There is a lot to learn from Gabrielle Chanel, a woman who came from nothing and managed so radically to redefine how women dress and even smell that her work remains relevant decades later. And through painstaking research the biographer Lisa Chaney, whose work Chanel: An Intimate Life is released in paperback today, has learnt a lot about her.
Chaney tells us all about the fascinating relationship between Chanel and Arthur “Boy” Capel, whose letters to Chanel and the woman he married, Diana Wyndham, she has seen. She has delved into key moments of the business empire, such as the development of Chanel No5 and the thinking behind it. And she has devoted a chapter to Baron von Dincklage, the Nazi spy with whom Chanel passed out most of the war.
It’s well worth a read if you’re at all intrigued by the story of this fascinating woman, who created her own image like one of her latterly famous suits. But the author’s style is irritating – perhaps because she is aware of the number of other books around on the same subject. “Her first biographer, Edmund Charles Roux, appeared to have found all that the passage of time… would permit. Subsequent biographers had accepted this state of affairs,” she explains, but she, Lisa, had made a “raft of discoveries” that she was uniquely able to interpret: “I found treasures once I learned how to filter her own storytelling.”
Of course, any biography relies on some guesswork and Gabrielle Chanel, we learn, was a subject who covered her own tracks extensively. Chaney’s hunch that Chanel No5 was born in part of Chanel’s obsession with cleanliness (she was also obsessed with slimness long before it was fashionable, and would head to health spas to “fight fat”) rings true, in an interesting section on the fragrance developed for her by the perfumier Ernest Beaux.
We learn that Chanel disliked simple flower fragrances that attempted to mimic nature, preferring the synthetic aldehydes that Beaux used, which also had a longer-lasting scent. Beaux had worked for Rallet & Company, which sold fragrances to the Russian court, and took to Gabrielle Chanel a series of fragrances from Rallet No1 to Rallet No24. She selected No5, keeping the name, Chaney believes, out of a certain superstition that 5 was her lucky number, and because she was presenting her dress collection that year on May 5.
The story of Chanel’s relationship with Boy, far longer and more complicated than is suggested in the film Coco Avant Chanel, is very well fleshed out by the discovery of the letters, which Chaney believes show that Arthur Capel did not, as has often been said, marry Diana Wyndham over Gabrielle because of her social standing in England. Chaney illustrates a tangled mess, with Capel trying and failing to leave the singleminded Chanel several times for the simpler, more “feminine” Englishwoman, but eventually returning to her as a married man. The marriage was, according to one friend’s letter, essentially over by the time of his death in a car crash in 1919 – but that Diana Capel was three months pregnant when her husband died suggests that even this wasn’t straightforward.
As Chaney tries to unpack what attracted Gabrielle to the richest man in Britain (“Why would she have associated herself with someone who was utterly obnoxious?” she asks) and of course the Nazi agent 14 years her junior, she edges into uncomfortable territory.
Chanel was given a very rough ride in another of last year’s biographies, Hal Vaughan’s “Sleeping With the Enemy: Chanel’s Secret War” – which suggested that she herself acted as a Nazi spy. No admirer of the designer’s work wants to believe this, but Chaney’s assertion that “I don’t believe she knew” what her lover was up to doesn’t quite fit with her picture of her subject as intelligent and worldly wise. Likewise, it’s a little uncomfortable that she puts Chanel’s decision to return to occupied Paris, entertaining members of the German military and so on, down to “survival”.
Referring to the staircase at the rue Cambon from which Chanel used to watch her fashion shows, Chaney quotes her as saying that “I spent my life on the stairs”. Using her insight, she informs us that this was also an “oblique reference” to the stone staircase of the convent Gabrielle grew up in. The less oblique reading is that the young girl from the poorest of backgrounds inched her way up the social strata to become a multimillionaire and global icon. How did she do it? After so many biographies, we still can’t be absolutely sure – and maybe that is part of the charm.