Fashion After Coco
Nightstands and Coffee Tables
reviews by Michael DeVault
If the industry in question involves the creative, chances are it was led by, or at least significantly influenced by, someone who lived and worked in Paris. In literature, Hemingway dominated. For food, the City of Lights graced the world with Miss Julia Child. In a fashion, a cursory trip to Starbucks is enough to demonstrate just how much of an influence a demurring French woman defined high fashion. Virtually everywhere you look, you’ll find the tell tale interlocking Cs of the Coco Chanel logo. To understand fashion is to study Chanel. This month, consider a trio of books that will help understand not only Chanel the designer, but also Coco the woman. These books each provide a glimpse into some aspect of what made the brand the definitive voice of all things style.
By Lisa Chaney
Lisa Chaney is hardly the first biographer to take on the extraordinary life of Coco Chanel. Yet, Chaney’s biography of the fashion maven is, consistently, termed the definitive source on all things Coco. Chaney lifts the veil on Chanel’s life, taking readers on the journey that catapulted a young, semi-abandoned orphan from a child on the streets of a rural French village to the immortal queen of the fashion capital of the world.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in the sleepy village of Samur, near Tours in western France. When her mother died, Chanel’s father sent her to a convent where she learned to sew. Later, Chanel performed as a singer in nightclubs and earned the mellifluous nickname that would make her famous. Chaney charts along the way her subjects’ rising fortunes and her position in the society that would, ultimately, embrace her in the post-Nazi era.
If Chaney’s biography has one shortcoming, it’s that allegations of German sympathies seem to be shrugged off and, in their place, Chaney positions a glossed over version of Coco the entrepreneur and dispassionate observer, instead of the somewhat more plausible Coco the conspirator.
By Francois Baudot
What is it that defines the Chanel style? Is it simplicity? Is it that one, small missing element? Is it clean lines or quality? These are questions Francois Baudot tackles in his three-volume boxed display set titled simply Chanel. Over the course of a scant hundred or so pages, Baudot presents images from the fashion, fine jewelry, and perfume creations of the company bearing Chanel’s name.
Each of the volumes highlights the best of Chanel style, with a particular interest in the elegance of understatement that drives her designs. Simple lines and reserved designs fill the pages of the Fashion volume, which groups items by ages of Chanel. If some contemporary readers find the offerings at the jewelry store a little over-designed, they can take heart in the Jewelry volume. Even in the Perfume volume, it’s easy to sense the depth of subtley in Chanel No. 5.
Baudot’s Chanel stands as a sort of visual biography of both the woman and the fashion empire she left behind. With the careful attention of a museum curator, Baudot captures in Chanel that same sense of understatement that always seems to leave us wanting more.
Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style
By Jérôme Gautier
Jérôme Gautier accomplishes something truly amazing in Chanel: The Vocabulary of Style, his presentation-style photo book is chronical. While some critics have taken shots at Gautier’s book for paying lip service to Chanel, what he accomplishes is far more valuable as the story of the fashion house as made through their most broad medium: advertising.
Equal parts retrospectives of Chanel and of Karl Lagerfeld’s time at Chanel Magazine, Gautier assembles a history of advertisements for the Chanel lines, as shot by some of the best fashion photographers of the day. For readers seeking photos of a Chanel hat or gloves, this isn’t the book. But if you’re looking for a serious study of the artistic development of the Brand Chanel, this is where you start.
While Gautier’s sprawling 304-page work steps sometimes far away from the core of the Chanel style, the book achieves something vastly more important. Gautier’s selections of images chart the very course of fashion itself, from its beginnings with Coco through the more avant garde offerings of the day. In the end, Gautier’s “Vocabulary of Style” underscores the arresting reality of design: there is no style with out Chanel.