CHANEL AND HER WORLD
By Edmonde Charles-Roux
Vendome Press. 2005. $50.
Typically there are two kinds of fashion books. Glossy coffee-table books celebrate image and ego. But by the time the last page is turned, one has the empty feeling of having viewed a particularly extravagant advertising campaign that offered little insight into how fashion works. Buying the designer's fragrance would have been a more gratifying experience.
The other particularly popular type of fashion book is the self-help guide. It promises to help you dress better, choose your makeup with greater skill, style your hair in a more flattering manner -- all so you can become a happier, more confident, more fully realized person. Psychoanalysis is probably the more reliable route to such self-awareness, but the books are modestly amusing, and to paraphrase the Rev. Jesse Jackson: They keep hope alive.
The recently reissued "Chanel and Her World" (Vendome Press, 2005, $50) by Edmonde Charles-Roux is a uniquely satisfying accomplishment. Charles-Roux was a friend of designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel and editor in chief of French Vogue for 12 years. In this biography, the words and the photographs are equally compelling. The book is elegant and sleek -- particularly in its new version, with the addition of color photographs and illustrations -- but it also speaks with breezy authority about the manner in which the designer constructed her own mythology.
It begins with Chanel's birth into a poor family and moves on through her days as a cabaret singer to her emergence as an iconic designer. There is plenty of titillation in the tales about her numerous lovers, but because the book was first published in 1979, it refreshingly lacks the current fixation with tabloid voyeurism.
The book is not a close examination of her business practices, and it leaves her complicated connections to the Third Reich during World War II mostly unexplored. But it is an inviting look at Chanel and proof that a fashion biography -- like the woman it celebrates -- can be both glamorous and smart.
-- Robin Givhan,