In C.W. Gortner’s sweeping historical fictionalization of the life of Gabrielle Chanel, Coco barely has time to design dresses for all of the unintentional German spying, chain-smoking cigarettes, and mistressing for scads of wealthy, titled men. Nevertheless, she did design beginning with hats and becoming perhaps the most iconic woman of the 20th Century.
Who hasn’t heard of the “little black dress”? (Coco’s idea.) Sunbathed? (Popularized by Chanel.) Purchased something off the rack? (Her innovation) Smiled at Marilyn Monroe’s answer to the question asking what she wore to bed? (“Chanel Number 5 — of course.”)
The impoverished orphan Gabrielle’s influence as Coco Chanel reigned over the entire century and into today.
Gortner, a former fashion executive, imagines the creative process of many of Coco’s designs, from her first polo-shirt inspired top, to jersey clothing, little black dress and diamond jewelry. The biggest disappointment for me in all this is that without the with whom she spent time, it seems Coco wouldn’t have had any ideas at all. Or money.
From her first lover, Etienne Balsan, Coco got her moniker, “money to buy more hats and trimming supplies,” the first crowd of buyers for her hats and the financial backing for a hat shop. He also introduced her to her next benefactor.
Arthur “Boy” Capel gave Coco true love, a broken heart, the inspiration for her C&C logo, his polo style, jersey fabric, and money to found her empire. And according to Gortner, the only glimmer of self-doubt she ever experienced.
“You told me once that what we don’t ear for ourselves is never ours, that it can always be taken away. Is that what your help means? Will you close my shop whenever you please?”
His own fury, rare to kindle but implacable once lit, darkened his eyes. “You insult me. What’s worse you insult us. You cannot run a business properly? Fine, you don’t have to. Hire an accountant. Do what you do best and leave the numbers to whose who know how. But don’t ever tell me again that I will snatch anything from you. I will not stand for it. . . . What I give you now, you will repay. I know you will. What I want is for you to know it. To believe it. It doesn’t matter how much I must invest if you’ll only trust in your talent and tell me the truth.”
I bit down on my quivering lip. “I will repay it. Every last centime.”
“So I hope.” He gave me a pensive look. “You’re the proudest person I know, but remember, you are still only a woman. And though I love you for it, pride will make you suffer.”
Only a woman . . .
The retrospectives, novels, biopics, Pinterest boards, tv movies about Coco Chanel abound. Gortner’s version offers a behind-the-scenes, first-person look at why the legendary fashionista made some of the decisions she made and how she was inspired to do so. I found it quite enjoyable; a quick read and one that made me want to know more about the clothing she designed.
Coco lives on cigarettes, chocolate and champagne. There is mention of British puddings, inedible gravies and fresh fruit and vegetables farmed at La Pausa, Coco’s rural retreat.
My menu would be easy, a tribute to a woman who spent her life working, not eating.
Croissants or Baguettes
Coco earned her nickname as a chanteuse at a small, unsavory nightclub. I would play Edith Piaf all night.