Review: Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life, Justine Picardie

| 1 November , 2010 | Reply

Carla Caruso, Clique Media

French fashion designer Coco Chanel is an enigma. One who has fascinated us for generations. She died in 1971 at the age of 87, but her legacy lives on.

Hence, the number of film and TV depictions about her life – most recently Coco avant Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou, and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, centring on her affair with the world-famous composer.

In this full-scale biography, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, UK author and journalist Justine Picardie attempts to unravel the fairytale Chanel invented about her own life, which often had nothing to do with reality. Chanel created a web of lies to lift herself from peasant girl to autocrat.

What we do know though is that Chanel was the illegitimate child of a market stallholder and laundrywoman. When she was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis and her father left the family, so she spent six years in the orphanage of a Catholic monastery. There, she learned the trade of a seamstress, which would help shape her later life. It\’s also likely where she got her lucky number, five, from, as the paved mosaic of the abbey had five-sided stars (think the perfume, Chanel No. 5!).

What I found most remarkable about Chanel, as depicted in this tome, was her trailblazing ways – she liberated women from metal corsets, opting to use stretchy fabric instead, condoned wearing black outside of mourning, and lopped off her locks in a boyish, cropped cut. She did things her own way.

Also compelling was her infatuation with English polo player Boy Capel, who financed her first shops. He was never faithful to her, but their affair lasted nine years, even after he married another. His death in a car crash is said to be the single most devastating event in Chanel\’s life.

For me, it\’s fascinating to think that someone born 127 years ago could have led such an intriguing love life – and that love could be so messy, complex and painful, even back then!

(In other matters of the heart, Picardie also suggests that Chanel\’s nephew, André Palasse – allegedly the only child of her sister, Julie – may actually have been her own by textile heir Étienne Balsan. Plus, Chanel is rumoured to have had a lesbian affair with her close friend, socialite Misia Sert.)

For a former peasant girl, Chanel certainly paved her way into the upper classes and dated a number of influential men, though she never married. When once asked why she didn\’t marry the Duke of Westminster, Chanel reportedly said: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.” Carrie Bradshaw, eat your heart out!

While I found this book\’s font a little small at times – the words jammed onto the pages – my eyes continued to dance across the print regardless. It\’s hard not to be spellbound by Chanel\’s fascinating life story.

Available now: HarperCollins, RRP $45.

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