that” I said, and I blew out my candles, and drank some more champagne and decided she was right.

And thus it came to pass that I walked into another Chanel shop, clutching the money metaphorically in my hand, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, all ready to part with it.

And you know what? I didn’t like any of them. They’d gone modern, very nice, of course, very chic, lots of zip — zips! Coco must be turning elegantly in her grave — and wide belts  — not the stuff my dreams were made of at all. It was an awful irony, a crushing disappointment. I nearly cried. I’d been right; it was too late.

Reluctant to totally abandon my quest, I rang a couple of the other shops, my voice tremulous: did they perhaps carry a stock of the classic jackets as well as the new collection? “Oh no” – in a crisply crushing  Bond Street accent. “Nothing like that.” It was as if I had asked if they stocked Primark.

I was clearly doomed.

Then: “Vintage” said an ex-fashion editor friend. “That’s what you want.”

She named a couple of outlets: I hardly dared ring them. But..

Yes (in much more friendly tones) they had a few. One had several. Yes, there were tweeds, yes they had pink, yes they were very beautiful, yes they had my size, yes they also had some earrings, and some camellias. I nearly cried again.

I went with a friend, the very next day.

Now I don’t know if you’ve ever been to an upmarket vintage clothes shop; it’s quite an experience. Think not quite jumble sale, more fairly scruffy charity shop. Balenciagas hang next to Givenchys next to Diors, all unprotected by so much as a polythene cover, crammed on hangers, in long untidy rows.  Shoes by equally lofty cobblers, Louboutin, Ferragamo, Dior, loll on rough and ready racks. In the odd, rather battered glass display case you see Chanel chains, Givenchy brooches, Louis Vuitton handbags. A very nice class of shopper rifles through the rails; it is all extremely cheerful and purposeful. I was directed to the Chanel spot on one of the racks: and there they hung, my crocks of gold, my rainbows’ end.

An extraordinarily nice girl picked out a few; a black, a pink, a blue and white, led me to a large untidy room with a very big mirror and I slid into the blue.

Well: it did what I had always known it would. What I had been waiting for. It made me look—not smart, not chic, not pretty—although it did all those things, even wearing no make up, a pair of old jeans, my hair shaggily in  need of a cut. It made me look just the best. The best I possibly ever could. It was a jacket to shine, to star in. It was an “I am your fairy godmother” jacket; all I lacked was a ball. And then I did cry; or rather my eyes filled with tears.

“I’ll take—” I said

And then there was my friend, back from parking the car.

“I’ve found lots” she said “Just along the street, come quickly poor lady’s been burgled…she’s not letting anyone in, except us, one is just beautiful…”

“But..” I said, “but I’ve found…”

“Come along”, she said

I asked them to keep the blue, and went, half reluctant, to the other, tiny shop; the floor was covered in broken glass, a policewoman, a security guard, and a window-mender, replaced the nice class of shopper. The  proprietress was on the phone, reading  the riot act at whoever had installed her alarm. It was an unlikely setting for couture…

She waved at my friend, gestured at a few hangers … and oh, there it was, lovelier in its way even than the blue, white tweed dusted with something shimmery, delicate pearl buttons, silk revers..

“Oh” I said, slipping it on — looking at the same magical  transformation scene,  “oh, oh dear…oh, what shall I do?”

Reader, I bought them both. You walk away from magic at your peril. And it had been a very long wait. And you know what they say: you wait fifty-four years for a Chanel jacket and then two come along at once…