The Genteel
March 3, 2021


Athena and the Muses (Painting by Hans Rottenhammer, 1603).

I have recently been thinking about the "muse" and its iterations over the centuries. Originating in Ancient Greek mythology, artistic talent was credited to nine immortal sisters, goddesses who gave music, song and dance to artists and inspiration to writers, poets and philosophers. The muse has since evolved into a real person who inspires creative endeavours.  

My musings began as soon as I stepped through the doors of the The Genteel Launch Party at the Arta Gallery in Toronto's Distillery District. Surrounded by the vibrant paintings of Barcelona-born artist Rosa Guasch, fellow contributors, friends, and endless flutes of prosecco, our smiles would tell any onlooker that we were an inspired assembly. 

Mona Chammas and Irene Kim
(Photograph by Melissa Sung).

Scanning the room, I finally found the catalyst of our galvanized group. Mona Chammas, Editor-in-Chief of The Genteel, was chatting away, animated and proud of her and Irene Kim's, Editor-at-Large, dream of a thoughtful and insightful fashion publication come true. Donning DSquared head-to-toe, Mona was beaming in blazer, blouse, bow tie and Prada brogues. In classic black and white, her accoutrement channeled the menswear-inspired womenswear pioneered by the one and only Coco Chanel. Seeing Mona, a woman with her own vision and mission to show the world a new perspective of fashion and style, it felt obvious to assume that she would consider Chanel one of her top muses.

Highly independent, resourceful, outspoken yet mysterious, Chanel rejected the tyranny of the fashion of her time and redefined style to suit herself. She won the battle between corset and comfort in the early 1900s and became the first designer to create loose but casually elegant women's clothing using jersey. By 1920, she had made a small fortune and became the patron of composer Igor Stravinsky, inviting him, his consumptive wife and four children to live with her at her villa in the country. He had lost everything in the Russian Revolution and was a penniless refugee living in exile, and she accomplished a considerable social coup by acting as benefactor to the celebrated musician.

Coco Chanel (Source:

Much speculation abounds, but I like to believe that the rumours of an intensely passionate relationship are true. After all, how could two non-conformists of their kind resist a radical affair at this level - she, transforming norms and democratizing women's fashion and he, pushing the boundaries of musical design and redefining musical taste. (Read all the juicy gossip in the novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh or watch the steamy scenes in the film Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky directed by Jan Kounen.)  

If no other proof exists, maybe the output of their revolutionary creativity during the months they were together would be convincing enough of a horizontal collaboration. Chanel discovered her iconic perfume Chanel No. 5, and Stravinsky made his great stylistic shift from modernism to neoclassicism. I think that their mutual influence can be experienced with a whiff of the legendary floral scent - strong, shocking, endearing like Stravinsky - or listen to Pulcinella, ballet music that is aesthetically melodic, charming and simple, much like Chanel, and a departure from the composer's prior riot-provoking composition Rite of Spring (witnessed by the designer at the 1913 premiere).

Where man plays muse to fellow man, Stravinsky's innovations played a major part in the music and career of avant-garde composer, electric guitarist, singer and producer Frank Zappa. A maverick in his own right, Zappa's music was anything but mainstream. A prolific artist, he experimentally combined songs in conventional rock and roll format with improvisations of jazz, lyrics expressing his political views, and quotes from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. You can hear the parodies in songs like The Return of the Son of Monster MagnetAmnesia VivaceFountain of LoveIn-A-Gadda-Stravinsky and Strictly Genteel, a compilation of his finest "classical" instrumental compositions. 

Frank Zappa's Strictly Genteel:
 Classical Introduction
(Source: Zappa Records).

And there it is was, from Chammas to Chanel, Stravinsky to Zappa, Strictly Genteel to The Genteel.  I completed a cycle of muses and toured a lineage of ideas and art, culminating here at The Genteel - a place where style, fashion, and culture meet and muse. (More fun than playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.)

My exploration of the muse will continue next week as the Canadian Opera Company celebrates artistic inspiration and the mix-and-mingle of art and life during its fabulous annual fundraising party Operanation. Calling together the muses from the worlds of opera, fashion, and art, I wonder where this event will lead my thoughts and imagination, but look forward to being further inspired and more games of connect the muse.



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