Why are we so cuckoo about Coco?

Image of Vanessa Friedman

I am sitting at my desk, looking at a pile of three new books. So far, so normal. But consider the titles of the books: Chanel: an Intimate Life (by Lisa Chaney, 2011); Intimate Chanel (Isabelle Fiemeyer, 2011); Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War (Hal Vaughan, 2011). Plus, as it happens, these three are actually sitting atop two other books I received last year: Coco Chanel, the Legend and the Life (Justine Picardie, 2010) and Dreaming of Chanel (Charlotte Smith, 2010). Notice anything?

Chanel the woman died in 1971. The fashion brand that bears her name has been a resounding success under another designer, Karl Lagerfeld, for 18 years. Yet there were, prior to the above books, already more than 25 books written about Chanel (her life, her style, her jewellery) available on Amazon, not counting a children’s book, Different Like Coco (Elizabeth Matthews, 2007). There are also two feature film DVDs – Coco Avant Chanel and Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky – both released in the past two years.

We all know that publishers and movie studios love a sure thing but this is ridiculous. This is beyond trend. This is well into the range of phenomenon.

There is, it appears, an endless appetite for Chanel (and I am not talking about the quilted bags or the tweed jackets, though those are very covetable) – one that is exponentially greater than for any other fashion designer. Cristóbal Balenciaga doesn’t inspire anywhere near the same amount of verbiage or screen time. Nor does Christian Dior or Madeleine Vionnet or Pierre Cardin – all of whom arguably changed the way women dressed, and the course of fashion, just as much as Chanel.

Does this strike anyone else as a little strange? As a subject, maybe, worth investigating (literally, if you consider how much money is being generated by all of the above)? What does Chanel have that no other fashion figure has?

It’s not just that, with her flying buttress eyebrows, dark bob and elfin figure, she is an easy-to-identify visual character. Dior, the round man in a white lab coat, was equally ripe for caricature.

It’s not just beauty: Elsa Schiaparelli was beautiful, though pictures of her are harder to find.

It’s not an incredible archive – Balenciaga too has that – or an instantly identifiable brand semiology (C’s and pearls and camellias). Gucci has G’s and bamboo and red and green stripes.

It’s not a bent for the quotable aphorism: Chanel may have issued such gems as “Elegance is refusal” but Diane von Furstenberg said “Attitude is everything”.

And it’s not a perfume, Chanel No5, that has withstood the test of time and space: Yves Saint Laurent has that too, with Opium.

Hoping that the authors of the new additions to the Chanel canon might have addressed the issue, I turned to the books. But they were not very revealing. Isabelle Fiemeyer notes in her introduction that, “Every detail of Chanel’s life and work has seemingly already been said, written, or filmed”, while Lisa Chaney writes, “The general outline of her life is already well known ... it was doubtful ... there was much left to discover.”

Yet this didn’t stop either from putting in their two cents, though the closest they get to an explanation of why is that they felt “intrigued” (in the words of Chaney), and decided they did have something more to say. Which may be the biggest clue to the secret of Chanel’s authorial appeal: though her aesthetic was elitist (by refusing the corset she ensured only slim women could buy her clothes), her backstory is wholly accessible, filled with the ingredients that have made great fiction from Dickens to Jonathan Franzen.

What Chanel has that other fashion designers don’t is as basic as the little black dress: a really fantastic narrative. And if history teaches us anything, it’s that narratives – stories that can be passed on through generations – are what lasts.

Especially narratives that contain love, sex, death, abandonment, jewels, Russian aristocrats, horses, feminism, drugs, Nazis – you name it, it’s probably in there. As a result the mythology of Chanel has become larger than fashion. Other designers may – at least in part – have similarly lurid biographies, such as Saint Laurent and Calvin Klein, but they tend to be associated with specific eras (the 1960s, the 1970s) that make their experience representative of a time and generation. By contrast, Chanel’s story is both very much her own and generic, in romance novel terms, which gives it resonance to a uniquely broad spectrum of people. Like all mythological tales, it is open to endless reinterpretation.

Unlike all mythological tales, however, it also has a commercial dimension that roots it in the here and now, and the combination of the two has created a kind of virtuous Chanel circle. You can read the book, or many of the books, and then buy the clothes or the perfume or the nail polish. The one industry feeds the other, which feeds back to the first in a seemingly endless cycle.

But which came first, the stuff or the story?


More columns at www.ft.com/friedman

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