Coco Chanel, Unlikely Icon of Fashion

Coco Chanel's name is synonymous with high fashion and luxury. Author Lisa Chaney chronicles the icon's life, loves and career in the recent biography Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life. She talks with host Michel Martin as part of Tell Me More's Women's History Month series.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, I have some thoughts about boys in my weekly Can I Just Tell You essay. That's in just a few minutes. But first, we turn to the latest in our series for Women's History Month. As women around the world are rethinking and rewriting their own stories, we've been digging into biographies of notable women, and today we focus on a woman who was truly ahead of her time: Gabrielle Coco Chanel.

Her name is synonymous with modern fashion. Any fashionista worth her little black dress should know about her influence on things like the little black dress, women's clothes inspired by menswear, costume jewelry that is as sought after as the real thing, and so on.

But the story of the woman behind the brand is even more fascinating than the clothes. Born into dire poverty, she began adult life as a mistress to two different powerful and wealthy men. She later used their money and her own fierce drive and talent to make herself one of the most influence fashion figures of all time.

How she managed to do all that is the subject of Lisa Chaney's latest book. She's the author of "Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life." And she's with us now. Lisa Chaney, thank you so much for joining us.

LISA CHANEY: It's a great pleasure to be here.

MARTIN: You know, you mention yourself in the introduction that there are many biographies of Coco Chanel, and her real name is Gabrielle. Coco was actually a nickname. And you were hesitant at first to write another one. So what changed your mind?

CHANEY: Well, I went away and had to think after my agent had suggested it, and I looked at some of the previous biographies, and I started to think and realize that I thought there were gaps in what had been written about her. There were lots of mysteries. And I also discovered that she'd been friends with a great number of the fascinating artists who were in Paris earlier in the 20th century, the founders of modernism, Picasso, and all the people around him, et cetera, et cetera.

And that I found really, really interesting. And then, I also saw a photograph of her when she was very young, which I had never seen before and it was so beautiful. Add all those things together, and I decided to do it.

MARTIN: You know, you write in the book very movingly about just how dire her early circumstances had been. And she lied about it for so much of her life that it was kind of hard to piece it together. What effect do you think that early life had on her, just briefly, the fact that, you know, her father was mostly absent, she was - her mother died - she was sent to live in a convent after her mother died, and how do you think all of that affected her?

CHANEY: I think it had an enormous affect because I think by the time you're 11, 12, which is what she was, you're not a tiny child, and I think that it had made her strong in some ways and that she withstood this. But I think one of the very sad things that you see running as a thread throughout her life is that it had given her kind of an emotional handicap, in that she was very fearful of being left.

And so every time in her life someone left her, through death or an affair, she kind of had a little collapse. But she was very strong, so she overcame her background, as well as carrying it with her.

MARTIN: It's really a remarkable story in its own right that you acquired the letters never before seen outside the family written by Arthur Boy Capel, who was the great love of her life, a terribly influential character. Tell us a little bit about him. I mean, what influence did he have on her?

CHANEY: If he was alive now, he was sufficiently famous that we would all definitely have heard of him. He was absolutely knock-dead gorgeous, but he was also a very interesting businessman-playboy. The influence that he had on her was he was the first person really who showed her that he believed in her, and he was the person who put up money for her first shop and he put up the money for her second shop.

And that was tremendously important, and she knew that he supported her both emotionally and financially. She said Capel was my mother, my father, my brother. Without him I would have been nothing.

MARTIN: You know, I think one of the things that's fascinating, maybe this is because this is the later era and we just don't understand these relationships. On the one hand, he's supporting her as a mistress, but he won't marry her. He later marries somebody of his own class, if you will, Lady Diana Wyndham. So what was up with that?

CHANEY: Well, it's complicated. I mean, usually he's made out to be, you know, rather a cad who had this mistress from the working class background who was fascinating, but when it really came down to it, he wasn't going to marry her. He's going to marry a woman with breeding. And that's a very simplistic way of putting it.

I think he was a man who was torn, and he was quite emancipated in some ways. He really did believe in the emancipation of women and that was why he could be the lover of somebody as extraordinary as Gabrielle. But then I think, you know, we're all inconsistent, and I think he fell in love with Diana Wyndham and he married her. But he couldn't do it.

So really not that long after they were married, he took out with Gabrielle again and she became his mistress again.

MARTIN: And for Gabrielle's part, you make the convincing case that there were really very few avenues of safety for a poor girl at that time when she was born. I mean people forget she was born in the late 19th century...

CHANEY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and lived a very long life. But there were very few avenues for a girl who had no family....

CHANEY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and whose family had no money.

CHANEY: Yeah.

MARTIN: But what I wanted to ask is where do you think her fundamental drive came from? I mean you point out that, you know, one of her beloved cousins, there were members of her family who she couldn't stand because she felt that they had really abandoned her.

CHANEY: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But she had one cousin with whom she was very close and all this cousin wanted was a respectable marriage, you know, and Gabrielle did not want that. How did it, where did it come from, this desire to be something truly original and her own woman?

CHANEY: Well. Yes. I think - don't you - that I mean there are just people. They sometimes come themselves from great families. They sometimes come from apparently nothing, like Gabrielle. But really it's their personality, and she just was, she was a little force of nature. And I think sometimes when people are put in a situation where they have terrible things happen to them it brings out the best in them and it brings out the strength that they have and they become stronger. And I think it's absolutely no question that happened to her.

There was another drive, which was that she said by the time I was 12 I realized that money is freedom. This is while she was incarcerated in this dreadful convent - or she found it dreadful anyway. She was never interested in money for its own sake, but she worked out in those years when she was in the convent that money brought independence and she worked out that she needed her own independence, i.e., financial independence and that was part of the drive.

MARTIN: I'm speaking with author Lisa Chaney, author of "Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life." Coco Chanel is one of the most influential designers of all time. It's the latest in our series of biographies acknowledging Women's History Month.

You know, we haven't talked about the clothes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And we could literally have an entire conversation just about the clothes.

CHANEY: Yes. Hours. Hours. Yes.

MARTIN: But a couple of the, some of the trends that she advanced are popular to this day, like the little black dress. I mean that's business, or menswear-inspired women's clothing and...

CHANEY: Yes.

MARTIN: ...and gobs of costume jewelry pearls, I mean that's made an appearance again, the Chanel jacket, that kind of thing.

CHANEY: Yes.

MARTIN: Just pick one of those trends, if you would, and just tell us where it came from.

CHANEY: I can't. I can't. I can't because I think that altogether they're extraordinary. It's, there were so many we forget. You know, the shoulder bag. She invented the shoulder bag. She invented sling-back shoes. She invented platform shoes. She invented cork shoes. She wasn't the inventor of costume jewelry but, yeah, she made it for the first time fantastically fashionable. I think for me it's all these things together.

I suppose if I had to say one single thing - although it may seem boring - it would probably be the little black dress because it is just incredible isn't it? I am sitting here at the moment, I am wearing a black dress.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CHANEY: I mean we do, virtually all of us do we not, have one, if only one black dress. And it's, I think it's marvelous. And as you'll know, 1926 is when she first introduced it and it was American Vogue who had this marvelously prophetic comment and they said this dress will be like the Model-T Ford.

MARTIN: And now here's another side of Coco Chanel, which you also don't shy away from in the book. I have a short clip from her, for those who want to hear her voice. Interestingly enough, as we said, she lived a very long life. She didn't die until 1971 and very opinionated. Here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: And I'll just play a short clip and then I'll translate over it. Here it is.

COCO CHANEL: (Foreign language spoken)

MARTIN: She is here expressing her disdain for shorter hemlines. She's saying, I fought with dress designers for two years now over short dresses because I find them indecent.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: What's going on with that? And, I mean I'm pointing out a couple of things. One is she has very strong opinions about things.

CHANEY: That's right. But I think actually, I mean yes, she was fantastically opinionated in a way but I think it was because her creed was about a particular kind of chic elegance and there was a kind of vocabulary to it. She happened to hate knees. She thought that they were very inelegant. And it wasn't that she was boring and elegant, I think she right until the end remained avant-garde and unconventional.

It's funny, at the beginning partly why I didn't want to do her was because I thought of a little Chanel suit and at the time I thought they weren't very exciting. I now think that they are absolutely remarkable and when you get to know her you do not think that a Chanel suit is boring.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: A couple of other aspects of her personality though, which you talk about in the book, we talked about strong opinions. She is now believed to have been and has been noted by other biographers to have been a raging anti-Semite. It's known that she lived with a Nazi spy, you know, during the war.

CHANEY: Mm.

MARTIN: And she was also described as having really little regard for the people who worked for her, who made that, who did beautiful work that made her life possible. Like she fired her longtime house manager just summarily. She shut businesses down during the war throwing thousands of people out of work. Talk a little bit about that, if you would, particularly the anti-Semitism.

CHANEY: It's a very difficult one, isn't it? It's very difficult, I think to say anything in her defense with out me sounding like an apologist for her behavior, which, excuse me, which I'm absolutely not. I think she was mixed. Like a lot of people I think it's very, very important to remember that a lot of people at that time - I don't mean people who'd have sent Jews to the gas chambers -but a lot of people had a slight ambivalence. She did have a good number of people who were very good friends who were Jewish. Well, I think if you're deeply anti-Semitic you can't do that and I talk about that with some care. I mean I kind of put up a careful discussion in the middle of the book and during the war about people's attitudes to Jews and how way they behave towards them at the time. I think it's very difficult to give a simple answer.

As for sacking all her people, all her workers at the beginning of the war when - the Second World War when she closed down her salon, I think it was a terrible, terrible thing to do. But she was hard. She was hard. But she wasn't only hard and I try really hard in the book to paint a nuanced picture of a woman who was deeply complex and who could be very hard but wasn't only hard.

MARTIN: What was her end? As we mentioned, she had a very long life, died at the age of 87 and had some very, as you know, she was such an important figure in her own time. And she lived to know that she was truly famous. She was very wealthy. She became - had some setbacks and managed to reverse them. What was her end?

CHANEY: Her end was sad, really. She worked until the day before she died because work had become her raison d'etre. It fulfilled her more than anything else in the last part of her life. And basically she had a heart attack. But she was a force of nature. I don't think many people work until the day they die and they die when they're 87. She was very impressive in many, many ways, and I think she gave we women of the 20th and 21st century, I think she gave us an anonymous amount. It really wasn't just the clothes. The clothes were a reflection of her life. She wore all her own clothes and she really was one of the first modern women. And I try to show this in a way that we modern women can both be fascinated by because it's the past and yet also see how she was a woman who helped us to become partly what we've been able to become today.

MARTIN: Lisa Chaney is the author of "Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life." We caught up with her in York, England.

Lisa Chaney, thank you so much for speaking with us.

CHANEY: It's been a great pleasure.

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