We all have a little Coco Chanel in us. Who hasn’t experienced putting on a new outfit and feeling a subtle lift in our spirits? Coco Chanel understood this: she thrived on her ability to transform how we dress and, in turn, how we see ourselves.
I first encountered Chanel when I was a child. Her little black dress was a staple in my mother’s closet and I remember watching my mom dress one evening, slipping into the sheath and layering on ropes of pearls. I asked why she wore so many necklaces but no earrings. She smiled. “Because less is more. That’s what Chanel says.” Until that moment, I had never heard of Chanel. Later, my mom took me to my first Chanel boutique. The quilted handbag with its gold-chain strap; the nautical sweater and collarless suit; the seductive aroma of No. 5—my mother wore them all. What I did not realize at the time was how she used them to set aside her daily cares and transform herself into a woman who exuded confident independence.
I would learn. After ten years in Spain, my family moved back to the US when I was in my teens and I struggled to fit in. On my first day of high school, I wore a cravat and pleated trousers. The other students jeered so much that I ran home in tears. In Spain, neckwear and trousers were the rule, but in the US it was T-shirts and jeans. But then I enrolled in drama class and met others like me, who reveled in flamboyant frockcoats and fringed scarves, our apparel a defiant declaration of who we were. My love affair with fashion began. Like Chanel herself, I discovered that clothing could be a catalyst for self-expression.
After graduation, I hoped to become a designer. But as a student at the San Francisco Institute for Design and Merchandising, I discovered that my talent for sketching did not extend to sewing! Nevertheless, I devoted my thesis to Chanel, presenting an illustrated collection on how she revolutionized her era by creating the signature styles that endure to this day, even though she had no training as a couturière. Her self-taught genius, her determination to succeed and her prescient flair with textile and form all inspired me. With a degree in marketing, I embarked on a twelve-year career in San Francisco and New York as a stylist and fashion coordinator. I loved my job – and I often referred to my battered book of Chanel designs. Her motto “Less is more” became my adage.
My fascination with Chanel has never abated; in time, I came to realize that she taught me about so much more than mere elegance. In her lifetime, she demonstrated the kind of personal resiliency we all need to fulfill our dreams. As she once remarked, “My life didn’t please me, so I created my life.” That’s good advice for all of us.
MADEMOISELLE CHANEL tells the unforgettable tale of how this legendary woman created that life. The opportunity to depict Coco’s struggle and success, her flaws and controversial compromises, which are as much a part of her legacy as her clothes, is a dream come true.
I hope you love reading this novel as much as I have loved writing it.
C. W. Gortner is the author of seven novels, including The Last Queen, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici, The Queen’s Vow, and the Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles series. He will be appearing at Village House of Books on Friday, March 20th, at 7:00 pm to discuss his latest novel, Mademoiselle Chanel. Join us for a lovely evening of champagne and a celebration one of the 20th century’s greatest fashion designers.