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Book review: Coco Chanel, The Legend and The Life


I wasn’t sure what to expect when I chose to read the biography of Coco Chanel by Justine Picardie. Was it all about fashion? I remember a movie I saw about her, and what I remember most is that Coco Chanel was not at all the stylish, female lady I thought she was: more of a tomboy.

But I wás curious about the empire she built. Especially back in those days, it was not simple to be a business woman, I presume.

What inspired her

Chanels childhood is a bit of a tragedy. A poor family: a father who abandoned her, her mother who died while the young girls were at home. Picardie speaks of the influence her father had: she cut her hair short because her father didn’t like the smell of dirty hair. Supposedly, her christening gown, sent by her father from the United States, was the first dress she had a true emotion with, and became the inspiration to the many dresses that would follow. In many ways, it seems like Chanels work was a way to escape: her childhood, her lovers, her dependence.

How did she accomplish her success

From being a seamstress, Chanel went to creating hats and dresses. I don’t think she had a big break because she made amazing things, she became popular because of the people she hang out with. Picardie describes Chanel had many men who she impressed, and these men (Etienne Balsan and Boy Capel as the first), invested in her talent. She appears to be connected to the right people, who in their turn, seem mesmerized by her. When she leaves Balsan for Capelle, the two gentleman actually discuss who will finance what for Chanel. Imagine…! They decided that Capel covered the running costs and Balsan provided the Paris premises.

Chanel had an attitude of autonomy, which seemed to appeal to rich and famous men. An interesting part of the book is when Chanel thinks that she is doing well in her sales, but it turns out Capel is paying for everything. She did not start out independent. She however, is horrified by that fact and quotes:

“‘I felt sick,’ she told Morand. ‘Impossible to eat … I began to hate this well-brought-up man who was paying for me. I threw my handbag straight at his face and I fled.’ The following morning, she told Morand, she went back to rue Cambon at dawn. ‘”Angle,” I said to my head seamstress, “I am not here to have fun, or to spend money like water. I am here to make a fortune.”‘ 

Throughout her life, tables turn – there are parts of the book where Picardie explains Chanel paid for the funeral of a friend, and supported many artists.

Not only men were attracted to Chanel; also women looked up to her. When she cuts her hair short and wears a little black dress to the opera – her appearance is mesmerizing between all the frolics and frills of the other women. This typically shows what Chanel stands for: boyish, elegant, clean and comfortable lifestyle. She made a difference for fashion.

Her big breaks were designing for Hollywood (costumes. The Grand Duke Dimitri got her a fabulous contract of a million dollars) and she was the first designer ever, to add a perfume to her inventory. Also inspired by the Grand Duke. That was a really clever business move, whereas fashion is prone to seasonal influence, and perfume offers a stable income base.

What were her flaws?
Well, one can argue that one of her flaws was her many affairs with her many lovers. You cannot keep track during the book…! Balsan, Capelle, Bengor, The Duke of Westminster, The Grand Duke Dimitri, Churchill (or not?), Stravinsky, and more…
But certainly, the events during World War II made her impopular. Besides stopping production (Chanel claimed ‘there was no time for fashion’) these years, she also had an affair with a Nazi, which caused suspicion that Chanel herself was a Nazi as well.

Picardie also describes Chanel as a bit world-estranged. When her seamstresses go on strike, at the communist era, Chanel offers them ‘full control of the company’ if she could regain to lead it. They refuse, and Chanel later speaks of the strike as ‘The girls were unhappy that I wasn’t around often. They just missed me’. Ehhh….?

Her loneliness, the fact that she relied on work more than men (who tended to cheat on her) and her drug use to go to sleep, also must have not added to her success.

Memorable moments
One of the most interesting facts in the book, I find the battle for the control of Chanel No. 5. The perfume (which she first created as a giveaway, inspired by her lover, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, and then became a huge success) was owned 90% by Pierre Wertheimer, a Jewish businessman who fled the country after Nazi-takeover. Chanel was not happy with this situation, being a 10% shareholder. So… she tried to use the Nazi laws to claim that she should become the sole shareholder since Wertheimer was Jewish. To be honest, that is quite a slick trick, don’t you think? However, the strategy didn’t work – Wertheimer had seen it coming and had legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to Felix Amiot, a Christian businessman who gave it all back to him after the war.

Wertheimer was not vengeful after that, because when Chanel made her comeback (she was in Switzerland from 1945-54) he also financed the House of Chanel. Chanel and Wertheimer came to an agreement, when they renegotiated the contract, providing her with wartime profits from the sale of Chanel No. 5, and two percent shares of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. And, Wertheimer agreed to pay all of Chanel’s living expenses for the rest of her life. Quote unusual, but not bad for someone who lived at the Ritz, eh?

Another memorable moment for me was the part about the suit of Jackie Kennedy. The pink suit she wore when John F. Kennedy was shot, was a Chanel Suit, especially designed for her – the fabric, buttons and trim for the jacket came from Chanel in Paris, from which the suit was made and fitted for Kennedy at Chez Ninon, because a first lady should wear clothes ‘Made in America’. That’s probably the most famous Chanel suit in history…

How did she juggle work life balance
Picardie doesn’t speak of that much in the biography. It is said that Chanel liked to work, because that drove away her attention of Capel:

I often fainted,’ she told Haedrich. ‘I had too much emotion, too much excitement, I lived too intensely. My nerves couldn’t stand it.’ When she worked, she said, her health recovered; and although she never admitted it, the House of Chanel seemed to give her more stability – a sense of where she stood in the world – than she gained from Boy Capel.” 

Since she never had children (although Picardie raises doubt whether or not her nephew actually was her son) and never got married (though later on in life, she claims that she made a mistake, wanting to live on her own) her work-life balance sounds like one of a lady who had it all. Houses in the Riviera, a yacht, enjoying life there. There is not much mention of struggle between home and work. Chanel however, does struggle with her being a mistress. She calls in sick for a party where she would not be in the spotlights – her engaged lover hurries home to find her not ill, but insecure about the rumors. Of course, the rumors about her no-show were even worse…

So… inspiration from Coco Chanel:

  • Gather rich men and high society friends;
  • Look beyond the usual: if in fashion, one can make money with perfume;
  • Start with great founders, but become independent and allow them to fund your lifestyle;
  • You can come from the gutter and become larger than life;
  • Freedom and comfort are values all women should enjoy.

You can sense that Picardie really gave a lot of effort to putting Chanel on paper. I later saw an interview with her, which explains that she just ended her relationship, and is therefor inspired to follow the footsteps of Coco Chanel. The way she writes – leaving doubts, quite romantic – shows this. I have to say, I listened to the book while driving to work (7 hours!) and I was quite lost sometimes. All of the characters (and jeez, she had many friends, lovers and acquaintances!) got me a bit puzzled. But I also must say, the story is worth it. I just hope the next biography of Chanel is more aimed at her business woman traits than her love life 😉

More on Coco Chanel?
An interview with Julie Picardie
Another review of Picardie’s book
Biography of Coco Chanel
Vogue on Coco Chanel


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