- - Friday, December 30, 2011


By Amy de la Haye
Abrams, $30, 128 pages, illustrated

There has been a plethora of books about Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, most of them proving the obvious: that she was a horrible human being, a vicious anti-Semite, certainly a Nazi collaborator, perhaps even an active spy for them, a ruthless cutthroat in her business affairs. Mixed in with all these weightier matters are loads of good old-fashioned gossip. Was she really a lesbian, despite all those trophy lovers including Britain’s Duke of Westminster and the Romanov Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Rasputin’s killer? There seems to be no end to the fascination with all the sordid details of her life.

But in the end, as Shakespeare put it, the play’s the thing. And the reason that Chanel was the only person from the couture world included in Time magazine’s list of the most significant people of the 20th century is not any of the things mentioned above. No, it is because, no matter how rebarbative she was as a person and how morally flawed, she was a transformative figure in the way women dressed themselves.

We are not just talking about clothes here: There were perfumes before Chanel No. 5, but no brand had ever been so linked with fashion nor a commercial product invested with such cachet and become, yes, so fashionable. It is salutary that we have this book by British fashion historian Amy de la Haye, whose title “Chanel: Couture and Industry” tells us right away what her book will hold: What is really important about Chanel, why we should actually bother about her, not just wallowing in the pathology of her awfulness.

That Chanel’s contribution to fashion was huge is undeniable. More than anyone else, she showed that simplicity was a real component of true elegance, with so many of her designs rebuking the over-the-top creations that bedeviled fashion in her time and continues to in our own. For example, loose, flowing trousers for women that left no doubt they were different from men’s and somehow enhanced, rather than diminished, that ineffable quality - femininity. The use of form-fitting jersey fabric to show off the beauty of the female body. The derided but much-copied “little black dress” that suited if not all, certainly many, occasions. And these are just the highlights.

Ms. de la Haye quotes Vogue as saying “Chanel is the fascinating paradox - the couturiere who takes no account of fashion.” Indeed, she had no time or interest in doing so; She knew she had that Midas touch creating the fashionable. There is such conviction in her designs; in fact, it is the true secret to their timelessness. - that and their simplicity, that basic quality that makes them stand the test of time. So many things that are the height of fashion manage to hold sway in their hour on the stage but look ridiculous to posterity. The many beautifully chosen, revealing illustrations in this book demonstrate the eternal elegance that was Chanel’s hallmark.

Of course, Chanel was as much a businesswoman as she was a creative artist. No other person can provide so strong a refutation of the notion that genius and enterprise are mutually exclusive. As Ms. de la Haye writes with an assurance and an authority displayed throughout her excellent book:

“For almost a century, the name Chanel has been synonymous with feminine elegance, modernity and fashion innovation. The fashion aesthetic and philosophy of GabrielleCocoChanel have spoken to stylish women worldwide - perhaps more so than any other designer before or since.

“This book examines the couturiere’s creative output over the course of a career that spanned some 60 years, documenting the creation and meteoric rise of Chanel’s international fashion empire and the products that bear her exclusive label: haute couture and ready-to-wear clothing, accessories, jewelry and perfume. Her designs for avant-garde dance and theatre, and for Hollywood films, are also considered. As her biography has already been documented extensively … it is referenced here only to provide context, especially when it elucidates her aesthetic and working practices.”

Which is as it should be. This is one book about Chanel that keeps its focus just right.

• Martin Rubin regularly reviews books for the Wall Street Journal.



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