Everything in the garden's lovely, Coco

Karl Lagerfeld has turned his hand to garden design for a Chelsea Flower Show tribute to the Camellia, the white flower that has come to symbolise the House of Chanel.
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Everyone has a favourite flower. In the heady world of fashion, however, a preferred bloom takes on an extra dimension, especially for designers. Alexander McQueen likes thistles, which are spiky, dangerous and strangely beautiful, like his clothes. Ben de Lisi likes Geranium, (classic, gorgeous, heavily scented). Nicole Farhi always has (delicate, wafting) Jasmine in her studio, and Vivienne Westwood likes (overblown, traditional) Verbenum.

Other British designers, notably Tristan Webber and Mark Whitaker, have dedicated entire collections to the Orchid. But no other fashion designer has shared their love with a particular flower more than Coco Chanel, who adored the Camellia so much she turned the symmetrical circular bloom into an enduring leitmotif of her style. She had them hand-made into silk brooches or hair accessories and wore them pinned to her lapel, or tucked into her sleek cap of hair at every opportunity. This image was reflected in her designs, and a lasting trend was born.

Coco didn't happen across the rare Oriental flower - discovered by Monk Camel in South East Asia and brought back to Europe in the 18th Century - by herself. She was wooed with a bouquet of them given to her in 1912 by Arthur "Boy" Capel, her great love, and this no doubt contributed to her affection for it. For the Camellia is not the most attractive of flowers, and all but one variety - the Camellia Sasanqua - has no scent at all.

Fortunately for the House of Chanel, and for the memory of Coco herself, most of her numerous fashion trademarks have been kept alive by its current designer, Karl Lagerfeld. He has done a wide variety of traditional things with the effigy of the flower: placed in the hair, pinned to a hairband or waistband, or worked into fabric with lace, embroidery and print. He has also placed them within an expansive decollete, and even teamed them with raunchy fishnet and jangling gilt.

From today, Coco Chanel's affair with the Camellia has been literally brought to life at the Chelsea Flower Show. Lagerfeld, a man who professes he doesn't have green fingers, but has a grand passion for enjoying beautiful gardens, (he has several around the world), has conceived the Imaginary Garden of Coco Chanel, and commissioned English garden designer Tom Stuart- Smith to design it in the Baroque style the designer preferred for her home and environment. It is complete with greenery trained into the shape of the Chanel logo of interlaced C's, and features only white flowers, including hundreds of pure white Camellia.

To achieve this was a feat of delaying nature. The Camellia isn't grown commercially as a cut flower, it blooms briefly in late January, and is only sold as small bushes. In order to create the garden, specially created greenhouses had to be set up in England and the USA to engineer the flowers so that they bloomed in May. Only the very best examples will make the grade for the 170,000 odd visitors to the show in the next five days.

The average garden at the Chelsea Flower Show costs between pounds 20,000 and pounds 100,000 to assemble. The Chanel garden has cost pounds 1 million, the most expensive garden at the show in it's history, and all much to the surprise of regular gardeners involved with the show.

Stuart-Smith spent 15 months working on it, and has likened the experience to "having a baby". So what's it all for?

In Chanel's case at least, it is about far more than simply creating a beautiful garden in honour of Coco Chanel. To coincide with the Flower Show, a whole range of limited edition Camellia paraphernalia has been marketed by the company.

There's an eau de toilette, "Une Fleur de Chanel", based on the scent of the Camellia Sasanqua, a shimmering pink lipstick, nail polish, and a whole range of eye-catching summer accessories including bikinis and swimsuits, a towel, t-shirts, and an extortionately priced sun-dress. There's also a collection of shoes, handbags, leather flower accessories and a separate range of fine jewellery. They've certainly gone to town.

It could be said that Chanel has made the Camellia the most fashionable "lookalike" flower to wear in the world. It is nearly impossible to buy real ones because they are in bloom for such a short time. Nicky Tibbles from Wild at Heart (suppliers of bouquets to Chanel, Prada, and every fashion design house worth mentioning), says there is very little demand for them from clients, (except from Chanel of course), but she can get hold of the shrubs to order, which could, if nurtured correctly, grow into fine trees. Lagerfeld himself has two Camellia trees in his famous garden in Brittany.

Tibbles says the most popular flowers of the moment at her store are Peonies, which are just now coming into bloom, and that one-colour bouquets in pastel shades are most commonly requested as stylish gifts.

But if a Camellia, especially a real one, as opposed to leather, PVC, or silk, is your thing, hang around the Royal Hospital in Chelsea at the end of the week, and ask nicely. Rumour has it most of the gardens, once finished with, go straight into a skip. What would Mademoiselle Chanel say?

The Chelsea Flower Show is open to Royal Horticultural Society members tomorrow and Wednesday and to the public on Thursday and Friday at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, London SW3, enquiries 0171-344 4343.

The limited edition Camellia range is available from Chanel Boutiques at 26 Old Bond Street, London W1, 31 Sloane Street, London SW1 and the first floor at Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1 for the next two months.

Call 0171-493 3836 for enquiries.

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