Stylist's new favourite read was a decade in the writing, and it shows - this meticulously researched biography throws new light on the legendary Coco Chanel
During the course of her research for biography Coco Chanel: The Legend And The Life, celebrated journalist Justine Picardie resided in the Abbey that Coco (born Gabrielle) grew up in, travelled the world in pursuit of Coco’s friends and family and spent many hours scouring the British Military, the Secret Service and Winston Churchill’s private archives. She even had a spooky encounter in the room where Chanel died - seriously! It wasn't all hard work - she got to try on some of Chanel’s own clothes at Gabrielle Labrunie’s house (great niece of Coco). This perseverance paid off. Her new book - already a Stylist favourite - was released on 16th September. We caught up with the author for a chat.
What inspired you to write about Coco Chanel?
I’ve always been interested in her. My mother wore great clothes in the 1960s and even got married in a little black dress - it wasn’t a Chanel dress but it looked like it was from the pattern. She used to make dresses for us children using Vogue patterns. I was always intrigued by Chanel, by the double C logo and the double Cs you can see on the lampposts in Westminster (legend has it that The Duke of Westminster commissioned them as a symbol of his love for Coco). As a fashion journalist I went to Chanel’s apartment in Paris and it was such an amazing place I felt that there was a story to be told.
She felt great shame being illegitimate and growing up in an orphanage
Did you find out anything that surprised you?
There was so much - her relationship and the depth of her relationship with the Duke of Westminster, her friendship with Winston Churchill, her role during the war, the fact that she may have had a son, her fluency in English, her time in Scotland...
Chanel’s surname was mis-spelt on her birth certificate. Did that make it difficult to uncover much of her early life?
Yes it was difficult to unravel because she felt great shame being illegitimate and growing up in an orphanage (after her mother died her father abandoned her and her two sisters and she was brought up by nuns at Aubazine Abbey).
There was a lot of speculation over Coco Chanel having a Nazi lover?
The man she had an affair with half English. He was an officer at the German office in Paris before the war. The affair was very complicated.
Did your view of Coco change during the writing of the book?
By the end I felt that she was really heroic, that she had a capacity to go on working when most people would give up, that in the face of heartbreak and adversity, and intense criticism she kept going. I think when I started all I knew really was the surface image of Coco Chanel.
She had many lovers do you think she regretted not getting married?
She certainly said so at the end of her life, which surprised me because she was associated with feminism and liberation. But nevertheless she felt in old age that her life had been lacking something by not marrying.
Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, HarperCollins, £25
For more information on Justine Picardie view justine-picardie.blogspot.com