It’s often amazing how much meaning can be put into one name. By now and for most people, Chanel is a high-end international fashion brand.
But at the beginning, Chanel was a person: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, born in France in 1883. Ultimately, her surname would become synonymous with women’s fashion.
How that happened—among a lot of other things—is the subject of C.W. Gortner’s novel “Mademoiselle Chanel.” Gortner is a writer of historical fiction, and what he has done here is to put together a fictionalized account of Chanel’s life and times.
At the book’s start, Chanel takes stock of her life: “And as I behold my uncertain future, I will reflect on my past and do my best to tell the truth, though myth and rumor clothe me as much as my signature crepe de chine or tweed. I will try to remember that for all my triumphs and mistakes, I am still only a woman.”
This is not your typical book about fashion. What Gortner has been good at is to mix fact and fiction, and here it is an almost seamless connection.
“Mademoiselle Chanel” is written from Chanel’s perspective, with Gortner giving Chanel a distinctively breezy tone. In contrast to her later surroundings, Chanel grew up in abject poverty and at one point was raised by nuns. But her talent for fashion design was too good to be held back, and from her workshop in rue Cambon she went on to change the very landscape of women’s fashion.
Along the way, Chanel displayed a blatant disregard for other people’s rules and expectations, and this is something Gortner focuses on as a surfeit of drama enters Chanel’s life, often of her own doing, from her many lovers to her designs and her business.
Gortner traces Chanel’s rise until World War II, when things get really interesting. Here we have “Mademoiselle Chanel” dealing with the controversial rumors that Chanel worked for the Germans as a spy, something that has never been definitively proven. But Gortner goes with this and the result is a passionate, ruthless account of all the things Chanel had done for herself.
It is interesting that a book about a fashion icon like Chanel has no illustrations or photographs inside whatsoever.
Though you will often forget it, “Mademoiselle Chanel” is a novel—a piece of fiction that’s inspired by one tempestuous real life. Gortner fleshes out what is possible and weaves it with what is proven true. He seeks to build a story about a woman known for her quick and sometimes misguided opinions as well as her unusual path in life.
No matter how bizarre her choices were, it’s all clearly part of the Chanel way: Some of her choices are not for the fainthearted.
“Mademoiselle Chanel” skips a decade from 1944 to 1954, when the book ends. It is rare for a book that involves fashion to have no visuals, but the story Gortner is telling is about all the different aspects of Chanel’s life (She would later die in 1971 at age 87).
If you are interested in perhaps the most unusual among the many unusual lives of fashion icons, then C.W. Gortner’s “Mademoiselle Chanel” is the perfect fictional fit.
“May my legend gain new ground,” the book’s Coco Chanel says. “I wish it a long and happy life.”
Available at National Book Store