08/05/2011 04:17 pm ET | Updated Oct 05, 2011

Brilliant Chanel

Before I began my biography of Coco Chanel, I knew what you probably know: she was one of the most famous fashion designers in the world, who liberated women from corsets, created the sexy little black dress, and designed nubby wool jackets with braid trim and gold chains. Oh, yes, and those black tipped beige sling-back shoes and the quilted bag with chain handle. And, of course, Chanel No. 5. She was a genius, everyone said -- and the model of a self-made, independent woman.

What I learned along the way, as I researched the life of this fascinating and infuriating woman, surprised me: women had been liberated from the corset long before Chanel arrived on the scene, by the designers Paul Poiret and Madeleine Vionnet. Many other designers were creating clothing in soft jersey, with menswear inspired lines, at the same time as Chanel. Her little black dress -- which I had pictured as low-cut and body-skimming -- had long sleeves, a loose dropped waistline, and looked like it should be worn for a board meeting rather than a nightclub in the Roaring Twenties. And the boxy jacket, shoes, and bag: those came from Chanel's comeback in the 1950s, after she was already a stunningly famous designer. I was surprised, too, that she didn't sew and couldn't draw; that she signed away 90% of her business to the company that agreed to market her perfume, Chanel No. 5 (and spent the rest of her career suing for restitution of her rights); and that she died a lonely, bitter woman. Famous as she was, she could be paranoid and cruel. She lied to cover a past of which she was ashamed; she lied to cover her own insecurities.

Even though she has the reputation of being independent and fearless, she always yearned to find a man to protect her. Being loved, she said, was the most important goal a woman could achieve. Without love, and without a man, a woman was nothing. Those ideas don't sound very liberated, and yet, even though her ideas about life and love were widely known throughout her life, Chanel was someone many women wanted to emulate.

Certainly, she was a genius; she had a fine intuition for what women wanted to wear, an amazing appreciation for fabric, and infallible sense of line. But her genius was not only for fashion. Chanel was her own most famous model. Slender and flat-chested, she looked great in her own designs -- in fact, she claimed that she first tried on all of those designs herself -- and women dieted and wore flattening bras to try to copy her figure -- an impossible challenge for women who were not, and never would be, petite.

She was brilliant at marketing herself as a celebrity, and one of my goals in this biography is to show how her public -- the women who coveted her fashions and perfume -- helped to create her legend. These women followed her flamboyant, and much publicized love life (among her many lovers, she was courted by the Duke of Westminster and a Russian Grand Duke, and had an affair with Stravinsky); they saw photos of her vacationing in Venice and Biarritz and at fabulous parties in Paris and London. She was photographed by some of the most talented artists of her time -- like Cecil Beaton and Man Ray. One of the first print ads for Chanel No. 5 showed Chanel herself, in a gorgeous beaded gown, standing in her own elegant rooms at the Ritz in Paris. She appeared in fashion magazines along with her famous friends, like Jean Cocteau, Serge Diaghilev, Salvador Dali, and a host of dukes and duchesses. Before there were movie stars, there was Chanel. And by the time Gloria Swanson and Ina Claire became famous, Chanel already had been the epitome of glamour, for decades.

Today's print ads for Chanel perfumes, featuring the lithe and lovely Audrey Tautou perfectly capture the image of Chanel that has persisted since the 1920s, when she burst on the fashion scene. She fashioned herself as a beautiful romantic heroine, ensconced in luxury, pursued by a handsome lover. The legend is irresistible even now, and Chanel is the genius who created it.