Published: 17 March 2015
Genre: Historical Fiction
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in France on 19 August 1883 to impoverished parents but she would overcome her tough early years to become the world's most famous fashion designer, Coco Chanel. After flirting with a brief career as a singer where she adopted the name Coco, Chanel turned her attention to hat making which she was able to pursue after becoming the mistress of the textile heir, Etienne Balsan.
It was through Balsan that Coco would eventually meet the love of her life, Arthur 'Boy' Capel, the man who funded her first shop in Paris. Thanks to the connections she made through Balsan and Capel, Coco's hat shop proved to be a great success and it wasn't long before she was expanding into clothes. Tired of the restrictions placed on the female attire, Coco eschewed corsets and frills in favour of simple clothes in flexible materials which became a sensation. Highly innovative, Coco always seemed to know what women wanted before they knew it themselves and her fame grew despite still being shunned by the higher echelons of society.
The Chanel brand would go on to become one of the most famous in the world, largely helped by sales of the signature scent, Chanel No.5, which would lead to Coco's tempestuous relationship with Pierre and Paul Wertheimer who agreed to distribute the scent for her. While Coco's professional life went from strength to strength, her personal life was in a far more precarious state with a string of unsuitable lovers. Despite her fame, Coco was destined to die alone at the Ritz Hotel where she lived.
Mademoiselle Chanel is a fictional account of the life of this famous woman, starting with her humble childhood and ending with her triumphant return to Paris in 1954. More or less everything about Coco’s life is covered, including the years she spent at the Aubazine convent which would have a major influence on her designs, particularly in regard to the number five which was represented symbolically throughout the convent. Coco chose to release her collections on the fifth day of the fifth month, although this is not mentioned in the book.
The character of Coco is convincingly portrayed and we are privy to the ambitious side of the woman who had a steely determination to succeed, as well as the more vulnerable side when it came to her family and her lovers. At times Coco is a ruthless taskmaster but that trait was essential for her to succeed in a male dominated world and her vision for the future of ladies fashion was extraordinary. Coco is a complex figure, a woman who yearns for love, yet one not willing to compromise her independence, which may be why she ended up in liaisons with men who were out of her reach.
While I believe Gortner did manage to convey the complexities of Coco’s personality adequately enough, I do think he glossed over her more unsavoury traits, particularly in regard to her actions during the Second World War. According to Gortner’s take on things, Coco’s association with the Germans was necessary to save the life of her nephew, Andre, who was being held by the Germans, and this is used as an excuse for much of her subsequent behaviour. If Coco was merely using Hans Gunther von Dincklage, why did she continue to have an relationship with him after the war? And why is this not mentioned? Once the war ends, Dincklage seems to just disappear from the story as Coco takes Andre to Switzerland to recuperate.
Gortner also tries to excuse Coco’s decision to use Nazi legislation to take sole control over Parfums Chanel run by Pierre and Paul Wertheimer who were of Jewish ancestry. Coco had signed a contract with the brothers to distribute Chanel No.5 after its launch, but she had cause to regret it when she realised she had cheated herself out of a fortune. The Wertheimers had refused to renegotiate the contract prior to the war and Coco had been left fuming. The Nazi occupation gave her a chance to seize the company but unknown to her the Wertheimers had foreseen the problems likely to be caused by the Germans and handed ownership over to a Christian for the duration of the war. In the book, Coco is persuaded into filing the claim by her German lover as a way of proving her loyalty, but I don’t buy this for one minute and totally believe Coco tried to use the situation to her advantage.
Whatever the truth is behind Coco’s wartime activities, I can understand why Gortner chose to make her appear like a victim of circumstances because no one wants to admit their idols have feet of clay. Coco was never the most likeable of women, but her contribution to the world of fashion cannot be denied and I guess we should try to remember her for that more than anything else. While this book offers no startling revelations about Coco’s life, it will more than satisfy her admirers.