Journalist and author Justine Picardie was in Edinburgh last week to launch Coco Chanel – The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), and to discuss the iconic French designer’s secret love affair with Scotland. I caught up with her for a chat about her elegant expose of the first lady of fashion.
AK: Why did you feel the time was right for a new biography of Coco Chanel?
JP: Well, I suppose there hasn’t been a proper full-scale biography with new material since Edmonde Charles-Roux’s and that was written in the early 1970s, pretty soon after Chanel died. At that point, a lot of archival material wasn’t even available .. I was given greater access to the Chanel archives than previous biographers, and certainly nobody had looked in the British archives for anything Chanel-related before.
AK: You must have been thrilled to turn up so much British material.
JP: It was amazing finding out stuff about her time in Britain – in London, Cheshire (where her lover, the Duke of Westminster’s mansion was), and in Sutherland in Scotland – where Westminster had an estate, Lochmore. I knew that there would be a Scottish connection because of Chanel’s use of Scottish tweed. From the 1920s on you see Scottish wool and Scottish tweed in her collections but no-one had ever worked out where that began. I just had a hunch that if I started with the Duke of Westminster it might lead me to interesting places – and it certainly did! It was through her relationship with the Duke of Westminster that she came to Scotland in the first place.
I went to the place where she fished and to the fishing lodge where she stayed with the Duke and Winston Churchill, and when I found those fishing records which listed their names – you see Mademoiselle Chanel, the Duke of Westminster and Winston Churchill all listed – that was one of the most exciting moments in the book, because it proved how much time she’d been spending in Scotland. And it confirmed the closeness of the relationship with the Duke and also with Winston Churchill.
AK: How well had her friendship with Churchill been known before you turned up these records?
JP: It wasn’t at all known – it was purely speculative. And by looking at those fishing records you could see that she was spending several months at a time in Scotland in the summer and that coincided with her introducing Scottish tweed and so on.
AK: The men in her life really did furnish her with what turned out to be significant sources of inspiration, didn’t they?
JP: They really did! You can see from those old photographs which I’ve used in the book, and found in private archives here, that she’s using Scottish tweed – these are the Duke of Westminster’s jackets that she’s wearing to begin with.
AK: Boyfriend jackets, then?!
JP: Yes, literally boyfriend jackets. Then you start seeing tweed in her collection. And that, again, that to me, was the most exciting discovery - those pictures alone, among them a fantastic picture, which is one of my favourite pictures in the book, of her with this big salmon that she’s caught …. You know, this was the summer of the little black dress, the Jazz Age, and the story told thus far is that Chanel was shimmying around Paris and the Riviera, which she undoubtedly did, but, as it turns out, she was also spending a lot of time in Scotland – with a fishing rod, playing cards with her boyfriend and his friend, Churchill. And then of course Churchill – that relationship was to prove so important during the Second World War …
AK: So, after doing all this research, do you like Chanel – I ask because I didn’t much like her as a woman, after seeing the recent films about her ..
JP: What I felt at the end of it was that I did like her and I felt there was a kind of heroism about her, that there was just something really, really brave and independent, and she just never gave up, she never stopped. I ended up feeling this emotional attachment - partly because I felt that she had somehow kept me going during a difficult time …
She was an icon to me before I started. I was fascinated, I was an admirer. What changed over the course of the book was that I began to feel much more sympathy for her. I went to the convent where she was abandoned by her father. To have endured that, to have escaped that and then to have made it in Paris where she would have had to be so strong to keep going against the ins and outs of fashion. You know, one minute you’re a success, and the next, you’re out of fashion. But she kept going.
AK: You almost have to check your sums when you work out what age she was when she launched some of her most famous creations, don’t you?
JP: I know! She was designing her last collection when she died. She was 87. That’s just extraordinary - and what’s even more extraordinary is the fact that she went into business in 1910, in a world where women were so dismissed, and had no autonomy.
AK: In terms of her personality, what did you find to empathise with?
JP: I spent time with two women who were really close to her – her great-niece, also called Gabrielle (who, as you’ll see in the book, is possibly her grand-daughter), and one of her friends, Claude Delay, who was reasonably young when she met Chanel in the 1960s. They were incredibly warm, instantly sympathetic women and they spoke with such tenderness and warmth about her that I thought if they really loved her, then she must have had something that could form a very powerful connection.
AK: From the films Coco Avant Chanel and Coco & Igor, I got the impression that she was one of those women who gets on better with men than with other women – did you sense this?
JP: Yes, from the films you’d think she hated other women but that is not the impression that I had having talked to Gabrielle and Claude. I mean, yeah, you probably wouldn’t want Chanel to fall in love with your husband – as happened in Coco & Igor – but that’s such a tiny, specific chapter.
AK: Being able to write in Chanel’s own apartment and to spend the night in her room at the Ritz must have helped you to feel a connection ..
JP: Oh my God, yes. Sitting and writing at her desk, that desk with the leather top where you can see the score marks from her pen, was amazing. Her pen was so firm that it went through the paper into the leather. I was allowed to work there late at night when there was nobody there, just a security guard down on the street, that was it – the rest of the house of Chanel had emptied out. Working there definitely helped me feel a connection: her presence is so powerful in the house that it’s impossible not to feel it … you’d be made of wood if you didn’t feel a ghostly but also very potent and inspiring presence. And then when I spent the night in her room at the Ritz, the lights kept going on and off – which was a bit spooky!
AK: How long did it take you to research and write the book?
JP: You know, the first time I went to the apartment and interviewed Karl Lagerfeld was 1997, the end of 1997, and it was then that I thought: “I wish I could write a book about Chanel”. So I started doing research then but it took quite a long time for me, as British writer, to feel that I had amassed enough new material to take to a publisher … All the previous biographies have been written by French writers. There have been picture books by American writers but they didn’t have new stuff. I’ve done archival research in the past for my previous book about Daphne du Maurier, and I started out as an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times, so I felt I had to know that I had amassed a body of new material.
AK: Some of the other books are really superficial, aren’t they?
JP: They do skim the surface… Also, the same pictures have been circulated over and over again so it was also imp0rtant to me that I find some new ones – which I did.
AK: And of course your book features some beautiful illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld ..
JP: Yes, they were done specially for the book. that was interesting because Chanel have no editorial control over the book – I mean, I couldn’t have written it if they did have editorial control. I needed access to the archives but I said from the start – as did they – that without independence, the book wouldn’t stand as a serious work. As I went on I did uncover some fairly dark things, especially about the Second World War, but, actually, the truth is not as bad as the rumours.
AK: Did you think it might turn out to be worse?
JP: Well, I did think, having seen the stuff in the Churchill archives, that this isn’t as it’s been told before. But yes, I’m half-Jewish – I’ve got a Jewish father – and I wanted to know the truth and tell the truth. I certainly wasn’t going to give her any sort of leeway. In any case, some of the most interesting creative characters of the 20th Century had very bad wars, and I think that the two are not mutually exclusive: you can be a kind of creative genius and a pretty terrible person at the same time. But if she was a pretty terrible person I would have told that. She did make some serious errors of judgment. This plot she got involved in was always doomed but nevertheless it was to try to bring the war to an end.
AK: Has your Chanel research thrown up any other subjects whom you’d like to investigate?
JP: Well, there are some fascinating characters. Misia Sert, Chanel’s closest female friend, was a fascinating character but I don’t think that her story would have such broad appeal .. And Hardy Amies I got really interested in – he was a special agent during the war as well. The other incredibly fascinating character of course is Karl Lagerfeld but that book will only be written after his death. The story of Chanel couldn’t be told while she was alive because she made up so many different stories.
AK: Do you have a theory about why she did that?
JP: I think she felt intense shame and humiliation about her childhood and her youth. She was born illegitimate so there was the stigma of illegitimacy, the stigma of poverty and then the stigma of being in this orphanage. And then ,of course, her being not only a seamstress but also a demi-mondaine was further stigma. Actually, where the Audrey Tautou movie worked was in capturing that milieu, that terrible humiliation of being a kept woman and not knowing what your status was. Where that movie is historically inaccurate, I think, is that Boy Capel [Chanel's lover] is presented as rather honourable – he’s already engaged to an English girl and if it wasn’t for that he would have married Chanel. In fact, he’d been with Chanel for eight years when he decided to consolidate his social standing within the British upper classes by marrying the daughter of a lord.
AK: So, what’s next now that you’ve finished this labour of love?
JP: I’ve got to clear up my house. It’s piled high with archival papers and photocopies. I finished writing in February but then I did endless, endless corrections on final drafts. I managed to see inside La Pausa, her house in the South of France, and I found more stuff in Scotland in May, so I had to go back to the publishers and say: “I have to add these bits..”.