I recently attended the Chanel exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria. Despite whatever opinion you might have of Coco Chanel, her designs were both elegant and timeless. And they were beautifully made. But as I walked around the exhibition, I remembered that my great-aunt Ella, my maternal grandmother’s sister used to be a model in Paris.
Countess Helen, or Ella, Konstantinovna Kleinmichel, was born at Ivnya, Russia a year before my grandmother, Olga Woronoff. In her book, Upheaval, my grandmother describes Ella as “Extremely gay, alive, always up to some mischief, without meaning to be bad, – always caught at it and punished; forgetting it the next minute, good humoured and unselfish, teasing her teachers, but still loved by them – that was Ella.” My grandmother wrote that Ella had a wonderful singing voice and I have read other descriptions of her which agree with this.
It must have been around 1910 that Ella married her first husband Vsevolod Vsevolodovich Pushchin. He was in the Horse Guardsman in Russia and was unfortunately killed in battle during World War I – my grandmother states this was in 1915 but there are genealogical websites which give the date as 1914. In 1919 Ella married her second husband, Prince Nikolai Petrovich Trubetskoy, the second cousin of her eldest sister Claire’s husband. The marriage later ended in divorce.
Like my grandparents, Ella escaped to Paris after the Russian Revolution, where she once again met up with Grand Duke Dmitry and his sister Grand Duchess Maria, who I have written about here. They were the childhood playmates of my grandmother and her siblings. She also caught up with their close friends Prince Felix Yusupov and his wife Irina. I have read that the Grand Duchess Maria worked with the house of Chanel – which must be the Chanel connection I have been trying to place. Although, in this article, it appears that Irina Yusupov, along with other Russian aristocrats, worked with Chanel. Is it possible my great-aunt was one of them?
In 1924, the Yusupovs started their own fashion house, which they called Irfe – combining the initials of their first names. The house of Irfe still exists today, having been relaunched some eighty years after its demise in 1931, and on their website they have a page dedicated to their history. Irfe also used Russian aristocrats as their models and my great-aunt was one of them. Later the fashion house expanded to other cities including Berlin. A couple of the photos of my great-aunt Ella were taken in Berlin in 1931 – I wonder if she moved there to work with Irfe.
Great-aunt Ella died in 1982 in Baden-Baden, Germany. As far as I know she was supporting herself financially by giving some sort of lessons – it is something I will have to look into further. She only barely made ends meet. She lived alone and, from what I gather, had few friends. But she did keep up a correspondence with my mother, some of her letters are still in my possession.