If ever there was a film where the costumes play at least as important a role as the performers do, it's Coco Before Chanel. Anne Fontaine's new biopic, which stars Audrey Tautou as Chanel, focuses on the years before boxy jackets and No. 5 were a part of the common vernacular: the events in Chanel's life that conspired to turn a stubborn, penniless bar singer into the best-known designer who ever lived. When Fontaine was assembling her creative team, Catherine Leterrier was a natural choice for costumer: in her career, which spans more than 35 years, she's worked on nearly 70 movies -- a number of them period films -- and won two CÃ©sars. (It also didn't hurt the film to have Chanel's current creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, on hand to check out the designs.) Leterrier is a busy woman (she's already at work on another project), but she found time to talk to us about Chanel, why beautiful women are less vain, and her own favorite designers.
How did you first get into designing costumes?
I studied the history of art, and then I studied fashion. So I did fashion, and I was working for many companies in knitwear, and then I met a director, who became my husband. At the beginning, I was kind of helping him and his friends, other directors, without thinking that it was really a real job. It was just to help, because I was making quite a lot of money in designing knitwear. And finally, when I was offered to be paid, I thought, "Wow! That's nice! I love it, and besides, I can get some money, that's good." So that's how it started, really.
Do you still do your own designs?
No. I design for movies now, and theater, and opera. I've been doing that for many years. I don't design for me. I've worked a little bit for children, for Bonpoint, because they are friends of mine and they asked me to do some colorings and things for them, and that's it.
Obviously, Chanel is the most iconic name in fashion -- so when you set out to design the costumes for Coco Before Chanel, was that intimidating?
Yes! Because I wanted to be accurate, but not boring. And what is difficult is that [the clothing in the film is] completely different than what people know from Chanel now, with the fashion of Chanel that Karl Lagerfeld is doing. He's very modern, it's very trendy. In the period of our film, she was very revolutionary, but with the fashion of that time, it could look a bit old-fashioned for us. That was the difficult thing, being accurate and at the same time showing that she was revolutionary.
Above: Audrey Tautou as Coco Chanel,
Photo taken by Chantal Thomine-Desmazures, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
What are some of the ways in which you distinguish Chanel's style from the more traditional looks of everyone around her?
Well, you know, first of all, I made the clothes of the other actresses quite stiff, with big hats, corsets, frills; things that aren't necessary, though it was pretty. But Chanel was not looking for something pretty -- she was looking for something chic, elegant, but easy to wear. So I played an opposition between the others and her.
Are all of the pieces that she wears of your own design, or were some of them vintage?
No vintage! I designed everything.
Something else I was interested in was the difference in fashion styles between Chanel's two love interests, Ãtienne Balsan and Arthur "Boy" Capel. Could you speak to that?
Yeah! One is a French man, from the country -- he is an aristocrat, but he loves staying in the country. And the other one is a businessman, an English businessman. So they obviously are not dressed the same way. I introduced, with Balsan, the tweed that in fact was introduced to Coco Chanel herself later, by the Duke of Westminster, when she was with him in England. But I thought that tweed was so important to Chanel that I put the tweed on Balsan, and a more velvet, black look on Boy Capel.
You've done a lot of period films -- what's your favorite period to work in?
Oh, every designer will tell you: it's always the next one! I don't know. I'd like to do something that I've not done before. What is nice in movies is that when you do the research, you always find something new. And that's very exciting.
What would be your dream project, or who's an actress you'd like to work with?
I have worked with Marion Cotillard, but I would love to work again with her, because she's very romantic and dramatic at the same time. She's very good-looking and intense. Audrey Tautou is fantastic, too. What I like about both of them is that they are very beautiful, so they don't care about their looks! They rely on you, and they want you to do the best for their character, not the best for their beauty. Because, anyway, they are so beautiful that they don't have any problem looking fantastic.
Who are some of your inspirations?
When I am designing period, I get very inspired by the painters of that era. Because I think they have already digested -- with a novel approach, an artistic approach -- their period.
What designers do you like who are working today? Who do you wear?
Me, I wear Rei Kawakubo, of Comme des GarÃ§ons, a lot. I wear some Lanvin, and I wear men's Joe's Jeans, because I think they're well-cut. I wear Church shoes, you know the Church shoes? They are English, very traditional, but now they make them for women, and I think they're very nice. And I like HermÃ¨s for bags and accessories -- I always pick something that doesn't show that it's HermÃ¨s, but I like it because it's so well-made. So I have a few bags from HermÃ¨s, but I don't have the Birkin. I just had made a bag that I had in the '80s -- it's the same bag, so everyone thinks it's an oldie, but it's new. And I've had a Rolex watch for years. I have very good, worn-out things that I like. I tend not to change too much. And very often for myself, when I buy a piece of clothing, I look inside. Because I like what is inside as much as what is outside.
Coco Before Chanel is playing in movie theaters nationwide.