An admiring portrait of the designer who first modernized women’s wear, told in the first person as she looks back over her life.
Gabrielle Chanel came from humble beginnings: Her father, a peddler, abandoned his two sons and three daughters after their mother died, and she and her sisters were taken in by nuns. Eventually, an aunt offers the Chanel sisters a home, where they help with the family millinery business. Chanel soon tires of slaving in a shop and seeks her fortune as a cafe chanteuse with the stage name Coco. A wealthy lover, Balsan, launches her career in fashion: She designs hats for his friends, courtesans from the Paris demimonde. At a race track, she meets Arthur Capel, aka “Boy,” who will prove to be the love of her life. With his help, she opens a Paris atelier. Departing from belle epoque corsets and bustles, Chanel’s first designs, separates based on menswear with a neutral palette and a slim silhouette, catch on almost immediately with rich women in Paris, Deauville, Biarritz and beyond. Coco amasses great wealth and makes friends among the artistic elite of France, including Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Serge Diaghilev. After World War I, Boy dies in a car crash, and Coco becomes even more driven. She develops a scent, Chanel No. 5, derived from the signature perfume of the assassinated czarina of Russia, and signs a contract to distribute it worldwide. As more lovers, among them an impoverished Romanov and the Duke of Westminster, enter and depart her life, she builds a lavish house in southern France and enjoys a brief sojourn in Hollywood. In her 50s as World War II and the Nazi occupation of France loom, Coco ponders her legacy and her perennially single state. Though the book is well-written and historically accurate, dramatic tension would have been better served if the fictional Coco could have demonstrated a few more character flaws and human foibles rather than being so very competent in meeting every challenge.
An homage to a couture icon whose influence is still powerful today.