The Conversation: Justine Picardie, author and journalist

'A marriage ending feels like a bomb going off'

Why did you choose to write a biography of Coco Chanel?

It probably goes back to my childhood, in that my mother was married in a little black dress made from a Chanel pattern. Then in 1997 I interviewed Karl Lagerfeld and went to Chanel's private apartment in Rue Cambon – there is something so mysterious and haunting about it.

You've said that this book saved you.

I was well into researching it and my then husband left me. In a sense it's a very ordinary experience – marriages end, sadly, all too often. But when it happens to you it feels like a bomb going off. I felt a terrible failure, and that made me more empathetic towards Chanel, a woman who suffered great losses in her life.

You visited Aubazine, the abbey where she grew up after her mother died.

It's important to see her in the context of her lonely and isolated childhood. Aubazine feels like a very austere place but there's a real beauty to it. The elements of Chanel's style – the black, the white, the beige, the double C – you see within the very fabric of the building. And what she emerges with is a variation on a nun's uniform.

She misremembers a lot of her childhood, doesn't she?

That has something to do with the shame of being born illegitimate at a time when there was a huge stigma attached to it. She was born poor, which was very different from the self-made woman that she became. There were parts of her childhood that were so painful that she had to reinvent them as a fairy tale that she could live with.

There's been a debate over whether she was a Nazi collaborator.

I'm half-Jewish, and a number of my relatives died during the Second World War, and while I think that Chanel made some very misguided choices, I don't think that she was a Nazi. She closed her couture house, which prevented her doing things that other couturiers did, which was to sell to Germans and black marketeers.

How have you found your first year as editor of Harper's Bazaar?

It's been exciting and interesting and challenging. It is stressful, it's a big industry. In this country alone, the fashion industry generates £20bn a year, and when you look at the way it's reported, it's all about fluff and handbags. Harper's Bazaar is not all fluff: our motto is thinking fashion.

Which cover stars sell copies?

It's really difficult to nail it, and if we could…

You'd have them on every issue!

I have to say Michelle Dockery [of Downton Abbey] did incredibly well for us.

So it's not necessarily the bigger the star the better the sales?

Anne Hathaway did incredibly well and so did Rachel Weisz and Kate Winslet. Grown-up women are not interested in looking at pictures of little girls.

You go into a newsagent, you look at the fashion magazines, and it's a sea of white faces. Is this a big problem?

I do regularly say to my team, 'where are the non-white faces?'. In the September issue there are a lot of very compelling women who are not white. It's a question that we need to ask ourselves constantly.

It seems like an issue that's been around for years.

It's like the size-zero question. I can't change the rest of the fashion industry, but I do make certain that we don't use models who are too young or too thin. We are using models who would be defined by the industry as plus-size, but we're just casting them.

Biography

Justine Picardie, 52, is the editor of Harper's Bazaar. Her biography of Coco Chanel, The Legend and the Life, is available in paperback now

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