Review: Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life
Today the brand evokes images of pastel tweeds on the Upper East Side and thousand-dollar handbags.
Yet the provenance of one of the world's most expensive design houses is the shrewd business sense of a woman who grew up without luxury, according to a new biography.
Coco Chanel's story is a tangled one, and the fashion journalist Justine Picardie tries to separate the truth from the lies in Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life.
The problem is that Chanel, who died in 1971, constantly edited her life story, recounting conflicting versions of her childhood in what might be considered an early model of brand management. The woman who insisted her employees call her Mademoiselle once ripped off the page of her passport that revealed the year she was born - 1883.
Picardie, a former features director at Vogue, relies on newspaper accounts, French secret intelligence records and even the letters of Sir Winston Churchill, a former UK prime minister who was a fishing and hunting partner of Chanel.
Interviews with Chanel's confidantes reveal a woman with an instinct for a deal.
The designer managed to recruit two fallen Russian aristocrats to work for her, knowing that their social allure was more valuable than their skills in embroidery and jewellery design.
But ultimately she failed to retain her empire. In the 1950s she sold her rights to the label to an old business partner who would finance costs.
Picardie chooses to defend the Chanel legacy, shrugging off claims that the designer collaborated with Germany during the occupation of France during the Second World War or tried to take advantage of discriminatory laws to divest her long-time Jewish business partners.
The book is full of photographs of a gamine Chanel and sketches by Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director, that depict fictional conversations between him and the label's founder.
True to fashion, imagining the woman trumps pinning down the truth.
The Quote: Fashion should die and die quickly, in order that commerce may survive. Coco Chanel