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In the past two years alone, she’s been the subject of a Lifetime television special starring Shirley MacLaine and of two motion pictures featuring Audrey Tautou and Anna Mouglalis. Now, Coco Chanel is in the spotlight yet again, this time as the topic of a new biography, “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life,” out today from Harper Collins.
If fashion lovers think they’ve already learned all there is to know about the icon, the book’s author, London-based fashion journalist Justine Picardie, maintains she’s covered new ground. “People could say, ‘How on earth could someone British tell the story of one of the greatest French couturiers?’ But I think I was able to offer my own contribution,” says Picardie, who served as features director at British Vogue until 2002 and now writes a style column for The Telegraph. “Nobody had ever looked at [Chanel] within the context of her relations with the British and the Americans, and the more I looked [in my research] there were a lot of British connections that had never been examined.”
Chief among them: Chanel’s foray into London society during the Forties and Fifties, a period when she palled around with Winston Churchill and enjoyed a love affair with the Duke of Westminster. “Those details are really, really crucial to the story of Chanel,” says the author. Certainly Picardie makes that point clear in the book, dedicating an entire chapter to the designer’s affair with the dashing duke, at that time the richest man in Britain (whose heir, Gerald Grosvenor, continues to be among the country’s richest).
Of course, unearthing such intimate details would be difficult for any biographical subject, but Picardie’s task was particularly tricky with Chanel.
“She covered her tracks endlessly,” says the writer, who began her research for the project more than a decade ago. “I mean, this is a woman who changed the date of her birth.”
While Picardie remains tight-lipped about many of the sources she consulted for the project, she says she relied a great deal on British Secret Service files and used her connections in the fashion industry to gain access to the Chanel archives. “I started out as an investigative journalist for the Sunday Times,” she says. “So it was just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other and piecing together the clues.”
One set of clues to which Picardie paid special attention were those surrounding the designer’s alleged support of the Nazi party, a rumor born out of the designer’s love affair with a German official. “I don’t believe Chanel was a Nazi,” declares the author, noting Chanel’s relationship with the officer is still a fact. “I found the truth is far, far more complicated than that [and] I hope I’ve established a pretty clear narrative about what happened.”
Not that Picardie, who has written three previous books, including “Daphne,” a historical fiction account of “Rebecca” author Daphne du Maurier, believes she’s even come close to offering the final word on the designer.
“You could make a dozen movies about Chanel and still not have covered her entire story,” she says.