A SENSE OF FREEDOM. Charlotte Casiraghi is an ambassador and spokesperson for the House of CHANEL. The 36-year-old is the eighth in line to the Monegasque throne because she is the daughter of Princess Caroline, the eldest daughter of the late Grace, Princess of Monaco.
We are in the mythical house and atelier of Coco Chanel at rue Cambon, Paris. Here, because of her passion for philosophy and literature, Charlotte Casiraghi organizes literary events and conferences.
Charlotte Casiraghi, can you please tell me about your work at Chanel and their cultural events?
It’s mainly about organizing the Literary Rendezvous, which is a totally new project for Chanel. It started from my intimate relationship with Karl Lagerfeld, which was around books. Karl always encouraged my passion for books, and we had very deep conversations about our love for literature and philosophy. When Virginie Viard became the new Chanel Creative Director she asked me to think about a cultural project that could be meaningful and special, and I immediately thought about doing something around literature. It was a way for me to encourage an homage to Karl and to that very strong link we shared. The Literary Rendezvous is a program of four or five big events during the year. It’s a conversation around literature that only involves women writers.
Where do the Chanel Literary Rendezvous take place?
The last two Literary Rendezvous meetings in France were at the Librairie 7L, a bookstore that Karl created, and at the Bibliothèque where he had all his books. Otherwise we did a few here in rue Cambon, we did one in London around Virginia Woolf at Somerset House, and we did one at the Ritz in the garden.
You took as your subjects Virginia Woolf and other famous writers, including Ingeborg Bachmann who was a friend of the poet Paul Celan. How do you choose?
They are very instinctive and passionate choices. We alternate between contemporary writers and writers that are part of the history of literature but have become somewhat forgotten. Ingeborg Bachmann is not a very famous writer in France, but she is very well known in Germany and Austria. It’s a way of highlighting the life and work of an exceptional woman, from our time or the past.
“Gabrielle Chanel completely changed fashion in order to give more freedom to women, and writing is also an activity that has given women a lot of power of emancipation.”
Charlotte Casiraghi with writer Siri Hustvedt, at the last Rendez-vous Littéraire recorded in New York in early May 2023. Photo courtesy of CHANEL.
Charlotte Casiraghi, you are also President of Les Rencontres Philosophiques de Monaco (The Monaco Philosophical Encounters). Is this a similar activity?
Something similar between the Monaco Philosophical Encounters and the Literary Rendezvous in the rue Cambon is the idea of transmitting culture on a larger scale to a larger audience. Specialists, philosophers and writers can make their work and ideas more accessible. It’s about creating a lively moment through an exchange in conversation where something can touch you very deeply. Even if you don’t necessarily spend a lot of time reading literature or philosophy, it can have a space in your life, and sometimes you need to encounter great people. The choice of whom I invite is really about finding an encounter that will bring a moment that’s beyond theoretical discussion.
What kind of place is Monaco for you?
It’s very much linked to family, but also there is a lot of culture for such a very small country. People don’t realise how exceptional the cultural initiative is in Monaco. The opera, the ballet, museums, and many different entities create an incredible opportunity.
Some people probably find that surprising, because Monaco can be perceived as a car racing tax haven with a casino?
Of course, but there’s a very high budget for culture. The joy I have of being in Monaco is to create synergies between different cultural activities, because it’s very easy to coordinate. I organised philosophy encounters with a ballet in the middle, and also collaborated with a school and a museum. Many ballet companies come to Monaco; there is a long tradition since the famous Ballets Russes de Monte-Carlo.
You studied Philosophy at the Sorbonne, and after work experience in publishing and at The Independent newspaper in London went back to university, studying philosophy at L’Institut Catholique de Paris. Which specific philosophers do you like?
It’s difficult to list all the philosophers I like, because I’m very eclectic in my choices and, as I am with literature, I tend to be more multifold than obsessive about one figure. But I studied Pascal a lot, and I very much enjoyed Kierkegaard and Nietzsche. There are so many.
What do you say about American and British universities now paying less and less attention to the humanities?
I have a very strong belief that the humanities are critical, have an incredible power of transmission, of emancipation, and are absolutely necessary even in domains where you feel that they’re not used but where they’re actually extremely useful. For example, we developed a philosophy project at the hospital in Monaco to support excellence within the hospital. Philosophical topics can be very important in relation to care. You can bring a different angle and realise how things can have a connection, in many, many ways.
“Chanel and literature is a much more important connection than we think”
Charlotte Casiraghi, is your connection with Karl Lagerfeld partly because of La Vigie, the wonderful house that he restored?
Yes, and the connection is also through my mother, because Karl Lagerfeld and my mother were extremely close friends. I have memories of Karl since I was a very small girl. We used to spend a lot of time together in that house, and he enjoyed spending a lot of time in Monaco.
Not many fashion people talk a lot about books or philosophy. How was he?
Karl’s relationship to culture, and particularly to books, was his secret garden. It was something he talked about but that was very much part of his inner world. It gave him great creative strength, and it was a very private, protected space. He could spend hours at night looking at his books, and no one knew what he was doing or what he was reading.
Mademoiselle Gabrielle Chanel, Coco Chanel, was also a compulsive reader who said that books were her best friends. Is her library still here?
Her library was in her private apartments, and her books have been kept and restored. That was something that was also her secret garden. In her library you can find very classical writers, from Proust to Baudelaire to Balzac, but her favourite books were poetry books. She had a very impressive collection of poetry and had strong relationships with poets like Jean Cocteau or Pierre Reverdy. She even wrote some poetry.
Do you feel a responsibility to continue the Chanel literary tradition which runs from her to Lagerfeld?
Yes, Chanel and literature is a much more important connection than we think, because Gabrielle Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld would have not created and accomplished so much in defining elegance without having had huge literary culture. It is a responsibility to continue that heritage, because when they were alive it was more of a secret, more personal part of them that was not necessarily revealed or communicated. It needs to continue and it needs to be more visible.
Can you tell me about the last Rendezvous which you organised?
The last Rendezvous took place in New York, with the American author Siri Hustvedt. She’s a fascinating writer whose work falls somewhere between philosophy, literature, poetry and psychoanalysis. She works in many different fields. For this event, we were also lucky enough to welcome writer and poet Rachel Eliza Griffiths. I invite you to watch the video, which you can find online on the Rendez-vous littéraires platform.
Do you interview the participants?
It’s a synergy between several people, it’s not just me interviewing a writer. There’s also generally an actress close to Chanel that will participate through a reading and in the exchange. Fanny Arama, who has a doctorate in literature, moderates the discussion at these Rendezvous, and journalist Erica Wagner is in charge of the Rendezvous in English.
How many people come to these events?
It’s quite variable. We have organised more intimate events in Paris with around fifty guests, notably in Karl Lagerfeld’s beautiful personal library at 7L. In conjunction with the last Métiers d’Art fashion show in Dakar, we organised a meeting with Marie NDiaye in the former Palais de Justice, which was attended by 300 people, including some students from Dakar universities. For the meeting with Siri Hustvedt in New York, we were at the Metrograph – an independent cinema on the Lower East Side – and welcomed around a hundred people. In all cases, the podcasts and videos broadcast on the Rendez-vous digital platform remain the best way for us to share these exchanges with as many people as possible.
Charlotte Casiraghi courtesy of CHANEL
Rokhaya Niang, Charlotte Casiraghi, Marie Ndiaye and Fanny-Arama
Photo © CHANEL
Charlotte Casiraghi and Marie Ndiaye
Photo © CHANEL
Rachel Eliza Griffiths courtesy of CHANEL
Sophie Auster courtesy of CHANEL
Rachel Eliza Griffiths, Charlotte Casiraghi, Siri Hustvedt, Erica Wagner
Courtesy of CHANEL
“I have a very strong belief that the humanities are critical”
Charlotte Casiraghi, the French people very much like to read, there is a literary tradition and in France the writer is still someone. Is this link with literature because Chanel is very French?
It is true there is a great tradition in France of intellectual discussion, the art of conversation and of the salons, and writers and philosophers always had a special place within the life of Paris, but I wouldn’t say that it’s only because Chanel is French. Other French fashion houses or designers don’t necessarily have that strong connection with literature, it is very much linked to the personalities of Gabrielle Chanel and of Karl Lagerfeld and their own stories. Literature played a very important role in their emancipation, and the idea with the Literary Rendezvous was also to show that strong emancipation of women through clothes. Gabrielle Chanel completely changed fashion in order to give more freedom to women, and writing is also an activity that has given women a lot of power of emancipation. That’s why it’s important to link fashion and literature as being an incredible way to emancipate yourself, because it’s easy to access that power. All you need is a paper and pen.
Do you write?
Yes, I do, and I never separate writing and reading. For me, they go together. When I read, I want to write. When I write, I want to read. It’s a constant dialogue between those two activities. It’s so important to invest in the power of literature and not only rest on our capital of seduction.
Which books do you like the most?
Every book you open opens a world, a door, a new way of perceiving a reality that was not accessible to you before. It is so important to broaden your horizon because the more you discover the singularity of an experience, of a story, the more you get a sense of universality. For that to work you need a huge broadness, and I always try to explore many, many, many different writers and culture.
When do you read?
I’m an atypical reader. I read throughout the day, but because I have so many activities and different projects I don’t have 3 or 4 hours in a row to read every day. I will read 3 or 4 pages 15 times a day, in between something else, but mainly I read at night. I carry maybe 10 different books with me just in case, and suddenly I’ll think about opening one of them. I like to have that choice.
Your children are currently aged 4 and 9. Do you read them many books?
I spend a lot of time reading to them, very different types of stories from Greek myths to fairy tales, to funny stories. Children’s literature is such a vast territory. You have so many incredible books for children today, and that’s developed a lot in the last years, so the choice is large.
Is philosophy and literature on lively ground today or is it just a memory of the past?
Extremely lively ground, because it gives the pulse of what’s going on now, so it’s anchored in contemporary life. It’s very close to everything, rippling through socially and historically. The beauty of literature and philosophy is that you’re connected with the past, the present and the future. It abolishes the boundaries of time, which is extraordinary, but literature and philosophy are in danger because publishing is difficult – more so for philosophy than literature, because philosophy books don’t sell as much. With this in mind, the founding members of the Rencontres Philosophiques de Monaco decided 8 years ago to create an Honorary Mention. We award this prize each year to a French-language publisher specialising in the publication of philosophical works, in order to support the remarkable work carried out by all these passionate publishers.
Is there too much talk of profit?
Yes, and it’s the same for university philosophy departments and literature departments that are also endangered. They’re not necessarily considered paths with a future or where you can find a job or accomplish yourself professionally. The humanities are in danger because people think that they’re not useful, but philosophy is not useful. If it’s useful, it’s not philosophy anymore. The point of philosophy is not to bring an answer or a solution that’s readymade or to be useful for one matter or another. It can be useful indirectly, but that’s not its purpose.
What is its purpose?
Its purpose is questioning reality, not in order to have a fixed answer, but to approach a sense of justice by understanding reality and its complexity. One reason philosophy is coming back is that in today’s technology so many things have moved so fast that we sometimes wonder what is human and what is non-human. The necessity to define ethical boundaries has become more and more important, and philosophy is needed in order to reflect on ethical boundaries. Things change so fast, and technology and science cannot define the boundaries. That comes from our own discrimination.
Was Karl Lagerfeld aware that you would follow his example through culture and books?
Karl wanted me to pursue my studies and was not interested in developing projects within fashion or doing things with me on that level. What interested him, really and clearly, was what I was reading and studying. He highly valued and admired women that were cultured and determined to pursue that quest of knowledge. I felt he really encouraged me to continue and not let go of that part of my life.
And now you also do it with a purpose?
Yes. The idea of transmission and of being able to share that passion is as important as having my own space. It made me change my life. Discovering the power of books and just having a pen and a paper can be the beginning of freedom, because no one can take that away from you. Even if someone’s in prison, as long as he can write or express himself, it’s something that you can’t take away. From a very young age, I have that sense of freedom. Words give you so much freedom to communicate and to explore. When you discover that, you want to share it and meet other people that have also experienced that. That’s how it all started for me.
I wish you a long life in this field, and am grateful that a person like you fights for these things.
Lead Portrait Courtesy of CHANEL: Charlotte Casiraghi in March 2023, rue Cambon wearing a burgundy cashmere cardigan over blue Chanel print denim jeans.
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