Friday , September 25 2020
“I’m going to dress them in black.”

Book Review: The Allure of Chanel by Paul Morand

We read that this is a difficult time in the book business, yet there seems no end to the creative publishing of beautiful, artful books produced in 2009. Among those I’ve enjoyed reviewing here, The Allure of Chanel, from Pushkin Press is a gem. An intimate look at her life, in a soft, elegant form, much like Coco Chanel.

Although several Chanel books have recently appeared, discussing the life of Gabrielle Bonheur, “Coco” Chanel, this intimate portrait written by Paul Morand, is special, being a personal memoir based on transcriptions of their talks together. Morand, a writer and French diplomat creates an intimate portrait of the life of Chanel.

Their conversations took place in St. Moritz more than 30 years ago, bit Morand only came across the yellow pages from their talks while moving. He worked on the book at the end of WWII, Coco Chanel died 1971, and his notes were first published in 1976.

Through The Allure of Chanel, we learn of Chanel’s early childhood alone in France. She was left rootless after the death of her mother, when her father left her with relatives. He went to American and never returned.

Yet, many years later, Chanel writes: “I would not have had a different destiny to mine for anything in the world.” She was a very unlikely formula for success, and in fact, when she moved to Rue Cambon, she knew nothing of business, a bank or a cheque.

Yet, in a short time, her strong personality revealed her great self-assurance and this bold statement: “I’m bloody well going to dress them in black.” Her confidence in black was perhaps influenced by an incident she described. To her horror, in the 1920s looking down at the auditorium from a box at the Opera. “all those gaudy, resuscitated colours, shocked me; those reds, those greens, those electric blues, the entire Rimsky-Korsakov and Gustave Moreau palette brought back into fashion by Paul Poiret made me feel ill.”

With her bold thinking and her confidence, she reigns over what she calls “sympathetic people" who know how to make a dress. Yet of herself she says: “Me, I am quite the opposite. I am a loathsome person and I hope that these sincere remarks will be appreciated.”

As you can see, author Morand does a good job of capturing Coco Chanel’s presence in their many conversations, rather than interpreting what she spoke to him.

When not working, Coco Chanel took comfort in books and in quiet hours at home with close friends, yet did not seem happy. “If I have known how to make the people around me happy, I don’t have a sense of happiness myself…”

So, she worked. She liked work and was driven to succeed in fashion, design, business, and the necessary social forays required to stay in Paris’s important circles. When a close friend said “You dislike me,” Chanel said: “When do you think I had the time to do that?”

The Allure of Chanel offers us revealing stories of her relationships with friends, both male and female, and insights into how respectful she was toward others, especially strong personalities, like her own.

Her thoughts of money turn to jewelry, where “Nothing looks more like artificial jewelry than a very beautiful gem. Why allow yourself to become obsessed with the beautiful stone? You might as well wear a cheque around your neck.”

Reflecting on what she may wish to do next, and contemplating her life, Morand’s writing presents us with a gift of sorts. Morand shows us the grace of a life filled with purpose. Reading The Allure of Chanel is inspiring, allowing Chanel’s candid memoirs to take center stage, and empowering us to reach for more in our own lives.

Chanel’s insights into fashion, women, beauty, relationships, and candid observations, not captured elsewhere, make this charming book a rare glimpse at the woman; her power, her personality, and her brand.

“Beauty endures. Prettiness passes.”

Quotes taken from English translation.Pre-publication edition provided by publisher.

About Helen Gallagher

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