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Hot Coco

Decades after her death, Chanel remains a fascinating subject for filmmakers and authors

By Christopher Muther
Globe Staff / July 8, 2010

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She may not be experiencing the same career renaissance as Betty White, but fashion designer Coco Chanel is enjoying a comeback that is truly impressive for someone who died nearly 40 years ago. It’s even more remarkable given that Lifetime’s made-for-TV mess about Chanel’s life — starring Shirley MacLaine, no less — should have been enough to quickly extinguish any appetite for Chanel’s life story.

But despite the bitter aftertaste of that Lifetime movie project, there have been two theatrical films, “Coco Before Chanel’’ and the currently-in-theaters “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky,’’ within the past year. There are still occasional rumors that French director Danièle Thompson is planning a Chanel film project. Also in the past year, there has been the book “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel,’’ and coming this fall is “The Secret of Chanel No. 5: The Intimate History of the World’s Most Famous Perfume.’’ In 2008, there was even a children’s book about Chanel.

It’s not a shock that people are still talking about Chanel the brand. But why are we suddenly talking about Chanel the woman again?

“I think Chanel’s life was really juicy,’’ says Karen Karbo, author of “The Gospel According to Coco Chanel.’’ “She was a consummate spinner. I don’t want to say that she was a liar, but she did angle things so that they really suited her. Regardless of that, what she did for contemporary women’s clothing and style is monumental.’’

Chanel’s influence on contemporary fashion is undeniable. She didn’t invent the little black dress, but she certainly helped elevate it to the wardrobe staple that it is today. Before Coco Chanel, women were trapped in fancy underpinnings, bustles, and pinching corsets. Coco incorporated men’s tailoring and fabrics into women’s clothing, particularly later in her career when the Chanel suit became the pricey status symbol of society ladies.

Her fashion empire is hinted at in these book and movie projects, but the current Chanel renaissance has deeper roots in the slightly more lurid details of her life.

“Although there has been a lot of attention on her life, it’s interesting to me that what everyone’s focusing on is her sex life,’’ says Tilar Mazzeo, the author of the forthcoming “The Secret of Chanel No. 5.’’ “There are certain moments of her life that are being avoided. Nobody has written about Coco Chanel in World War II, which is a very difficult topic. So what everybody has been writing about is this very romanticized picture of Coco Chanel and her elegant love affairs before the Second World War.’’

British author Chris Greenhalgh, who wrote the novel “Coco and Igor’’ in 2002, and the screenplay for the film version “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky’’ sees the current Chanel fixation as part of our never-ending search for the next great French female icon. He notes that after movies about Edith Piaf and Marie Antoinette, Chanel was “a pretty obvious move.’’

“Increasingly, we’re looking for stories about women who are in a position of power,’’ Greenhalgh says on the phone from England. “People are looking for someone who embodies female independence amid influence and power. I think Chanel, perhaps more than any other woman, does that.’’

But Greenhalgh admits that it’s Chanel’s romantic entanglements that ultimately drew him to her story. He was attracted to the personal and professional dichotomy of Chanel’s life: a wildly successful fashion designer with a string of failed personal relationships and an unfulfilled desire for children.

“Chanel was the first designer who didn’t end her fashion shows with a wedding dress, and she never married herself,’’ Greenhalgh says. “I think that’s a very telling detail.’’

Aside from those romances — from Stravinsky to the Duke of Westminster — the part of Chanel’s story that has been a hit with biographers and filmmakers is her rags-to-taffeta rise to stardom.

“There are quite a few world famous designers and couturiers who came from nothing, so why aren’t their stories being told?’’ Karbo says. “I think it’s because Chanel was really the first woman who really cultivated her own personality in the interest of her fashion house. She is the first modern self-promoter.’’

Her self-promotion was so good that 100 years after making her debut as a designer, we’re still unraveling the intricate details of her life.

Christopher Muther can be reached at muther@globe.com.