Even people with little interest in high fashion know the name Chanel-a name synonymous with sophistication and glamour. She's the designer, so legend has it, who single-handedly freed women from corsets and the constrictions of elaborate, ornate clothes; she created the sexy and iconic little black dress, and, of course, the coveted perfume, Chanel No. 5. She was feisty, she was strong-willed: she was a genius who conquered a fashion world dominated by men. The uber-feminist: that was Chanel.
As I researched this book at the Chanel headquarters in Paris and in many fashion archives, and as I talked with women who had known her, I discovered that much of what passed for the truth about Chanel was not true at all. Years before she burst onto the fashion scene, other important designers were selling soft, flowing clothing that allowed women to dispense with corsets; menswear-inspired outfits, so strongly identified with Chanel, already were popular, especially among younger women, even before Chanel opened her first shop; and that little black dress, introduced in 1926, was far from sexy-long-sleeved, with a dropped waist, it looked like a demure choice for attending a theater matinee.
Her astute business sense also was a myth. When she decided to emulate other designers in entering the perfume business, she made a deal with a cosmetics house to market Chanel No. 5-a deal in which she relinquished ninety percent of her profits. Soon, realizing what she had done, she began a lifelong campaign to get her rights back. The cosmetics house engaged special lawyers just to deal with her barrage of lawsuits. Eventually, she won a larger share of profits, and she became a fabulously wealthy woman; perfumes and make-up, she was surprised to discover, are far more profitable than haute couture.
As far as her self-proclaimed independence, it came at great emotional cost. Throughout her life, she longed for love. Without love, without a man, she said, a woman was lost. Despite having had many lovers, she had no lasting companion. She died a lonely, bitter woman.
Without a doubt, though, Chanel reigned from the heights of international fashion. In the 1910s, when she began her career, customers had their pick among about forty designers, and few showed brand loyalty. In Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and in newspaper ads, fashions were illustrated by drawings, rather than photographs; a fashion spread could feature four or five different designers. Chanel's outfits did not stand out particularly-in fact, without knowing what fashions were by Chanel, it's hard to distinguish her creations from those of other designers. Still, fashion writers saw something special about her style, a youthfulness and elegance that were evoked partly by the clothing, and greatly by Chanel herself.
Chanel's marketing skills were nothing less than brilliant. From the first, she was her own best model. Slender and petite, she looked lovely in her own designs-and she wore them to the best places. Soon, from reports in fashion magazines and newspapers, potential customers knew not only what she wore, but where, and, most enticingly, with whom. Among Chanel's famous lovers were the Duke of Westminster, Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia, and Igor Stravinsky. Her social world included bright stars of dance, music, and art: Serge Diaghilev, for one, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dali. She had a fabulous apartment in Paris, permanent rooms at the Ritz Hotel, and a villa in the south of France. Advertisements for Chanel No. 5 featured the designer herself, in a sumptuous beaded gown, surrounded by expensive antiques in her elegant apartment. Chanel's most dazzling creation was her public persona: a glamorous, alluring woman who cavorted with the rich and famous. Chanel was the first celebrity couturière, and women wanted not only to wear her designs and dab on her perfume, but also to live her life.
Chanel's popularity helps us understand tensions in women's changing identity in the 1920s, when she became indelibly famous. Women were eager to throw away their corsets, to be sure, and the moral restrictions that that garment implied; but they turned instead to breast-binding bras, the better to wear Chanel's slinky sheaths; they were eager to embrace the youthful wildness that followed the First World War, but willing to follow strict reducing diets-articles advised 700 calories a day-the better to fit the body image -Chanel's-of an adolescent. They bobbed their hair and danced all night, but in the end, they wanted just what their mothers and grandmothers had wanted: marriage, protection, and love.
Chanel closed her fashion house during the Second World War, and perhaps she would be forgotten today if her career had ended in the 1940s. But in 1954, she made a splashy comeback, incensed at the success of younger designers such as Christian Dior, whose "New Look" put women in wasp-waisted, full-skirted dresses. The fashions we remember best date from this period: the quilted handbag, the two-toned sling-back shoes, and the boxy, collarless jacket. Some fashion writers thought her new styles were dowdy; but Chanel, once again, was designing clothing that looked good on her, and she was seventy-one. "The women will understand me," Chanel retorted to her critics. Most certainly, they did. And they understood not only the understated elegance of her designs, but the ferocious will that inspired her return to business and to success. Chanel once again served as a model-of talent and determination.
Anyone writing a biography of Chanel is challenged to separate truths from the many lies she told about herself as she honed her personal myth. She tried mightily to control her public image, keeping in mind both what she wanted to hide (a childhood of abject poverty, for example, and her father's abandonment) and what she knew her adoring public wanted her to be: captivating, seductive, and powerful. Today, we know she was a complicated, difficult, often ruthless woman, harshly demanding of her employees, cuttingly critical of her competitors and even her clients, and no less exacting of herself. Despite stunning success, her need for adulation was never satisfied; despite her celebration of women's capabilities and strengths, she would have been delighted, I think, to see herself portrayed by the lovely Audrey Tautou, in print ads and film, as an irresistible romantic heroine, forever young, forever alluring.
In 1998, Time magazine ranked Chanel among the one hundred most influential people of the century-along with such luminaries as Pablo Picasso, T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, and Martha Graham. If she had been merely a fashion designer, like her contemporaries Jeanne Lanvin, Jean Patou, Paul Poiret-whose names by then had faded into fashion history-- she never would have made that list. But she wasn't just a couturière. She was Chanel.