by Chris Ujima
Chanel couture takes months to painstakingly craft, exudes timeless elegance and is utterly unique. Entrusting Cathleen Naundorf to document its archive was an inspired move by the maison: her analogue photographs radiate with the very same aura.
‘Magic’ is a word that Cathleen Naundorf utters multiple times in conversation, when talking about Chanel (and her French-German accent twist adds further fancy, when such a moment occurs).
It’s little wonder that the photographer reaches for the word so often, to quantify the je ne sais quoi of her craft; mystical backdrops, ethereal gowns and precision timing are the ingredients for alchemy in Naundorf’s visual fairytales.
For 15 years, the photographer has been afforded exclusive access to select from Chanel’s couture archives, handpicking gowns that she then depicts against theatrical – “magical” – backdrops of her own design.
Chanel keeps an archive of each of its unique, handcrafted efforts – that is, if a prestigious client has not yet swooped in to acquire the piece from the back catalogue. Its vault is a thread that runs through the history of the maison.
“There’s a value in dresses that were made 10, 20, 30 years ago,” she says. “One mustn’t think of couture as ‘last season’, therefore it is not relevant. There’s a timelessness; a beautiful dress is always and forever a beautiful dress.”
The maison allowed her to photograph any dress she wanted to, anywhere she wanted to. It was “a big opportunity,” she admits. “I was given permission to take important, historic pieces – some of which that had never been photographed or documented.”
Faced with decades of artisanship could have proved daunting, but Naundorf was well-prepared, having spent two decades in Paris “as an ever-present at fashion weeks, meaning I knew Chanel’s collections very well. Yet I still had to dive in to really understand the house,” she coyly admits.
Poring over a portfolio of the resulting visuals (which one can do, with the publishing of Women of Singular Beauty: Chanel Haute Couture, by Rizzoli), it is surprising to learn that initially, fashion was not her photographic vocation.
“I’m not a fashion photographer; I’m a photographer; a storyteller,” she says, breezily. “I began as a photojournalist who travelled to Mongolia, lived with Kazak people, visited tribes hunting with eagles and learned of shamans living in Siberia – so I don’t see myself as limited to fashion.”
It was the tutelage of photography great Horst P. Horst that channelled her toward documenting fashion, and shaping her storytelling ability to the nuances of couture. Horst himself photographed Madame Coco Chanel in the 1930s, when working for French and American Vogue – and he turned Naundorf on to the large format photography technique that sets her apart in the field.
“I work with a large format camera, and Polaroid material – there is nothing digital,” she explains. “My classic, analogue approach produces one picture; each Polaroid is singular; meaning there is just one photo of a scenario, not a reel. It harks to back to the time of Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, and Horst – my mentor.”
The starkness between digital photography and analogue “is like the difference between Prêt-à-Porter and haute couture, or between something that is natural or something plastic,” Naundorf says, with slight disdain.
“If you go to a tailor and they make your outfit, then it is made for you by hand, where the folds created by a human, and the soul of the work are evident. You have to take time to discover beauty, and when you’re in front of an original Polaroid photograph you see that reality.”
Naundorf’s unique photography approach – combined with purity for communicating the beauty of Chanel couture – is what has forged a lasting relationship with Chanel’s creative director Karl Lagerfeld. She believes she speaks to his own imagination.
“Chanel has given me the luxury of time – a rarity nowadays. That patience derives from trust, and Karl’s confidence that for every dress and each photograph, I will uphold the ‘code’ of Chanel in the resulting image.”
She admits to being closer to the designers and the embroiderers in the atelier “than fraternising with those on the frontline of ‘bling’.” Her affinity with these artisans from the designers “understanding that I am there for the dresses, and am passionate about every aspect. Haute couture represents freedom for designer, using the dress to depict their dreams, knowledge, and know-how”.
A good picture should tell that story, she says, and is the reason she takes command of everything, from set design, hair and makeup, to crafting drawings of the storyboard. “To be honest I am actually more akin to a film director Naundorf says with a chuckle.
As such, a photograph of hers can take years to come to fruition. “Each dress from the archive fits a ‘story’ that I have written in my mind, yet it can take up to six months to hand paint the set design backdrops.”
Naundorf is obsessive with details. Each of her scenes is meticulously pre-planned: “It begins with my sketch book, a collage of drawings and ideas, before evolving into a mood board that details every precise element of the scene and its occupants. When the details are pulled together on set, the magic takes over. When a series of tweaks are combined, the result is a “trick in the moment”; the ideal image.
I compare it to cinema; it is a long run to create one great series of moments.” The chapters of the Rizzoli book are replete with such narratives. ‘Golden Times’, for example, shows the photographs of a gold collection that was inspired by Russia, relating to the 1920s and the golden era of Coco Chanel. Another set of images pair the dresses with the backdrop of the Grand Palais – from the rooftop, no less.
In all, it has been a perfect, lasting partnership, where Naundorf has not been hemmed in by instruction, and the maison has been rewarded with the beautiful imagery such freedom bears.
“Chanel is a dream house; the house of legend,” she remarks. “For all who work there, style is a way of life, and a passion. They are not working for just a ‘brand’. For 15 years, I’ve shared that passion.”
Her worldwide group of high-profile collectors is diverse, including both museums and individuals, yet they share a common love for Naundorf’s work – the clear symbolism between her signature technique and the subject matter. “The haute couture dress is only one-of-a-kind, as is the one photograph,” Naundorf says.
“For art collectors, the appeal is being able to obtain an original Polaroid handprint. A black and white print, for example, takes six weeks to produce – and that’s before it is retouched by pencil. You could say that the handcraft continues, from a haute couture dress to my haute couture photo print.”
The book Women of Singular Beauty: Chanel Haute Couture by Cathleen Naundorf is published by Rizzoli. An exhibition of Naundorf’s work shows at Beirut Art Fair, hosted at Elie Saab Building, from 20-23 September