Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel is the best-known female fashion designer of the twentieth century. Her notoriety was created as much by her full life as by her pioneering fashions. Born in France in 1883 to a poor trader and his wife, Chanel would spend the rest of her life lying about her origins in order not to be considered uncouth. She used her lies and her flamboyant, independent nature to gain entree into the upper echelons of French, and international, society. Once firmly ensconced therein as Etienne Balsan’s mistress, she became restless and vented her boredom by designing hats. When eventually her career took off (not without considerable help from lovers and friends), she proved herself to be an extremely shrewd businesswoman as well as a liberating women’s fashion designer. Her name soon became synonymous with a simple, youthful style.
The house of Chanel, which has remained a strong couture force throughout the twentieth century, was born in the 1920’s. Chanel capitalized on the new flapper style and way of life. In 1923, she introduced her timeless perfume, No. 5. The perfume would become the backbone of her industry and has never stopped selling. All this success was to have a downside, however, as the years before, during, and directly after World War II proved devastating to the house of Chanel and Chanel herself. During this time, the love of her life, Arthur “Boy” Capel, died in a car accident, and sales of her merchandise flagged. Yet by the 1950’s, when she was in her seventies, she was able to stage a comeback that revived and restored the essence of Chanel.
Unfortunately, this biography does not manage to accomplish a similar revivification. While much detail is presented, little of the spirit of Chanel herself is captured on these often plodding pages. Biography Axel Madsen’s narrative becomes a name-dropping laundry list of the rich, famous, and influential and loses its focus--the subject, Chanel. Historical context is not used to its best effect, although it does provide much of the value of the biography, if merely because the historical events tend to out-dramatize the underwritten role of Chanel in relation to them. Yet if a standard record of Chanel’s life is needed (while Madsen’s account is laudatory, it does not over-glamorize her), this would be the book to which to turn.