16 Sep 2010

A Chanel afternoon at Claridges

Style Cramp was thrilled to be invited on Monday to an intimate tea and chat with Chanel biographer and former Vogue features editor Justine Picardie.

Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life is published today.

In her chic (dressed in Chanel, of course) and completely charming way, Justine unravelled a truly fascinating story of her journey to discover the 'real Coco', over Earl Grey and macaroons in pastel shades.

From private collections, Justine has brought to light some wonderfully intimate photographs from Chanel's youth, including one of her fishing with the Duke of Westminster, in which she looks effortlessly feminine in his tweed trousers. These personal photos uncover Chanel's inspirations, of course in the tweed, but also in images from Auberzine, the French convent where she was raised. Look closely at the pictures of the austere black and white stained glass windows and you'll almost see the famous Cs of Chanel's logo. The language and iconography of Chanel's work emerge in the pictures of her youth.

Ghosts and perfume

Justine encountered her own ghosts in her retreat at Auberzine, and that of 'the Mademoiselle'. Justine felt Chanel's presence in her apartment, where you can still smell the perfume of No.5 that Chanel enveloped herself in, and in the Ritz where she lived and died.*

It was inspiring to hear Justine's journey as a writer and lover of Chanel, from writing at her ink-stained leather desk at her apartment, to spending time with Gabriel, the great niece (or possible granddaughter), who let her try on Auntie Coco's own silk-lined jackets, which still hold her signature scent.

Hiding in her own reflection

Chanel hid in mirrors. Her apartment at 31 Rue Cambon is heavily mirrored, but in a way, her reflection hid her real identity. She would hide at the top of the staircase at her shows, watching from the sidelines, seen by no-one but herself.

It is fitting to say that Justine has held a mirror up to Chanel to explore her identity in a way that perhaps only an English writer could. Exercising her Cambridge alumnus status to open the Churchill archives, Justine expands on Chanel's close relationship with Winston Churchill. As a British biographer, she possibly had more scope to delve into what is considered by the French as a stain on Chanel's career; her World War dealings and her affair with a German officer.

A vulnerable icon

So what stood out for Justine in her research, about Chanel as a person?

"I think the fragility and the vulnerability. Words that are often used to describe her are 'bitch', 'Nazi'. As well as 'genius' of course. But she had a great fragility to her.

"She also told so many lies. She covered up everything: her birth certificate, her age. She covered up the shame and humiliation of her background."

Style Cramp can't wait to delve in and explore this book. Having seen the newly published photos in the book and Karl Lagerfeld's exclusive drawings, it's safe to say that this is going to be a definitive exposé on Chanel as an icon, and as a woman who lived and loved.

* Justine believes Chanel surrounded herself with her perfume, having a member of Chanel spritz it through the doorway as she came in every morning, to deal with her own morbid horror of bad smells which probably emanated from spending possibly days with her mother's dead body as a small girl.

Justine Picardie will talk about the book and answer questions at Kensington High Street Waterstones on 23 September, 7pm.


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