The zeitgeist of late has fairly reeked of Chanel, from feature-length films (Coco Before Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky) to a biographic overspill of varying rigour, including journalist Justine Picardie's unabashedly sympathetic Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life and Hal Vaughan's rather raggedly retold Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel, Nazi Agent.
Given the glut, the publication of Lisa Chaney's Chanel: An Intimate Life risks a disinterested reception by a Chanel-ed out public. That would be a shame, as Chaney is adept at elucidating Coco Chanel's paradoxical character. Chanel spent her adolescence in an orphanage, and died at 88, having revolutionised the way women dressed and profited hugely (although not hugely enough for her) from the iconic allure of Chanel No. 5. She accused her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer, of cheating her out of a greater percentage of the profits, and remained embroiled in a lifelong tug-of-war with him, as adversary and friend. Her aesthetic epitomised austerity, yet she was drawn to the exotic; she craved autonomy yet succumbed to all-consuming affairs; lovers gave her fabulous jewels, and she wore them mixed with her signature costume jewellery because "too much money killed luxury".
Although Chanel's "manner of invention" was artistic in spirit, Chaney does not maintain that she was an artist. Instead, she explores Chanel's connections, often intimate, with some of the giants of Modernism, to cast her as a formative shaper of 20th-century culture. Chanel's impact was not so much in contributing to Modernism as an artistic genre, as in anticipating fashion as a defining signifier of "modernity". Chanel grasped that the New Woman required - and still requires (vertiginous stilettos notwithstanding) - stylish clothes that grace rather than constrict the female form. Designed with her own gamine body in mind, the simplicity of Chanel's meticulously cut jersey suits, her sling-back pumps and the indefatigable "little black dress" allowed freedom of movement allied with chic. "A busy woman", she decreed, "needs to feel comfortable in her clothes." Her look embodied modernity, just as her tempestuous affairs with men and with women seemed to forge a new paradigm, defying both conventional sexual codes and the marginality of the demi-monde. From a young woman kept in leisure by the worldly Etienne Balsan and, in turn, the "captive mistress" of his polo-playing friend, her beloved Arthur Capel, she made quite a journey.
While wealthy lovers helped catapult her out of impoverishment, Chanel's subsequent focus on career jumps the gun on her era. She loved prodigiously, often notoriously, as evidenced by her affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, the Nazi spy who charmed his way into Parisian circles. Yet work remained privileged as a gateway to independence. Neither weekends at the Scottish estate of the Duke of Westminster, with whom she had an affair from 1924 to 1930, nor late-night partying at Le Boeuf sur le Toit with pianist and salonnière Misia Sert kept her from her work on the rue Cambon, scissors dangling from her neck. Beginning with the hats she created at Balsan's Parisian apartment, she designed tirelessly until she closed her shop during the war, for which she was reviled. She lived afterwards in Switzerland, lying low in the aftermath of being interrogated as a collaborator. Speculation remains as to the reasons for her prompt release - Chaney suggests the intervention of Chanel's friend, Winston Churchill.
Her vociferously anti-Semitic leanings, like those of the Duke of Westminster and many in the circles she frequented, were widely known and did little to allay - and still fuel - the spectre of the collaboration charges. The lure of work prevailed, however, and in 1954, aged 71, Chanel crawled back to her milieu. The sleek understatement of her comeback collection initially flopped. It seemed passe in Paris but was embraced in America, and her brand eventually regained its status as the epitome of streamlined elan. Chanel died with a new collection fast approaching.
Her anti-Semitism was no less abhorrent for being widely shared, and some may find Chaney's assessment of her too indulgent. She argues that, while Chanel's association with von Dincklage and other unsavoury sorts was hardly her shining moment, her primary motivation during the Occupation was, like Colette's, a determination to survive. True, perhaps, and I think Chaney means to explicate, rather than to excuse, Chanel's wartime conduct. I am, in any case, pretty much persuaded of the unlikelihood of Chanel spying for the Germans.
Chaney's is a nuanced account of a contradictory, complex, quite extraordinary life, and I hope it attracts the readership it merits.
Chanel: An Intimate Life
By Lisa Chaney
Fig Tree/Penguin, 512pp, £25.00
Published 6 October 2011