Perhaps a little late to the party with this review, but Justine Picardie’s elegant biography of Coco Chanel has lost none of its charm and remains one of the most authoritative tomes on this elusive subject. Chanel has been the subject of countless bios (some more accurate than others), several films and even a Broadway musical (Coco, starring Katharine Hepburn and directed by Michael Benthall, which was staged during the designers lifetime), yet she remains an intriguing and difficult to fathom character, aided by her desire to obscure and re-write her own history and origins.
Picardie’s eloquent and in-depth account of Chanel’s humble origins, analysis of her (myriad) love affairs and contextual fashion critique is well-informed and impeccably researched. Yes, Picardie is enamoured with her subject, but she acknowledges her foibles – from supposed anti-Semitism to Chanel’s links with British Intelligence during WWII – and offers balanced evidence, ultimately leaving the reader to form their own opinion.
Piecing together the jigsaw of Chanel’s life, Picardie journeys to Aubazine, the orphanage in which Chanel grew up. It was in this sparse and austere monastery that Chanel learnt her craft as a seamstress, finding recurrent motifs in star-inlaid stone floors and wrought iron-work. Although Chanel went to great pains to romanticise her childhood, she was never able to escape the influence of Aubazine. The chapter on Boy Capel, an area often neglected by biographers, is a modern-day love story that ends in tragedy.
Picardie’s journey ends (in the book at least) in an emotional stay in the private Ritz suite that Chanel made her home for the final years of her life. Perhaps more potently, Picardie visits Gabrielle Labrunie (Chanel’s great niece), where she tries on Mademoiselle’s tweed jackets, revelling in the very essence of Coco. The final chapter is charged with emotion and undeniably sad, depicting a hardworking and successful designer battling with loneliness and hindered, perhaps for the first time, by regret. Despite her faults, it’s impossible not to become attached to Chanel; Piacrdie clearly did, and this biography is richer for it.
Verdict: A literary shelf must have, equivalent to Chanel’s own 2.55
Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie (Harper Collins 2010) is available at waterstones.com