Monday, September 13, 2010

CHANEL...

Well, what an afternoon. Just hanging out at Claridges chatting about Coco Chanel over tea and macaroons with hugely respected author Justine Picardie. As you know I don't go to many events - being a tad shy and awkward in real life, but Claridges + Chanel + books + Justine I could not pass up. I was so glad I went along as it was actually very intimate and informal, not the standard press conference I'd imagined.

Justine Picardie has written what is certain to be the definitive biography on Coco Chanel. More than ten years in the making, the excerpts from Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life that I've read so far are packed with detail. (Here and here.) I can't wait to get properly stuck into the book, which I immediately cracked open on the tube home after hearing Justine's seriously compelling account of her journey with it and with Mademoiselle Chanel herself. There were more than a few goosebumps and shivers down the spines of the select assembled group today as Justine relayed her story: of unearthing never seen private photographs of Chanel, (which are reproduced in the book) of poring over military archives and of spending time with Chanel's last remaining relative, Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie. I am very much hoping Justine will go on to write the story of writing the story as it were. Rest assured it is full of serendipitous coincidences, of doors opening, of the residual all pervading presence of Chanel round every corner and of course, exploding light bulbs.

The films that have been made about Chanel in the past few years have focused on her love life - which granted, was extraordinary (I reviewed Coco Avant Chanel here). And before that there have been major biographies - notably (the title changes with different editions but it's the same book) by Edmonde Charles-Roux, on which that film was based. I read this book a couple of years ago and although I remember it being an interesting read, a lot was never explained, possibly because Charles-Roux was a close friend of Chanel's. Coco herself was responsible for obfuscating her origins and many, if not most of the myths about her were self perpetuated.

So to research a book of this kind takes more detective work than just sifting through the official archives and guessing the rest. It takes years of gradually disentangling what's true and false, gaining the trust of the keepers of one of the most iconic brands in the world, going to the places Chanel inhabited, searching for private letters in other archives, and getting so close to the woman that you can smell her perfume. Let me just clarify that: getting so close to Coco Chanel that you can smell Coco Chanel's actual Chanel No.5, not just that you can smell some Chanel No.5 in the air. *Chills.*

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One of the exciting things about this book is that it contains newly revealed and verified facts about Chanel's life. Much of what has been written about Chanel in the past is based on legend, which is then further imagined. To have the clarity of facts before drawing parallels and weaving connections makes it a much more solid proposition. What I've always loved about Coco Chanel is how her early life, which she tried so hard to cover up and deny, informed the clothes she was to design, that went on to inform how women the world over would and still do, dress. The monochrome, the pure lines, the interlocking Cs, the use of mirrors to both obscure and observe, her obsession with cleanliness, sleeping in an almost monastic room at the Ritz (not the suite overlooking Place Vendome) in her later years after WWII - it's all there, going back to her time living at the Catholic convent with the "aunts" as she called them. Then there is the British connection: her great loves Boy Capel and the Duke of Westminster, her friendship with Winston Churchill - she would hunt and fish with them, appropriating the traditional tweeds for herself. There is so much there when you have the story. Finally, the one thing that really stayed with me from today was learning that Chanel suffered acute anxiety early on in her career, would often faint and in later years, injected herself with a sedative before bed to help her sleep. Nothing I've ever read before has betrayed this: that this complex and powerful woman who went to such lengths to portray herself as just that, was also vulnerable and suffered the consequences of, as she said, living too intensely.

{Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life is published this Thursday. There are a number of bookshop events and talks lined up where Justine Picardie will be speaking about the book. The first event in London is on 23 September at 7pm, Waterstones High Street Kensington. There is also one at the V&A on 15 October at 7pm. More information on Justine's blog.}

{Photo credits: cover: Chanel, 1920s - © Popperfoto/Getty, Chanel, 1937 - Horst P. Horst © Condé Nast Archive/CORBIS.}

12 comments:

Victoria said...

Thank you for this post - it was a lovely read - well written and passionate. You've inspired me to pop along to the V&A to meet Justine myself.
Victoria x

Justine Picardie said...

It was wonderful to meet Lola Is Beauty Herself today. Very touched to read this post, and I do hope to meet Victoria, and others, at the V&A on October 15th, and perhaps at Waterstones next week -- I'll be at the High Street Kensington Branch on Thursday 23th September at 7pm, ready and waiting to answer questions and talk more about La Grande Mademoiselle.

If Jane said...

well written!
well...my curiosity is piqued ;))
thank you!

Rose said...

I've been at a festival this weekend and am catching up on blogs- so much lovely stuff here- can't wait to read this book- Mademoiselle is an endlessly fascinating character, an enigma, a force of nature. Will definitely try to go and see/ hear Justine. Thanks for the lovely review

Anonymous said...

Good to meet you at Claridges yesterday...I'm going to try and make it to the V&A so maybe see you there,

Xen.

Claire * Lola Is Beauty said...

Victoria - oh thank you - and it will be well worth going along to one of the talks.

Justine - thank you, it was so lovely to meet you and hear you talk about your book in such an engaging way. I recommend it to all!

If Jane - only now delving further into the book - so much good stuff in there.

Rose - yes, do try and go - it gave me so much more insight into the book and CC.

Xen - it was good to meet you too - I will go to the V&A if I can as well, so see you there.x

anna said...

hang on...she didn't wear no. 5?

Claire * Lola Is Beauty said...

anna - oh, does that bit not really make sense? I meant Chanel's actual Chanel No.5 and the smell of her that was still in her clothes when Justine tried them on.

anna said...

ah I see...I thought you had unleashed a scandal!

Bombay Beauty said...

great review. makes me eager to read the book... bb

Claire * Lola Is Beauty said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christina @ Fashion's Most Wanted said...

Dear Claire, sorry for the late reply. It was really great to meet you and discover your lovely blog. I hope to see you again, Christina xx