Coco Chanel was, like her fashion house's logo, a mass of contradictions. Just as the interlocking but equally opposing letter 'C's could have more than one meaning, their creator often had more than one state of mind, recollection or opinion, depending on who she was addressing and why.
[Image via Wikimedia Commons - credited to Time/Getty].
The designer photographed in 1920.
She demanded simplicity, yet was often surrounded by ceremony and grandeur, living at the Ritz when the mood took her, or building a haven on the French Riviera, heading to Hollywood and regularly partying on her lover the Duke of Westminster's yacht - so far, so glamorous. But her humble beginnings were more like a fairy story, as the young Chanel (known then as Gabrielle rather than Coco) dealt with her mother's death and her father's reluctance to be a parent. She was placed in an orphanage, along with her sister, though later she would describe this period of her childhood as being raised by strict aunts, rather than the nuns who actually ran the orphanage and taught her to sew.
It's clear very early on into the book that Chanel was like the classic unreliable narrator in literature, forever changing her story and her circumstances; she would regularly lie about her age and her origins, tailoring a fantastical beginning of her own that could induce jealousy or sympathy at the drop of a hat. Fortunately Justine Picardie replaces the unreliable narrator's tales with as many of the facts as she can muster, interviewing many people who were close to the great woman and her world.
[Image via Instyle.com].
Vintage earrings featuring the instantly recognisable logo.
Picardie's detective work and her fluid descriptions bring this biography to life, despite all of the twists and turns and the regular stumbling blocks of Chanel's little white lies that the writer encountered whilst trying to unravel the reality behind all those myths. One of the most bizarre anecdotes involves the designer's favourite childhood haunt - the cemetery at Auvergne. 'If Chanel's own account is to be believed, by the age of six she was spending as much time as possible in a graveyard... she became attached to two unnamed tombstones, decorating them with wildflowers' (p.16). Imagery like this stays with the reader and helps to peel back the layers in her personality.
The graveyard ties in nicely with the love of wearing black that she brought to the public, taking it out of the state of mourning and into the everyday, 'wearing black as a symbol of strength and freedom' (p.85). Conversely, she also pushed white clothing as a trend, to suggest 'candid innocence' in the wake of the Great Depression (p.179), and her all-white collection of spring 1933 went down a storm. Chanel even wore white to one of her friend's funerals, though she never wore white as a bride, staying unmarried throughout her life, despite numerous all-consuming love affairs up until her 50s. She emerged from every broken relationship a stronger and more resilient person, often staying close to her ex-boyfriends (much to the chagrin of their future wives).
[Image via Gawker.com]
Still glamorous in later life and getting the wear out of those pearls.
Of course, not every moment was a bed of roses, and Picardie does shed light on the most scandalous boyfriend of all - a high-ranking Nazi, albeit one who could have potentially been a double agent. Unlike many of her couturier contemporaries in the city, Chanel closed her atelier during the war, and the only German she was seen to spend time with was her lover, Baron von Dincklage, but still the rumours about her being a Nazi collaborator persisted. This was obviously a tricky area for Picardie to research, but it does feel like the weakest section of the book, given the strength of those rumours, which persist today. I would have loved to see more investigation and depth in this part of the biography, as there are still so many unanswered questions about the designer during this period.
Essentially, this biography provides a huge amount of insight into the complicated life of Coco Chanel, from her humble beginnings as Gabrielle, to her stellar reputation and her line of properties along the Rue Cambon in Paris. It explores the dizzying heights, but also the pitfalls that she encountered, such as the poorly received comeback collection of 1954 (the ever-strong Chanel 'faced the critics with her lips and nails in brave warpaint... the reviews were savage enough to have felled a woman less sure of herself', p.269-270). This is not a lightweight coffee table book, least of all because of its slim line photo sections at the expense of more text; it's a solid and engrossing profile of the great designer, written with Picardie's own insider knowledge and contacts in the fashion industry to hand. If you're keen to learn more about this fashion icon, The Legend and the Life is a great place to start your education.