The family resided in rundown lodgings. In , he married Jeanne Devolle, [7] persuaded to do so by her family who had "united, effectively, to pay Albert. Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as "travelling". She went to her grave as Gabrielle Chasnel because to correct legally the misspelled name on her birth certificate would reveal that she was born in a poorhouse hospice.

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It was February Just weeks before, my marriage had ended after 21 years - almost my entire adulthood - and two sons and it felt as if the ground had given way beneath my feet, laying waste to the comforting landscape of family life, making a mockery of the past, turning future hopes into ashes.

And here I was in France, hundreds of miles from home, on a pilgrimage in search of Coco Chanel. Solace: Learning about the life of Coco Chanel helped Justine Picardie, left, through a difficult period in her own life None of it made sense, yet I knew this was the only way forward. Having committed to writing a biography of Chanel, I had no choice but to move on, step by step, following the clues left behind by the woman whose life story had fascinated me since childhood; who I felt compelled to understand.

Yet it was another woman altogether who too often occupied my thoughts - the one who was involved in the collapse of my marriage. Part of me wanted to understand more about her, rather than Chanel, in the darkest hours of the night, when dawn seems never to come. I knew who this Other Woman was, for our paths had crossed on several occasions - an overlapping that loomed in my mind as near-fatal collisions - but, on some instinctive level, I recognised it could only do me harm to obsess about her in the aftermath of separation.

I was drowning in the waves of shock and grief that come with such a loss, so why add to that turbulent ocean? Better to try to continue with the book I was researching, to go on with a quest into the heart of Chanel. The nuns had politely rejected my first attempt to visit, explaining they took only visitors in need of a spiritual retreat.

I wrote back and explained that I was in crisis and in desperate need of sanctuary. Only a handful of nuns remain at Aubazine and they are more concerned with the worship of God than the antecedents of fashion, yet they were kind enough to welcome me.

Their condition was a simple one: that I follow their daily routine of prayer and silence while I was at the abbey.

They did not ask me to believe in God, but they did expect me to observe the practise of their faith and devotions. I arrived in a state of heightened anxiety and the worst kind of dread: nameless, all-encompassing, vast.

At first, the fear I felt in the silence of the abbey was overwhelming. It even had a taste to it, a sour chemical sensation in the back of my throat. In that silence, as the long nights passed, I wept and wrote, my thoughts wandering, submerged in confusion and despair. There were also occasional flashes of insight - not just enlightening my personal predicament, but into the iconography of Chanel. Wedding day: Justine Picardie with her sister Ruth, husband Neil MacColl, and their son Jamie The abbey was a world away from where I had started researching my book, in the Chanel headquarters at 31 Rue Cambon, across the road from the Ritz, where Coco slept every night until her death in at the age of In those mirrored temples of luxury, her presence is still palpable; evident in the famous double CC logo - her initials interlocking as the instantly recognisable label for a global brand - and in her scent, Chanel No 5, that wafts through the crystal chandeliers and smoky glass walls of her empire.

But it was to Aubazine that I journeyed in search of Gabrielle, the little girl Chanel had once been, hoping to find the truth about her past.

Not that the truth is necessarily immutable, given that she was a woman who reinvented herself with the same speed as she remade fashion. For as a good designer understands - and she was one of the greatest - that what remains hidden can be more intriguing than overt display. Thus Chanel never admitted to her years in Aubazine or to the fact that her father had abandoned her there with her two sisters after the death of their mother. He was an itinerant peddler and market trader - a man on the run from his family responsibilities from the start - and when his wife died from a combination of poverty, exhaustion and TB , he eschewed all responsibility for his three children and disappeared for ever.

It feels as if time stands still, even as the bells ring out the hours. The religious community has dwindled and the orphans long since disappeared, though their bedrooms remain in the austere monastery that adjoins the abbey, the little iron frame beds lined up against whitewashed walls hung with crucifixes. Each of the rooms has a name of a saint on the door and, when the wooden shutters are open, a view of the forests that enclose Aubazine. Beyond the wooded hillsides and far below lies the railway town of Brive, but I could see no trace of it from the room where I slept or rather, did not sleep ; only acres of chestnut trees and mountains wreathed in a pale, frosty mist.

Inside the abbey, it was dark, and the stone floor was as cold as the walls, just a few pale shafts of light piercing the shadows through the opaque grey and pearl-white windows. Aubazine was monochrome: beige sandstone, black shadows, white walls; pure as the palette of a classic Chanel collection.

And then I found the stairs in a dim far corner of the abbey, worn by centuries of footsteps - including those of a girl named Gabrielle Chanel - to the first floor of the monastery.

Paved with thousands of tiny pebbles, the stones formed stars and a moon: the same shapes and symbols Chanel later recreated in diamonds in her jewellery, when she was a rich woman who seemed to have left her past far behind. Style icon: Coco Chanel wearing one of her designs This was the floor where Gabrielle walked; out of these hard patterns she fashioned herself.

Chanel had two great loves, the British industrialist and playboy Boy Capel and the Duke of Westminster. Capel broke her heart when he married someone else and then died in a car accident in The duke left her for another woman because he wanted a son. But when Chanel spoke about these two men it was never with bitterness, but always with respect and affection.

She remained great friends with the duke until his death in During those long days and nights at the abbey, I took strength from the way she had dealt with heartbreak with such dignity.

Of course, my few days at Aubazine could not provide the answers to everything, but it was the start of seeing the light. I felt privileged to have spent time with the nuns, but also recognised the liberation that came with leaving the abbey behind. Chanel and I had experienced abandonment and despair at the abbey. But I was 47, not 11, and while I had chosen it as a refuge she had been left there, helpless and, apart from her sisters, alone in the world. I had two sons, a career and lots of great friends.

Comparing our situations at Aubazine, I began to feel lucky, rather than a victim. Gabrielle Chanel did not go straight to Paris - her reinvention followed several unhappy episodes as a seamstress, mistress and failed singer in provincial France before she established her business in with the help of Boy Capel.

Even as she suffered heartbreak, she had not given up the pursuit of independence. They were women who wanted the same dignity and sartorial comfort that had previously been available only to men. Coco Chanel was the only couturier to be named in Time The Most Important People of the Century Clothes do not maketh the woman, but they do represent material evidence of who we are and where we have come from, our hopes and aspirations, as well as our disappointments. They were precious tokens of loss, but no longer my compass for what lay ahead.

Gabrielle the younger was in her 80s, widowed and living in a walled manor house two hours south of Paris. I had met her once before, but this time she invited me to stay the night on my return from Aubazine. We talked for hours and then she said she had something to show me. I followed her along a corridor and into a bedroom, where she opened the door to a wardrobe.

Slipping my hands into her pockets, I discovered a white handkerchief and gloves still scented with her perfume. It was just one more of the brief moments during my research that I felt a communion with Coco. My own loss had given me a real empathy for her series of abandonments and heartbreaks, and I took great strength from her inspiring example of independence - and forgiveness.

It was not the end of my journey, but another beginning.


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