Born into rural poverty, Gabrielle Chanel and her siblings are sent to orphanage after their mother’s death. The sisters nurture Gabrielle’s exceptional sewing skills, a talent that will propel the willful young woman into a life far removed from the drudgery of her childhood.
Transforming herself into Coco—a seamstress and sometime torch singer—the petite brunette burns with ambition, an incandescence that draws a wealthy gentleman who will become the love of her life. She immerses herself in his world of money and luxury, discovering a freedom that sparks her creativity. But it is only when her lover takes her to Paris that Coco discovers her destiny.
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.