Sunday, September 23, 2012

Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life

Motivation for reading:
Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life was Brava Magazine's September pick for their book and wine club:

While Coco Chanel’s legacy is an impressive empire, Gabrielle Chanel’s life wasn’t always so divine. Delve into a rags-to-riches tale to find how Chanel made herself into a style legend, and discover what she had to hide along the way to ascend to the top.

Since Coco Chanel was one of the women I wanted to study for my Be Strong Challenge I decided it was time I read this book.

My Thoughts:
Prior to reading Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, I knew little about Chanel’s life other than she was the famous French fashion designer who gave us the little black dress and Chanel No. 5 perfume. Her life is actually a fascinating study of a woman born poor, illegitimate and raised in an orphanage who transformed herself into one of the most powerful fashion designers of the 20th century.

Telling Chanel’s story though was not an easy task. As part of Chanel’s transformation she covered up much of her past and told enormous lies about her life. She even changed her birth date on her passport. Picardie sorted through personal observations and interviews with surviving friends, employees and relatives; Chanel’s abandoned memoirs and tabloid rumors to give us an accurate portrayal of Coco Chanel’s life. When in doubt Picardie presents all of the known facts along with the rumors then gives her interpretation of the truth.

Coco Chanel could be both impulsive and reckless, but nothing could stop her from going after what she wanted. In addition to being a talented creator she was also a savvy business woman. Take note of her strengths, other than sheer talent, I feel attributed to her success:

She understood the relationship between money and independence:
After learning her lover Boy Capel had deposited bank securities as a guarantee for her business and overdrafts she told her head seamstress:
“I am not here to have fun, or to spend money like water, I am here to make a fortune.” A year later, Chanel was earning sufficient money to have no more need of Capel’s financial support, and she rejoiced in her independence. (Pg. 74)
She had a hard-headed business sense:
Here are the final snippets of an argument Chanel had with Mme Bataille, the woman who did the embroidery for the house, over price on the finished pieces of a crimson crepe de Chine blouse:
“The blouse is embroidered with real Chinese silk, one kilo of which costs at present…”

“I don’t care what kind of silk you use – real or artificial,” continued Mlle Chanel; “it is none of my business. What I want is to sell the blouse. As it is, it is too expensive; therefore you must charge less for it. That’s all.” (Pg. 140)
She understood the importance of a network:
Chanel was well-connected listing Winston Churchill and Pablo Picasso as friends.
Vera Bate, a friend of Bendor the 2nd Duke of Westminster’s and others in the small world of the British aristocracy, who was working for Chanel less as a model (though she was a handsome, statuesque figure in her Chanel outfits) than as a facilitator whose social connections were invaluable. I have employed society people, not to indulge my vanity or to humiliate them (I would take other forms of revenge, suppose I was seeking them), but … because they were useful to me and they got around Paris working on my behalf. (Pg. 162) 
She had a talent for friendship, in spite of her occasional flashes of malice. (Pg. 206)
She was an adept conversationalist:
I marveled at Chanel’s ability to think on her feet while dining with Malcolm Muggeridge, a British intelligence officer in Paris after France’s WWII liberation. Chanel had had a relationship with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German Nazi military officer during the war and was suspected of collaboration. The dinner was a combination of social visit and intelligence gathering for MI6:
Afterword’s, Muggeridge tried to draft some sort of report on Chanel, but realized that there was nothing to say. As he reflected upon his evening, he wondered whether a more rigorous agent might have discovered further details: ‘how she managed to get to and from Spain during the occupation, whether she also offered free scent to the German troops, who were her clients, associates and intimates during those years. Alas, all I had done was to listen; fascinated and even a little awed, at the masterly way she skinned and harpooned the braided F (the MI6).” (Pg. 267)
Vanity Fair sums up Chanel’s strengths perfectly when they nominated her to their 1931 Hall of Fame:
The magazine declared its reasons for doing so in a brief yet trenchant paragraph: Because she was the first to apply the principles of modernism to dressmaking; because she numbers among her friends the most famous men of France; because she combines a shrewd business sense with enormous personal prodigality and a genuine if erratic enthusiasm for the arts; and finally because she came to America to make a laudable attempt to introduce chic to Hollywood. (Pg. 213)
In the end Chanel’s life was sad and lonely. She took morphine to help her fall asleep. She never married and bore no children of her own (unless you believe the rumor that her nephew Andre Palasse was actually her son). Here is a conversation Gabrielle Labrunie Chanel’s niece recalls with her Aunt:
‘A, simple life, with a husband and children – a life with the people you love – that is the real life.’ And yet Gabrielle could also see the manner in which Chanel had cut her own familial ties, to set herself free. ‘She battled for her freedom – to be free to drive your car, to ride a bicycle, to walk to work, you had to be able to forget about what you are wearing. Forgetting is part of freedom – and so she was free to forget her past. And even if she did not forget it, she put her memories somewhere where they did not weigh too heavily on her – just like the clothes she made, that were so light that they seemed to weigh nothing at all.’ (Pg. 315)
Bottom line:
I thoroughly enjoyed learning more about Coco Chanel’s life and career. I did find the book frustrating at times when the truth of particular details of Chanel’s life remained unclear – this is not the fault of Justine Picardie, but of Chanel herself who lied and covered up so much of her life. I felt Picardie did an excellent job of researching the truth and presenting only the facts. I also enjoyed the book's numerous photos. If you have an interest in Coco Chanel, her life, her career or her creations I highly recommend reading this book. And in case you are curious:

Karen Eigenberger of Steve’s Wine-Beer-Spirits paired Clos du Moulin Aux Moines Bourgogne Pinot Noir as the wine to sip while reading Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life:
A toast to Coco Chanel! Perhaps thanks to her formative years in the Auvergne region of France, Coco Chanel's favorite food was fresh caviar with red wine; she it ate it a few times almost every day. In keeping with the style of wines from this region, raise a glass of Clos du Moulin Aux Moines Bourgogne Pinot Noir from the Burgundy region of France. Silky, complex, refined and elegant, much like the fashion icon herself. ($24)
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My Life in France


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I've always been so curious about Coco Chanel. She seems like one incredible lady.

  2. I've never been curious about Ms Chanel, but your review of the book still intrigued me. She sounds like an interesting lady.

  3. I read this book a long time ago, and I remember being really impressed with her life story. She's a great example of someone who didn't let excuses get in the way of her dreams.

    Saw you at SITS, nice to meet you. :-)

  4. I saw a movie about Coco Chanel a while ago and have thought I'd like to read a biography about her to learn more about her life. Great review!

  5. Christine,
    Yes she was an incredible lady and an excellent person to study for my strength challenge.

    Glad to picque your interest.

    Jewel Allen,
    Enjoyed hearing you were also impressed with her story. Thanks for stopping in.

    There is a movie. I must see it. Thanks for stopping in.

  6. Love, love, love Ms. Chanel! She was one of the reasons I went into fashion, definitely a lady ahead of her times and always on the cutting edge. Thanks for sharing...stopping by from SITS!