“The Gospel According to Coco Chanel”: Karen Karbo’s Playful Book on the Fashion Legend

I, like everyone else, skip 99% of the (skippable) ads on YouTube. They are boring, monotonous, noisy and plain distracting – whatever the product/service or brand on offer. Two weeks or so ago, though, I was given a particularly gorgeous short film by Chanel on the life and work of its foundress Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971), one of TIME magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of the 20th Century. Soon I discovered that there’s a whole series of such ads – on Coco Chanel’s humble beginnings, her influences, her rebellious spirit, her pioneering style and so on (you will find the videos below after the text).

The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman by Karen Karbo (2009, skirt!)

The ads captivated me enough to want to check out some literature on the fashion legend. There are a number of good biographies available, among them Chanel and Her World by Edmonde Charles-Roux, a close friend of the lady’s and the monograph Chanel by the curator and art historian Jean Leymarie. But I wanted something less academic, more lively, something that celebrated the icon’s personal philosophy while highlighting its applicability. I found exactly such a book in The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman (2009, skirt!) by Portland-based writer Karen Karbo (@authorkarenkarbo@Karbohemia).

Chanel Headquarters in Paris by User “Eric Pouhier”, CC BY-SA 2.5, Wikipedia

Gabrielle Chanel’s origins were insignificant. She was born to poor unmarried parents – an itinerant peddler and a laundrywoman. Her mother died when she 12, after which, she was abandoned by her father. Along with her two sisters – she was deposited at the orphanage at the convent of Aubazine in central France. In this stark and disciplined environment, Gabrielle learnt to sew. The basic black/white habit of the nuns and the opulence of priestly vestments and ceremonial objects would define her aesthetic sense for life.

As she turned into an adult, Gabrielle found work as a seamstress. At this time, she mainly harbored aspirations for a stage career. [The name “Coco” comes from the song “Qui qu’a vu Coco” (Who has seen Coco?) that she used to sing at cafés.] Soon, however, she began something of a hat business and continued connecting with the rich and the powerful. She became the mistress of the socialite Étienne Balsan and later the lover of the English businessman and polo player Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel – who bankrolled her earliest boutiques. As she was not a part of the aristocracy, Capel was unable to marry her. After his death in a fiery car crash at the age of thirty-eight, Gabrielle channelled all her grief in her work.

Gabrielle Chanel in 1928, Wikipedia [Public Domain]
Luck, of course, had a major role in Chanel’s life. She was among the right people at the right place at the right time. Despite this, her efforts can hardly be overestimated. She, in many ways, created the look of the modern woman – she stripped hats of birds and feathers, freed the corset, invented the little black dress. She was tireless lifelong, unveiling her last collection in 1970, at the age of eighty-seven.

Karen Karbo has divided her book into chapters that encapsulate a certain attitude of Chanel’s – “On Style”, “On Time”, “On Money”, “On Surviving Passion”, “On Embracing the Moment”, “On Living Life on Your Own Terms”. The volume is very well-researched, its prose as chic as the subject under discussion. Karbo offers an insight into Chanel’s many strengths while being aware of her flaws – among them, a tendency to prevaricate without end, stinginess towards her employees, a sometimes insufferable stubbornness…

Here are a few observations:

Gabrielle Chanel in 1970, Wikipedia [Public Domain]

* Chanel was an alchemist. She absorbed that which was right in front of her nose, processed it, and then pressed it through her own sensibility. In went the plain, functional duds worn by the grooms and trainers at Royallieu, out came jodhpurs for women. In went the Duke of Westminster’s lavish gifts of emeralds and sapphires, diamonds, and ropes of pearls and out came the notion of costume jewellery – faux-lavish pieces that mimicked the real thing.


* Her master stroke was to feminize menswear while at the same time incorporating elements of dress completely at odds with early-twentieth-century notions of elegance. That women’s clothes might be chic as well as comfortable was unheard of. Then came Chanel, and for the first time, women could stride down the street in their clothes, hop on a bike, climb into a car – stuff men had been doing all along.


* Money was more than her security blanket. It was her ongoing victory lap. It was the knowledge that she was dependent on no one, that she knew she could take care of herself. She reveled in it. She owned it. She flaunted it.


* To excel at something the way Chanel excelled needs some kind of thorny and intractable psychological investment.


* To work as Chanel worked required the schedule of a peasant not a socialite. She was never bowled over by the frivolities of society. In the evening she liked to stay in and get to bed early.


The ads – all are excellent! –








Trailer for the film Coco Before Chanel (2009) starring Audrey Tautou:


Image Credit:

Featured: Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, 1920, Wikipedia, Public Domain