‘Coco Chanel Unbuttoned’ Director on Making the BBC/Fremantle Documentary: ‘She Was the First Influencer’

Coco Chanel is one of the world’s most famous fashion icons, but her legacy has rarely been tackled on screen. Director Hannah Berryman aims to change that with a new feature-length BBC Two documentary about the designer.

Chanel’s absence on screen is partly down to the fact that very little footage of her exists aside from a couple of interviews from the 1950s and some 1930s B-roll.

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But it’s also, the director says, because Chanel has long been underestimated. “She’s — for me — the most legendary designer ever, not even just ‘woman designer,’” says Berryman, who has directed documentaries about topics as varied as music studios, robots and beauty queens and is a former creative director of film at British Vogue.

In “Unbuttoned,” which was produced by WhyNow Studios and executive produced by Janet Lee, Berryman examines Chanel’s life and legacy, including her early years as an orphan and, later, her romantic dalliances with glamorous men including the Duke of Westminster.

Fremantle is repping global rights to the documentary, which is also available as a two-parter. The international version will also include a brief glimpse into Chanel’s disastrous time in Hollywood. “She didn’t really like it [there],” Berryman explains. “Because they wanted everyone to look really va-va-voom and Chanel just made women look quite ordinary. So that didn’t go very well and she flounced back off to France.”

Ahead of the documentary’s premiere in the U.K. on Sept. 15, Berryman sat down with Variety to discuss the making of “Coco Chanel Unbuttoned” and how the designer was instrumental in breaking barriers for women.

Where did this project start for you?

I had read that the Victoria & Albert Museum [in London, U.K.] were doing a big Coco Chanel exhibition and I just thought, “I’ve always wanted to make a film about her.” She’s — for me — the most legendary designer ever, not even just “woman designer.” And I didn’t realize when I set out how much the story of the clothes is her life, and her life is the clothes.

There isn’t a lot of footage of Chanel in existence. How did you deal with that?

Early on, I thought that I would want Chanel [the brand] involved, because they’re the gatekeepers. They own a lot of the clothes, they own her apartment. And in a way, it’s the story of Chanel, because it’s a story of branding and it’s a story of someone who you could argue was the first influencer. So I wanted this to be a story of a woman but also a story of that.

You also use animation, with Sophie Marceau voicing Chanel. Did that feel like a bold choice?

I’ve used it a lot in docs. I did “Rockfield: The Studio on the Farm,” where we often animate what was going on with Oasis and Coldplay. For me, it’s a great way if you haven’t got footage and you can’t necessarily dramatize it and make it look good. I mean, dramas have giant budgets. On a fairly small budget, you can give a real flavor with animation. Some of the stories with Chanel are quite dramatic and some of them were funny and hopefully animation gives you a chance to play with that. So it’s a more playful way to achieve the storytelling.

Did you take inspiration from any other documentaries when making “Coco Chanel: Unbuttoned”?

Weirdly, the [Alexander] McQueen film. So even though it’s nothing like “McQueen” and that’s in the present, in the same way Chanel’s life was there in the work and that’s why it has power. That’s like his. So even though it’s nothing like it as a film, because of what we were working with, there is something similar.

Do you feel that Chanel has been underestimated?

Absolutely. People don’t know what to do with fashion if they don’t like it. But for me, it’s just as important as any of the arts. It’s our self-expression. Whether you think you are or not, you’re telling people about yourself in what you wear. And that’s what was interesting about it; Chanel just understood that. So, in a way, the changing role of women and what they were going to do and how they were going to think of themselves, she understood this was tied up with how you presented yourself. That was why she was successful.

It also sounds like a very modern story, especially the fact she ultimately had to choose between her career and her relationships.

Exactly. And she is a great story, I think, because she wanted it all, like we all do. She had these loves and her heart was broken and she loved what she did. Her story is great because it’s always a struggle between those things.

What was the most surprising thing that you found out while making “Unbuttoned”?

I was quite surprised to know that after coming out of the orphanage she had basically become a mistress and managed to turn that patronage into something that started her business. That was extraordinary. Women in France couldn’t even vote then.

Have you set your next project?

I’m shooting a taster but I never really know about the next thing until the first one’s done.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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