When the first international flight touched down at Dallas's Love Field airport in September 1957, the most notable passenger was a petite Parisian known for boxy tweed suits, little black dresses, and chain-strap handbags. The occasion was the 50th anniversary of Neiman Marcus and an award bestowed by NM President Stanley Marcus celebrating Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel as "the most influential designer of the twentieth century."
The ceremony took place at the Marcus family ranch in Dallas, where Stanley and his wife, Billie, hosted a party in Chanel's honor. A wonderfully evocative photo shows Mademoiselle Chanel-at 74, still the epitome of gamine insouciance in dark glasses, jacket and skirt of her own designed, gloved hands holding her famous 2.55 bag with its trademark chain strap-flanked by her hosts in all-Americana, complete with a cowboy hat for him, and chinos and white shirt for her. The entertainment included a bizarre bovine wedding tableau, which Chanel later described to her friend and biographer Marcel Haedrich: "there was a little short-horned bull just like me"-a reference to Colette's memorable description of Chanel as "a little black bull...in her butting energy"-with a wreath of flowers. A pair of unlikely newlyweds suddenly appeared in the converging beams of a number of spotlights: a very young bull stuffed into evening clothes and wearing a top hat between his horns, and an equally young heifer in white Chanel with a long veil."
By all reports, Chanel enjoyed herself in Dallas, quite aside from the fact that the visit was undoubtedly good press for her brand. The French couturiere and Texan retailer shared more than mutual admiration and style: Both had an astute grasp of publicity and timing. Thus the first Neiman Marcus Fortnight was launched to coincide with Chanel's Dallas visit; the downtown flagship mounted an extravaganza of French fashion, fragrance, art, and cuisine, complete with a replica Place de la Concorde and a re-creation of the legendary Parisian restaurant Maxim's.
After three weeks in Dallas, Chanel traveled to Manhattan, where Lillian Ross interviewed her for The New Yorker. The writer professed herself smitten from the start. "We've met some formidable charmers in our time, but non to surpass the great couturier and perfumer Mlle Gabrielle Chanel... [She] is sensationally good-looking, with dark brown eyes, a brilliant smile, and the unquenchable vitality of a 20-year-old." Chanel, meanwhile, appealed equally enamored of the United States. Though she confessed to Ross that she had been too busy to do any shopping in Dallas, she "had managed to buy a lot of Texas shirts and hats right here in New York," which she was carrying back to Paris to give friends.
"In America, it seems to me that people look at me in such a nice way," Chanel observed. "In Europe today, it is as if people had no more time to be nice. I liked very much Texas. The people of Dallas, ah, je les aims beaucoup. Tres gentils, tres charm ants, tres simples. Never in the least haughty...I had stage fright when I went to Dallas and no wonder, for in truth I was afraid it would be like a huge movie stage, but I found everything real and the people real, like a big family, and the fright went away."
How appropriate, then, that some of Chanel's treasured furnishings eventually found a permanent home at the Dallas Museum of Art, in a re-creation of her beloved Riviera villa, La Pausa (a building inspired by the convent where she had been raised by nuns). Chanel sold La Pausa in 1954 to Emery Reves and his wife, Wendy, a Texas-born model and socialite turned philanthropist. The couple lived there for many years, amassing one of the world's finest private collections of European decorative and fine art. In 1985, four years after Emery's death, the Reves Collection was donated by Wendy to the DMA, to be displayed in a meticulous remaking of five rooms from the original villa. Dedicated Chanelophiles will discover further details on a visit to the museum, serendipitously located just a few blocks from the NM flagship.
Justine Picardie's Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life is published by HarperCollins.
You've heard the urban legend about the $250 recipe for the most famous Neiman Marcus cookie. While the rumor has been dispelled, it's time to get the full story behind the chocolate chip cookie from Kevin Garvin, Vice President of Corporate Food Services.
"In 1994 during my first week at NM, I got a letter from a customer saying how upset she was that we would charge $250 for a cookie recipe. I had no idea what she was talking about. We didn't even sell cookies! I wanted to know more about it and learned that PR was sending letters back to every customer who asked about the rumor. But by the time the internet was booming, the myth had taken off and we couldn't keep up with the letters.
I decided that we should create a cookie, what is now the famous NM chocolate chip cookie. We posted the recipe online, gave it away for free, and had some fun with the publicity because the rumors just wouldn't go away! Today we're selling hundreds of thousands of them in our restaurants. And this year, you can order them handmade from our downtown store, shipped straight to you."
Yield: 2 dozen cookies
In the early 1960s, Stanley Marcus joined Raymond Nasher to transform a sprawling Dallas cotton field into a trailblazing retail concept, NorthPark Center. The two knew the world's largest climate-controlled shopping center would need big ideas: Nasher hired Dallas-based Omniplan and worked closely with influential San Francisco landscape architect Lawrence Halprin to design the center, then infused it with his own world-class collection of modern sculpture. Marcus commissioned world-class architectural firm Eero Saarinen and Associates to design the center's anchoring Neiman Marcus.
Saarinenfamed creator of St. Louis's Gateway Arch, Dulles International Airport, and the swopping TWA terminal at New York's JFK airportwas at the peak of his career. For NM NorthPark, he envisioned a space filled with light and surrounded by landscaped courtyards with cooling reflecting pools. "I thought you'd be interested in the last building Eero Saarinen designed," Marcus wrote a colleague softly before the store opened. "It's a beauty."
Years later, it still is. And by creating a beautiful experience for visitorsan "art museum for shopping"NorthPark remains one of the top retail destinations in the country.