Historian Anne de Courcy on What We Can Learn From Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel. Roger Viollet/Getty

In her new book, Chanel's Riviera: Glamour, Decadence and Survival in Peace and War, historian Anne de Courcy describes Coco Chanel's famous rise to success and her life on the Riviera at a tumultuous time in Europe on the brink of war.

In this Q&A, de Courcy discusses whether Coco Chanel's self-confidence can be an example for ambitious young women in business today, and whether Chanel was indeed a Nazi collaborator.

Courtesy of Anne de Courcy

Why this book?

I have always been fascinated both by the Riviera and Chanel, but had never really connected them. When I discovered that Chanel had spent every summer there between 1930 to 1944 in the villa she had built, I had my theme—and my time frame.

Chanel was a successful businesswoman when that wasn't so common. Is she a role model for young women today?

Many young women lack not only self-confidence but self-esteem. Gaining financial independence through your own efforts, as Chanel did, helps achieve both—and this in turn helps one in life itself. Chanel could serve as a role model in this way.

What do you think made Chanel uniquely successful?

She was a true originator, with the ability to spot a trend before it had risen above the horizon—in her case the need for clothes far simpler and less cluttered than before. She also had the drive, energy and determination to carry her ideas through.

Chanel was branded a collaborator and an anti-Semite. Are these accurate characterizations?

Certainly she was anti-Semitic, as indeed was most of France then. As to collaboration, Chanel was what was called a "collaborateur horizontale"—that is, she had a German lover. Deplorable, I know—but here it is worth remembering that so did masses of other Frenchwomen, as up to 100,000 Franco-German babies were born in WWII.

Is it a designer's place to get political?

No more than the rest of us.

Who is your favorite? Chanel or Schiaparelli?

Chanel, by a country mile. I much prefer simplicity and elegance to the outré.

Where is your favorite spot to write?
My study, where I have everything to hand, from reference books to family photographs, my diary, notebooks and countless Post-its around to remind me of things I have to do.