Prolific biographer Madsen (Sonia Delaunay, 1989, etc.) marshals the facts of the designer's astonishing life without providing much psychological or contextual insight. Born in a small French town in 1883, Gabrielle Chanel was brought up by nuns after her mother died when Gabrielle was 12. Skilled at sewing, the girl worked as a seamstress, began singing at cafes frequented by soldiers, then became the mistress of Etienne Balsan, a cavalry officer from a textile fortune, and was exposed to the world of high society. She pestered Balsan to back her in business, but he just laughed. Finally she ran off with someone who took her more seriously, ""Boy"" Capel. With his support, Chanel started selling hats and clothing and soon built up a society clientele. After WW I, she split with Boy, hung out with Diaghilev, Stravinsky (a short-term lover), and Cocteau. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and had a long affair with the ultrarich Duke of Westminster. During WW II, she dated a German and, in 1943, initiated a bizarre scheme to convey German peace overtures personally to her old friend Winston Churchill. After the war, Chanel retreated to Switzerland until, at the age of 70, she launched a comeback and produced collections until her death in 1971. Chanel's life was extraordinary, but, as re-created here, it doesn't make a great read. The scores of minor characters never come alive, serving instead as confusing digressions. Madsen depends heavily on published interviews with Chanel, and rarely breaks through the designer's fierce exterior to give us any sense of her motives or, for that matter, her charm. Still: solid and informative, if not a page-turner.