#199 Coco Chanel The Legend and the Life

Summary Notes


In her biography "Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life," Justine Picardie reveals the complex tapestry of Coco Chanel's life, interwoven with fabrications to obscure her humble origins. Chanel, renowned for revolutionizing women's fashion with her simple, elegant designs, including the iconic little black dress and Chanel No. 5 perfume, built an empire that made her one of the richest women of her time. Despite her success, Chanel's past was marred by attempts to exploit wartime anti-Semitic laws to gain control of her perfume business, a move that would later damage her reputation. Yet, Chanel's relentless drive stemmed from a desire for independence, fueled by a difficult childhood and a determination to never rely on anyone else. Her story is one of triumph over adversity, the power of reinvention, and the pursuit of freedom, both personal and sartorial.

Summary Notes

Coco Chanel's Perception of Legends and Self-Mythologizing

  • Coco Chanel believed that legends embody their own myths.
  • She crafted her own legend by recounting various versions of her story.
  • Chanel's view of family was negative, equating it to a predestined terror.
  • She reshaped her history, much like altering the sleeves of a jacket, to control her narrative.
  • Chanel acknowledged the importance of childhood memories but chose to obscure her past.

"Those on whom legends are built are their legends, declared Coco Chanel."

This quote illustrates Chanel's belief in the power of individuals to shape their own legacies.

"I don't like the family, she told Delay. You're born in it, not of it. I don't know anything more terrifying than the family."

Chanel expresses her disdain for the familial bonds that she felt were imposed rather than chosen.

"Childhood. You speak of it when you're very tired, because it's a time when you had hopes, expectations."

Chanel reflects on childhood as a period of hope and potential, suggesting it holds emotional significance despite her attempts to distance herself from her past.

Coco Chanel's Success and Business Acumen

  • Chanel is recognized as one of the most successful entrepreneurs and creators of a renowned global brand.
  • The need for a second biography stemmed from new information that emerged after her death.
  • Chanel's incredible business deal in the 1940s granted her 2% of Chanel No. 5 sales and covered all her living expenses.
  • This deal made her one of the richest women in the world at the time.

"In addition to her being one of the most successful entrepreneurs ever live, and maybe creating one of the best, or not, maybe definitely creating one of the best well known brands that has ever existed in human history."

This quote highlights Chanel's extraordinary success as an entrepreneur and the lasting impact of her brand.

"For the numbers I'm about to tell you, she gets 2% of all the sales of Chanel number five and all the other perfumes that estimated to pay her $25 million a year in the 1940s."

The quote details the lucrative deal Chanel secured, reflecting her business acumen and the financial success of her perfume line.

The Importance of Storytelling in Chanel's Branding

  • Chanel understood the importance of storytelling in shaping perceptions and creating a brand.
  • She created a 'magic place' for her customers, positioning them as characters within her brand's legend.
  • Chanel saw her brand as a 'consecration of fame,' making it sacred in the eyes of her customers.

"When my customers come to me, they like to cross the threshold of some magic place."

Chanel describes the transformative experience she aimed to provide for her customers, emphasizing the allure of her brand.

"Legend is the consecration of fame."

This quote encapsulates Chanel's philosophy on the intertwining of legend and the sanctification of her brand's fame.

Chanel's Early Life and Formative Experiences

  • Gabrielle Chanel was born in a poorhouse in France, to unmarried parents.
  • She experienced an unhappy childhood, often escaping to graveyards for solitude.
  • Chanel's mother died when she was eleven, and she was raised in an orphanage.
  • She was taught to sew in the orphanage, which became the foundation of her fashion career.
  • Chanel's unhappy childhood fueled her drive for independence and success.

"I wanted to be sure that I was loved, but I lived with people who showed no pity."

Chanel's reflection on her desire for love and the lack of compassion she experienced as a child.

"Chanel spent seven years in the orphanage until she was 18. Her father never returned to see her or her siblings."

The quote conveys the abandonment Chanel felt from her family, deepening her resolve to be self-reliant.

Chanel's Struggle and Resilience

  • Chanel viewed herself as a charity case at the Notre Dame school, which fueled her determination to succeed.
  • She learned hat-making from her aunt Louise, which became the starting point of her fashion empire.
  • Chanel's difficult experiences led her to reinvent her life story, taking control of her narrative.

"She must earn her living like other orphans, and there was always work available for her seamstress."

This quote indicates Chanel's early independence and the beginnings of her career in fashion.

"Instead of retelling her life story, she did something which I think is actually smart. She created a new one, a story that she could control."

The quote reflects Chanel's strategy to overcome her past by crafting a new, self-determined identity.

Early Life and Origin of the Name Coco

  • Coco Chanel, originally named Gabrielle, began her career as a shop assistant and seamstress.
  • She shared an attic bedroom with her friend Adrian and worked for a nearby tailor.
  • Coco Chanel aspired to be a singer and performed two main songs, one of which featured a lost dog named Coco.
  • The audience began calling her Coco after the lost dog from her song, marking the beginning of her transformation.

"Soon the audience greeted her with calls and christened her with the name of the lost dog."

This quote explains how Gabrielle Chanel acquired the nickname "Coco" from her audience, which became a significant part of her identity.

Introduction to High Society

  • Coco Chanel met a wealthy man named Balsan who introduced her to high society.
  • Balsan provided her with a different lifestyle, inviting her to his stables and house.
  • Coco decided to leave her past behind, creating a new life and often lying about her childhood to avoid pity.

"Balsan introduced a little orphan seamstress into a decadent world."

This quote indicates Balsan's role in Coco Chanel's entrance into an affluent and opulent society, which significantly impacted her future.

Importance of Differentiation in Fashion

  • From a young age, Coco Chanel dressed differently from her peers, which later influenced her fashion designs.
  • She described herself as a young tomboy, preferring simple riding breeches and equestrian jackets.
  • Her unique style distinguished her and laid the foundation for her approach to fashion design.

"Coco described herself as free and unencumbered, dressing neither as a great lady nor as a maid."

This quote reflects Coco Chanel's early fashion sense and her desire to stand out through her clothing choices.

Financial Independence and Entrepreneurship

  • Coco Chanel was determined to achieve financial independence, rare for women in the early 1900s.
  • She left Balsan for his friend Boy Capel, who became the love of her life and helped fund her business.
  • Coco started making hats for herself and her friends, leading to the beginning of her business.

"What she did want was to earn her own living."

This quote underscores Coco Chanel's drive for financial independence and her refusal to be a kept woman.

Simplicity in Chanel's Designs

  • Chanel's first products were simple hats that she modified herself, which became popular among actresses and influencers.
  • Her approach was to simplify fashion, removing unnecessary embellishments.
  • Chanel's designs gained attention for their uniqueness and simplicity, leading to the opening of her first store.

"Nothing makes a woman look older than obvious expensiveness or innateness and complications."

This quote encapsulates Chanel's philosophy on fashion, emphasizing simplicity and elegance over complexity and ostentation.

Growth and Expansion of Chanel's Business

  • Chanel's business success allowed her to gain complete independence from financial support.
  • Her clothing designs were comfortable, simple, and liberated women from the constraints of corsets.
  • Chanel's business thrived even during wartime, adapting to material shortages by being resourceful.

"I am not here to have fun or to spend money like water. I'm here to make a fortune."

This quote reveals Chanel's ambition and determination to succeed in her business, highlighting her focus on financial success and independence.

Chanel's Impact on Fashion

  • Chanel's competitors, predominantly men, did not initially perceive her as a threat.
  • Her understanding of what women wanted in fashion gave her an advantage.
  • Chanel's designs reflected the changing times, moving away from the luxury of the 19th century towards a more modern and practical style.

"The boys don't understand. My edge is that I'm a woman. I know what women want."

This quote shows Chanel's confidence in her insight into women's fashion needs and her belief that her gender gave her an edge over her male competitors.

Chanel's Distaste for Pre-Chanel Fashion

  • Coco Chanel expressed a strong aversion to the baroque fashion style prevalent before her rise.
  • She criticized the excessive ornamentation that stifled the body's natural architecture.
  • Chanel aimed to revolutionize fashion by introducing simplicity and elegance.

"In her words, the last reflections of a baroque style in which the ornate had killed off the figure, in which over embellishment had stifled the body's architecture."

This quote underscores Chanel's critique of the baroque style's complexity and her intent to create a new fashion paradigm focusing on the body's natural form.

The Introduction of the Little Black Dress

  • Chanel transformed the color black from one of mourning to a symbol of chic elegance.
  • The little black dress was recognized as a future staple by American Vogue in 1926.
  • Vogue compared the dress to the Model T, emphasizing its universal appeal and simplicity.

"I imposed black. It's still going strong today for black wipes out everything else around."

Chanel's quote highlights her influential decision to popularize black in fashion, which continues to be a staple in the industry.

Chanel's Work Ethic and Self-Perception

  • Chanel viewed herself as an artisan, valuing hands-on work and precision.
  • She was dedicated to her craft and had a disdain for laziness.
  • Chanel's approach to work was compared to that of George Lucas, who also saw himself as a craftsman rather than an artist.

"I'm not an artist. I'm an artisan. I work with my hands, and I have precision and commitment to my craft."

Chanel's self-description emphasizes her hands-on approach and meticulous dedication to the craft of fashion design.

The Creation and Success of Chanel No. 5

  • Chanel No. 5 became a foundational element of her brand, bringing her global recognition and wealth.
  • The perfume's name was chosen by Chanel, coinciding with the date of her collection's presentation.
  • Chanel emphasized individuality and independence in choosing one's perfume.

"Those colors made me feel ill. Coco made a vow to herself, those colors are impossible. These women, I'm bloody well going to dress them in black."

Chanel's aversion to bright colors used by other designers led to her commitment to dressing women in black, reinforcing the idea of simplicity and independence in her design philosophy.

Chanel's Business Acumen and Relationships

  • Chanel entered into a business arrangement with the Wertheimer family, who still own Chanel today.
  • Despite owning only 10% of the perfume business, Chanel's brand became immensely profitable.
  • Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer had a complex relationship, marked by legal battles and mutual respect.

"Coco owned 10% of the company... the Wertheimers... wind up owning 90%."

This detail illustrates Chanel's initial business agreement with the Wertheimers, highlighting her smaller share in the highly profitable venture.

Chanel's Design Philosophy and Influence

  • Chanel was known for simplifying designs and repurposing old materials into new, fashionable items.
  • She drew inspiration from various sources, including Russian military uniforms.
  • Chanel's ability to remix old ideas into something new was a hallmark of her design approach.

"She reinterpreted the traditional embroidered blouse. She reinterpreted a military style coat, and she reinterpreted a sailor's jacket."

The quote illustrates Chanel's process of taking existing designs and transforming them into something uniquely her own, a testament to her innovative spirit.

Chanel's Alleged Connection to Winston Churchill and Controversy

  • Chanel's relationship with Churchill and other high-profile figures has led to speculation about her activities during World War II.
  • She was described by Churchill as capable of ruling an empire, indicating her formidable nature and influence.

"Coco is here. She's really great and strong, being fit to rule a man or an empire."

Churchill's description of Chanel reflects her strong personality and the respect she commanded from influential individuals of her time.

Coco Chanel's Work Ethic and Attitude Toward Laziness

  • Coco Chanel was highly intelligent and dedicated to her work, instilling a sense of inferiority in others during discussions.
  • She expressed disdain for laziness and only employed individuals who were dedicated to their work.
  • Chanel believed that treating work as a game and not taking it seriously was immoral.

"It is immoral to play at earning one's living."

This quote epitomizes Chanel's philosophy that work should be approached with seriousness and dedication, not casually or without effort.

Rumors of Coco Chanel as a German Spy

  • Chanel was rumored to have been a German spy during World War II.
  • Her relationship with a younger German man during the war fueled speculation about her loyalties.
  • Chanel engaged with German officials who opposed Hitler and sought to end the war, indicating her actions may have been misunderstood.

"Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has the chance of a lover."

Chanel's witty response to criticism about her association with a German during the war suggests she prioritized personal relationships over political scrutiny.

Chanel's Relationship with Winston Churchill

  • Chanel had a pre-war friendship with Winston Churchill through shared experiences and acquaintances.
  • She attempted to broker peace during the war, leveraging her connections, including Churchill and the Duke of Westminster.

"I am sure that pursuance of this line would lead you into measureless odium and vexation."

Churchill's warning to the Duke of Westminster about the dangers of seeking peace with Germany reflects the complex political landscape Chanel was involved in.

  • Chanel's attempt to regain control of Chanel No. 5 during the Nazi occupation led to a tarnished reputation.
  • The perfume company was owned by Jewish brothers Pierre and Paul, who managed to retain control despite the war and Chanel's efforts.
  • Chanel's legal maneuvers were seen as exploiting anti-Jewish laws and ultimately failed.

"It is a measure of her adversary's swift and adept tactics that they managed to outwit both Chanel and the Nazis."

This quote highlights the strategic brilliance of the Jewish brothers in maintaining control of their business despite Chanel's and the Nazis' attempts to seize it.

Coco Chanel's Business Strategies and Comeback

  • Chanel sought to launch her own perfume line to compete with the brothers' Chanel No. 5.
  • Her comeback at age 70 with a new collection was initially criticized but later found success, particularly in the American market.
  • Chanel's simple and practical designs were in contrast to the more elaborate fashion of the time.

"I am only a little dressmaker trying to make women young and pretty."

Chanel's self-description underscores her focus on simplicity and practicality in fashion, setting her apart from other designers.

Chanel's Philosophy on Life and Freedom

  • Chanel valued freedom, both in her personal life and in her designs, which aimed to liberate women from restrictive clothing.
  • She had a complex relationship with her past, which she neither fully embraced nor completely discarded.

"Forgetting is part of freedom."

This quote captures Chanel's belief that the ability to move beyond one's past and the comfort of one's clothing are essential aspects of freedom.

Podcast Promotion and Membership Options

  • The podcast offers links for purchasing the book discussed and options for lifetime access to the podcast content.
  • The host encourages listeners to support the podcast through these means, offering flexibility in membership choices.

"That is 199 books down, 1000 to go, and I'll talk to you again soon. Bye."

The closing remark signifies the ongoing commitment to exploring and discussing a vast number of books, with a milestone of books already covered and many more to come.

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