on March 14, 2011
I appreciated the photos and Chanel's quotes in this book. If there had been neither, I would have become extremely bored. Nothing grabbed me. The majority of the book is based off of information Chanel told Claude Delay. If I wanted to know about her conversations with Claude Delay then I would have read "Chanel Solitaire" by Claude Delay. Chanel's life was so mysterious and guarded it is nearly impossible to derive facts or truth. She hid the truth and was not an open book. so at the end of the book, I knew almost less about her than when I began reading the book. But one fact you can never take away is that she was one fierce woman: business and fashion wise.
Coco Chanel concentrated on simplicity and practicality in the clothes she fashioned. She fashioned her own life, however, to be complicated, and she further complicated things by changing her stories (or perhaps her memories) of her past. Fashion columnist and novelist Justine Picardie has attempted to sort out Chanel's life in a satisfying biography, _Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life_ (It Books). Chanel displayed an unusual resilience, overcoming poverty and lack of parental guidance to revolutionize women's fashions, and perfume, and then retiring and starting up again as successfully as before. Picardie says that "... so much of Chanel remains enigmatic - the more you run after her, the more elusive her ghost becomes," and it is easy to see that with Chanel busy making her mark in fashion and making herself into a legend, keeping track of what's real and what's not is often impossible. Nonetheless, even if there are gaps we cannot completely close, Picardie's portrait with all of Chanel's contradictions nicely brings to life this unique artist, bon vivant, and brilliant businesswoman.
Chanel was born in 1883, though of course she did not give this date in her own accounting of her origins. She was placed into a convent, and the austerity of convent life found its way into her clothing designs. She worked afterwards as a seamstress but also as a cabaret singer. Somehow she encountered a roué who set her up as a mistress, along with other lovers, and during these years she learned skills in observation and in such essentials as horse riding. Her lovers set her up in her own Paris hat shop in 1909, and there were soon more than hats. Chanel fancied loose trousers and collarless jackets; the clothes proclaimed that women ought to be comfortable and confident in walking, riding horses, or driving. When Chanel said, "Extravagant things didn't suit me," she meant that she thought such things didn't suit any woman. Her perfume, brought out in 1921, made her an international name brand, but she regretted the agreement she had made with the manufacturer, and tried to use the anti-Jewish laws of the German occupation to claim the company for herself; she not only failed but she tarnished her reputation. She also took a Nazi lover, but got no punishment after the war. She had closed down her business when war was declared, saying, "This is not the time for fashion." She stayed out of clothing fashions, though she had a secure income from her international perfume sales. She was aghast when designers such as Christian Dior came out with extravagant fashions after the war, and disgusted with the reintroduction of corsets. She was seventy years old when she launched a comeback in 1954. The French press, perhaps because of her war record, sneered at her new line, which was a variation on the practical, attractive, and simple designs that she had done before. In the United States, however, the clothes were celebrated in an issue of _Life_ magazine: "Her styles hark back to her best of the Thirties." She became copied even in France, and said of Yves Saint-Laurent that he "... has excellent taste. The more he copies me, the better taste he displays." The Chanel look has never really gone out of fashion.
There was a Broadway musical about Chanel, and plenty of biographies and memoirs about her, and a couple of recent films, so interest in her extraordinary life has never subsided. Picardie's book packs many anecdotes, and lots of Chanel's own words (often funny or acid, and of course, often misleading) into a full biography. There are on these glossy pages plenty of pictures of Chanel at work, or at play on yachts or on the estates of those even richer than she, and pictures of the fashions that made her famous. Chanel succeeded with her outfits by maintaining creativity while keeping to essentials; Picardie has done just the same in a beautifully produced book.
The name Coco Chanel is synonymous with style. But what of the woman behind the name: what do we know about the woman who designed simple yet sophisticated clothes, practical but elegant bags and shoes, and presented Chanel No 5 perfume to the world?
There is little simple about Coco Chanel. She was born Gabrielle Chanel on 19 August 1883 - a date that she later changed by hand in her passport. Gabrielle Chanel was born in a poorhouse; her parents were unmarried and, according to Chanel, her mother Jeanne died of tuberculosis when Chanel was aged six. Justine Picardie suggests that Jeanne died of `poverty, pregnancy and pneumonia' when Chanel was aged 11. According to Chanel, her father left her in the care of two unmarried aunts when he actually placed her in a convent orphanage in the village of Aubazine, where she was raised by nuns.
When World War One began in 1914, Chanel moved from Paris to Deauville, and built up a business. Chanel's personal life was also interesting and unconventional. She had a succession of glamorous lovers but it seems likely that the real love of her life was Arthur `Boy' Capel who died in a car accident in 1919.
I picked up this book knowing very little about Coco Chanel and wanting to read a little more about the woman who had such an influence on style during the 20th century. It's an interesting read, beautifully illustrated and informative without being exhaustive. It intrigued me to read that Coco Chanel's favourite novel was `Wuthering Heights', and that the austerity of the convent was a major influence on her design. By all accounts, Coco Chanel (19 August 1883 - 10 January 1971) lived a remarkable life.
on March 29, 2011
The latest biography of fashion legend Coco Chanel looks as beautiful as the designer herself, but sadly, you can't judge a book by its cover or its photos and illustrations alone. While author Justine Picardie makes some fascinating points about how Chanel's style was influenced by her childhood at a French convent -- and shows this beautifully with pictures of the Cistercian abbey's stained glass, which looks eerily like the famous double C logo -- I got bogged down in her prose. Picardie is quite intellectual and writes in an overly dramatic way when revisiting all the places that were important to Chanel. For example, when Picardie walks through the old perfume factory and finds a bottle of the original No 5, she writes that "rare perfume, unlike fine wine, does not improve with age. But even so, it carries with it a strange potency; the precious scent of a vanished woman, the last traces of an invisible ghost." Ah, yes, nothing like a whiff of the great one to send you into feverish descriptions! The truth is, the old perfume bottle stank! I would have liked more of a straighforward, clearly written biography with less of these flowery asides from the author. I do give her credit, however, for digging into all the lies Chanel told about her life and trying to separate truth from fiction. Fashion die-hards will love the photos and illustrations and some of the new insights; I just wish Picardie had written it in a more simple, easy-to-follow manner.
on January 1, 2014
In this elegant book Justine Picardie writes about the life and character of Coco Chanel. Chanel liberated women from the constrains of the corset and introduced more practical women's clothing (boyish sportswear, suits, and unisex pants) in the early twentieth century. However, it was the Little Black Dress that was her most groundbreaking fashion statement when it first made an appearance in 1926.
As a Russian, I was surprised by the amount of Russians in Chanel's life, including the nephew of the last Tsar, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov. They were lovers for several years. It was the Grand Duke who introduced her to the former perfumer to the Tsars and former Russian subject called Ernest Beaux (a truly remarkable German-French-Russian character) who fled from Russia to France after the Revolution. He created the famous scent of Chanel #5 in 1921. I learned that there are some speculations that Chanel was a German spy or perhaps a double agent during WWII working for the British. She knew Winston Churchill personally and was a lover of the Duke of Westminster.
Chanel was a driven woman, who at first used fashion to make her way onto the Parisian high society, or even to attract the aristocratic men. But nothing functions as a means unless we engage in it as an end. The book would have benefited from the overview of fashion industry and the role of the House of Chanel in it. What are the main driving forces, who are the main competitors? The book is smartly divided into small portions; each chapter is short and logical. The illustrations are luscious. This is a well-researched study - the author seems to have dipped into every possible source, from the records of Paris police to the Churchill archives. I recommend it.
on March 7, 2013
Here we have a life of a famous couturier. The actual fashion beginnings are never explained - like how did she break into the field?? her work is basically ignored - collections passed over. What about her style, point of view, interpretation of women ( Which women?) But her rather sad trail of lovers somehow makes up for this. Yep...men seem to come and go - who knows why? Who, in the end, cares?