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Iconic Designer Coco Chanel Still Inspires

Archive image of pioneering French fashion designer Coco Chanel (left) with actress Romy Schneider in Paris, France, in 1960.

New book explores French couturier's lasting influence

Coco Chanel was one of the world's all-time great couturiers. She died in 1971 at the age of 87. Her rags-to-riches tale inspired films, plays and television series. Book authors have also found her story worth researching.

"Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life" is the newest book to explore the Chanel mystique.

“She was born illegitimate," author and fashion writer Justine Picardie says. "Her father was never really around. He wasn’t very responsible.”

Despite his absence, Chanel's father had a profound influence on her.

“Her father was an itinerant market trader always on the move," Picardie says. "He sold buttons and ribbons, some of the elements which you then see in Chanel’s designs.”

Chanel's mother died when she was 11 and her father put her in an orphanage, which is where Chanel learned to sew.

"Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life," by Justine Picardie, explores the iconic designer's lasting appeal.
"Coco Chanel: The Legend and The Life," by Justine Picardie, explores the iconic designer's lasting appeal.

“She also discovered the elements of what was to make her a great designer, that mix of darkness and light, white and black." she explains. "The pearls, which is so much a part of Chanel's style, which seem very much reminiscent of the rosary beads the nun wore, the chains around the nun’s waist. There are still tiny chains sewn in the bottom of every Chanel jacket."

After leaving the orphanage, Chanel worked as a cabaret singer. With money from a lover, she started a hat making business in Paris. According to Picardie, clients loved the clothes Chanel wore and wanted the same things.

“At that time women were still wearing corsets," she says. "They were wearing dresses they couldn’t breathe in, let alone walk in, run in, work in. Chanel stripped away corsets, also sort of unnecessary adornments- that huge feathery flower trimmed hats and the very, very bright, almost clashing colors.”

It was Chanel who introduced one of the 20th century’s most iconic fashion concepts: the little black dress.

Drawing on interviews with surviving acquaintances, relatives and employees, as well as Karl Lagerfeld, current creative director of Chanel, Picardie believes she was able to capture the real person behind the Chanel legend.

Coco Chanel designed her own logo.
Coco Chanel designed her own logo.

"She was a mass of contradictions, at times was very unhappy and very lonely," she says. "There were other periods of great joy and a sense of huge achievement in her life. But I think that the abandonment that started with her father was to repeat itself. And, at the end of her life, although she had a couple of very close friends, she neverthless died feeling very alone."

Picardie makes light of Chanel's World War II collaboration with the German occupiers of Paris.

“She became involved with a German during the occupation of Paris," Picardie says. "He was a double agent working for the British as well as the Germans.”

But according to Suzy Menkes, fashion editor of the International Herald Tribune, none of this is new information.

“There were persons who were wonderful and helped. There were others who collaborated and it’s certain that Coco Chanel herself was a collaborator," she says. "But you know the company itself has been, for the last 40 years, run by a Jewish family. I don’t think people take that against the company.”

But it was held against Chanel when she returned to Paris in 1954 - from self imposed exile - says Picardie.

“The French fashion press gave her terrible reviews, probably to punish her," Picardie says. "It was a very brilliant collection; these tweed jackets, the jersey jackets and soft suits."

In the 1950s and 60s, Chanel was at the top of her game.

“She started dressing everybody from Brigitte Bardot, Jane Fonda, Elizabeth Taylor and Marilyn Monroe," she says. "Chanel also dressed Jackie Kennedy."

Menkes adds, "Chanel’s secret is that clarity, that modernity, it’s just the signage of the word ‘C’, and somehow to me it looks very forward thinking, very modern, very dynamic. Certainly the brand was very well managed since she herself passed away. Karl Lagerfeld has certainly rejuvenated Chanel and continues to do so."

Menkes says that’s why Chanel is still an iconic brand. The designer lives on as inspiration itself.