DuJour Navigation

The Secrets of Coco Chanel

In a new novel, author C.W. Gortner reveals the truth behind the fashion designer’s iconic image

Mademoiselle Chanel, published by William Morrow this week, has won glowing reviews (“deliciously satisfying”) for its excitement and drama and the fascinating details of Coco Chanel’s rags to riches triumph. But the novel also goes deeper, thanks to the connection its author, C.W. Gortner, made with his famously enigmatic subject. The author of six previous historical novels tells DuJour what drew him to Coco and what he finally decided about her ambitions, desires and fears.

When did you first become aware of Coco Chanel?

In my childhood. My mother and her friends wore her products and they once took me to a Chanel boutique in Marbella, where I was entranced by the collarless suit, the gold-chain strapped handbags, the little black dress, etc. It was all very expensive and exuded luxury and prestige. It made an impression on me that I haven’t forgotten. I saw women there who seemed to dwell in another place, whose evident delight in the clothes and how it made them feel struck me as more than just shopping, as if the clothing itself bestowed upon them qualities they yearned to realize. I remember asking my mother why, and she replied, “With Chanel, life always feels better.”

Before you published fiction, you worked in fashion. What was the focus of that part of your career, and how did it inform your depiction of Chanel?

I worked in fashion during the mid-1980s, before corporate consolidations at the major houses. At this time, many avant-garde and small design firms were putting out innovative new looks, but it was tough to attract accounts to feature their clothes in magazines and stores. My degree had trained me to work as a buyer in high-end establishments, but I began meeting these designers at industry events and realized that while they had remarkable vision, many lacked the marketing skills to promote it. I hired myself out as a freelance coordinator and stylist, working with a designer from the start of their collection through runway presentation and select industry invitations to their atelier to secure purchases. I helped get the accounts to take notice and carry some of the line; I booked venues for shows and even chose the models, helping the designers coalesce an entire “look.” It wasn’t easy work. It required long hours and constant challenges with production.

This experience informed my portrayal of Coco’s own struggles to be taken seriously in a time when few women ran their own business. Chanel did not become an overnight sensation; she started out designing hats, opening a small Paris shop, followed a few years later by her first boutique, and like everyone who goes into business, she needed capital to invest in her product. Her determination to succeed required more than ambition: she also had a quality that cannot be taught, a sense of what her market needed, even if the market didn’t recognize it at the time. She foresaw the future, which is key in fashion: if you anticipate the trend, you can control it. No designer since Chanel has exerted such a profound influence on how we dress.

Mademoiselle Chanel

Mademoiselle Chanel

How did you research her life?

Chanel wove a myth around herself, tailored to the image she wanted to project. Some would say she lied. The accusation is valid. But to me, it was less lying than a compulsive need to recast herself as a certain person because she carried the trauma of her childhood. She was imaginative and sensitive, but she donned a carapace of worldly disdain to protect herself. Researching her was tough because while there are many biographies about her, including several critical ones, she herself remains elusive.

My research included more than delving into the factual events. I also had to examine her actions within the context of the event itself and relate it to what else was happening to her and those around her. Life does not occur in a vacuum. We react not only to what is in front of us but also what has come before and what we think might lay ahead. Chanel was impulsive, not given to regret or intense self-analysis; discovering this aspect of her helped me immensely to reimagine her.

Did you learn anything that shocked you?

Nothing shocked me, per se. I’d already read the worst of it. But I did discover surprising information, such as her helpless fury over her perfume and her failure in Hollywood, which shed light on her foibles. Like all of us, Chanel was fallible; she could be abrasive and arrogant. She made mistakes. I wanted to explore why she chose to act as she did.

How did the professional and personal intertwine with her?

With difficulty. Chanel reached success in the early 20th century, when women were still expected to adhere to a certain way of life. She did not marry; she never had children. When she was becoming a force in the fashion arena, wealthy women didn’t yet acknowledge those who dressed them. They went to ateliers for fittings, but excluded their designers from their social circles. Designers were looked down upon in some respects, as laborers; there were strict class distinctions. Chanel broke through this barrier after years of striving, becoming one of the first designers to not only be courted by society but also a society figure in her own right. Yet her ambition to succeed on her own terms and reluctance to abide by prevailing mores, some of which we still harbor today – that a woman should want to be a wife and mother – caused her personal upheaval and tragedy. She couldn’t submit to what was expected.

She once said, “I want to be loved. But when it comes between choosing a man or my dresses, I always choose my dresses.” Chanel did indeed want to be loved yet never found a partner who could accept her in her entirety. This push-and-pull between success and compromise isn’t unique to her; but it must have frightened her, and in turn threatened her lovers. She was however a very good friend, loyal and generous; her friendship with Misia Sert, which lasted a lifetime and is at the core of my novel, shows how Coco’s personality and relationships were intense, that she could love deeply and had a capacity for empathy we don’t often associate with her.

How important was luxury to Chanel?

I think it became increasingly important to her as she aged. I believe that as she suffered losses, a luxurious life gave her solace. She could revel in what she had purchased for herself. But Chanel was pragmatic–and not the daughter of a rural vendor and impoverished seamstress for nothing. She had an innate practicality, a near-bucolic frugality. The trappings of opulence were undeniably powerful; she’d risen from humble beginnings. Being an internationally renowned celebrity isn’t something she could have turned away from. But it’s interesting to note that despite her extraordinary fame and wealth, Coco rarely felt at home in any one place save for the Ritz—a hotel whose very nature is one of transience—and her apartment above her shop in Paris, while she slept there on occasion, never had a full bedroom installed. She bought and sold several residences in her life, with her beautiful villa La Pausa in the south of France being the one she kept the longest, but even this she eventually sold. 

She was peripatetic, she had the soul of a wanderer, like the men in her family, as if the very thought of settling down made her restless. I think this indicates she was not so much moved by the luxurious life as she was captivated by it. She needed to feel safe. She’d never felt safe in her childhood and she harbored the insecurity. Money was far more important to her than luxury, because money meant freedom.