| 15.9°C Dublin

Chanel and a war of words

Lady Gaga has said she wants to be cremated in the Chanel dress designed for her by Karl Lagerfeld for the opening of her Christmas boutique at Barneys in New York last month. The world's biggest pop star is being typically over-the-top in her tribute to fashion icon Coco Chanel, yet her passion for the style doyenne is right on the nail.

At least seven books about Coco Chanel have been published in the past 18 months alone. Forty years after her death, interest in the French designer is high and, naturally, the books' authors are vying for the best reviews. Yet no one expected a catfight to break out between the Chanel authors, or for their passion for fashion to be so heated.

Lisa Chaney, the author of Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, a new biography, recently took a potshot at another recent Chanel book, Hal Vaughan's Sleeping With the Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War. Vaughan's biography, which posits that Chanel was a Nazi agent during World War II, "is written in a highly inflammatory style", Chaney has declared. She went on: "From the first few pages, it's insinuation and leaping to conclusions. It's pretty underhanded, what I think he's done."

In the row, which has been reported in the New York Times, Vaughan retaliated claiming he thought it was Chaney who was leaping to conclusions: "I'm surprised that Chaney would say such a thing. I find it quite shocking."


Vaughan, an American who lives in Paris, got a further jeer in by saying he had not yet read Chaney's book; he was waiting for Amazon to deliver it.

However, he had questions about a third new biography, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, by Justine Picardie. British writer Picardie claims to have spent the past decade attempting to peel away the romance and lies surrounding the style legend. Yet Vaughan maintains her book reads as if it were written to please the late designer's namesake company.

"I don't know whether it was subsidised, but it's clearly a Chanel book," he said.

Picardie, meanwhile, has reportedly taken her own potshots at her competitors, apparently saying: "I presume it was Lisa Chaney who said that my book is authorised by Chanel." As for Vaughan's book? "The title is an instant sound bite."

So what do the biographers of the world's most famous fashion designer agree on? None of them disputes that Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco, was an intriguing character, equal parts diva, femme fatale and genius. Born into poverty and abandoned to an orphanage, she rose through the social ranks through hard work, talent and a series of love affairs with wealthy, well-placed men. They also agree on the fact that in Nazi-occupied France during World War II, Chanel was a collaborator. However, it's the extent of Chanel's collaboration with the Germans which is debated.

Vaughan's book details Chanel's long love affair with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi spy, and he believes that Chanel embarked on a mission to deliver a message to her friend Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, that said some high-ranking German officers wanted to end hostilities with Britain. Vaughan writes that Chanel expected -- and got -- favours in return. These allegedly included the release of her nephew from a German prisoner-of-war camp, and an apartment in the luxurious Ritz hotel in Paris. He writes: "Chanel was the consummate opportunist who was going to get what she wanted."


Chaney and Picardie also write about the designer's affair with Dincklage, but they interpret Chanel's behaviour differently.

"There's no question she was a collaborator of sorts, in that she had a lover who was a German, and he had an association with Nazis," Chaney has said.

The question to her is how much Chanel knew, or chose to know, about Dincklage's doings. Chaney has suggested that the designer may have been blinded by love. At the start of their relationship, in 1940, Dincklage was 44 and Chanel 57.

"She was very conscious that this was a late affair," the author has argued.

For her part, Picardie claims that Chanel "was involved in a German plot -- but the German plot was to try and bring an early conclusion to the Second World War".

Meanwhile, the Chanel company is said to be vague about its founder's wartime activities.

A spokeswoman for the design house, Iana dos Reis Nunes, has reportedly referred to Dincklage not as a Nazi but as "a German aristocrat".