By Rhonda K. Garelick
Random House. 576 pp. $35
Countless books and films have told all or some fraction of how Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel came to dominate and transform the fashion industry. Followers of fashion have been regaled with tales of her love affairs and how pillow talk helped to finance her design empire. Fans of bootstrap success stories have heard admiring snippets of how an orphaned young girl managed to combine her modest sewing skills with an eye for style to rise from peasant to cultural royalty. And over the years, there has been well-publicized gossip about her anti-Semitic beliefs and her intimacy with the Nazi Party during World War II.
In short, most people — even those with a cursory interest in fashion — probably believe that they know a thing or two about Chanel. But all the assessments of her life so far have been either close examinations of particular accomplishments or excessively admiring broad strokes. In “Mademoiselle,” Rhonda K. Garelick looks at the entire woman: from her elegantly confident fashion that transformed an industry to the personal insecurities that turned her politics brutish, her charisma brittle and her need for control suffocating. Garelick paints a detailed, wry and nuanced portrait of a complicated woman that leaves the reader in a state of utterly satisfying confusion — blissfully mesmerized and confounded by the reality of the human spirit.
“Mademoiselle” places the designer within the context of her times, when a woman had few options if she did not marry well, when world war brought out the best and worst in people, and when fashion could define an entire culture. Depicting a milieu of wealthy men and glamorous courtesans, as well as the aristocratic wives who accepted their husbands’ philandering as part of the social contract, Garelick is deliciously adept at giving her reader a sense of the society that at first ostracized Chanel and later sought to emulate her.
Sex plays an important role in Chanel’s early life — and in the emotional punch of Garelick’s biography, as well. Chanel’s various lovers provided her with both financial and social capital to launch a small millinery business. They provided the real estate where she could set up her dress shop. Arthur “Boy” Capel — arguably the love of her life — Etienne Balsan and Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov were her first investors and, more important, the first people to believe in her.
Some critics have sneered at those relationships, disillusioned by and dismissive of a woman who would rely so heavily on men, essentially using them for her own advancement. But Garelick helps her readers understand what life was like for Chanel — that there were few ways for a woman in her position, in her time, to succeed. Chanel came from poverty and had no social clout. There was no such thing as a small-business loan. She had nothing of value but her person. And she used her charm, her ambition and, yes, her body to propel herself forward. The author does not suggest that it is unreasonable to find Chanel in the wrong, but she makes sure that readers have all the facts before they dare to judge.
Garelick also gives fashion its due. She paints vivid images of the clothes and makes clear how Chanel’s aesthetic directly reflected her personal style — a style crafted to accentuate her thin physique — and how her designs mirrored the changing role of women in society and, to some degree, helped nudge those changes along. But Garelick doesn’t place the Chanel brand on a pedestal. While she explains its broad influence, she also characterizes the designer herself as something of a cruel dictator. Chanel relished telling women how to dress. She enjoyed playing Pygmalion to countless insecure, status-seeking Galateas. And she became rich doing so.
Garelick explores Chanel’s complicated politics in depth and connects her adult anti-Semitism to her childhood — lived mostly in an orphanage run by nuns — and to her constant striving and romanticizing of French aristocracy. In fact, if there was any great prize that eluded her, it was marrying well and becoming a titled member of that class.
The politics of the Third Reich appealed to Chanel. One might wish to believe that she somehow lost herself as she became more enmeshed in the Nazi Party, but the harsh reality is that some essential truth about her was laid bare. She was drawn to the party, in part, because of its authoritarian hierarchy. In addition, she had become so accustomed to looking out for herself, to working a system aligned against her, to reflexively fighting to have connections and influential confidantes, that she simply saw the Nazis as another power circle within which she needed to claim a place.
But with Chanel, politics was not simple. Her relationship with the Wertheimers — the Jewish family that held majority ownership of her wildly successful fragrance Chanel No. 5 — exemplifies her fraught existence. When the deal was consummated, she settled for 10 percent ownership in Parfums Chanel, with the Wertheimers controlling the other 90 percent. During World War II, the Wertheimers fled to the United States and set up an independent subsidiary, Chanel Inc. Its success — and her tiny share of the profits — infuriated Chanel. She attempted to use her Nazi relationships and Aryanization laws prohibiting Jews from owning businesses to wrestle her perfume empire away from the Wertheimers. But they had transferred their business shares to a non-Jewish Frenchman, paying off various Germans along the way to do so. “Put simply,” Garelick writes, “the Wertheimers saved their company from the Nazis by paying off a French Nazi collaborator.” Today the Wertheimer family continues to own Chanel.
Chanel died in 1971 at the age of 87. She was working — designing, controlling and dictating — until the very end. She survived the stigma of having been a Nazi collaborator, and she resurrected her business, which she’d shut down during the war. Her second wave of fame came thanks to American consumers who appreciated her stripped-down style — although she derided those same consumers for their vulgar informality.
Chanel was the epitome of an independent and successful businesswoman. But to the end she clamored for men’s attention. She freely shared her anti-Semitic views, even though her close relationship with the Wertheimers was instrumental in freeing her from having to worry about money. She loved women. But she could also be a cruel friend. She was complicated.
“Mademoiselle” tells the painstakingly researched story of an icon and makes her confoundingly, wretchedly, admirably and unforgettably human.