Friday, January 8, 2010

Interview with Karen Karbo, Author of the Gospel According to Coco Chanel

Karen Karbo, the author of The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the Most Elegant Women wrote her first novel in the second grade called What Next? about five people who don't like each other and get stuck in an elevator. In the years that spanned those two books, she also tried her hand at physical therapy, film school, sailboat varnishing, serving customers as a counter person at Knott's Berry Farm, taking tickets and selling popcorn at an art house movie theatre, and reviewing movies for The Oregonian. She also published three novels (all of which were named New York Times Notable Books), four nonfiction books and three books for young adults. Her essays, articles and reviews have appeared such prestigious publications as the New York Times,  Elle, and Vogue. Karen's latest book, The Gospel According to Coco Chanel was so delightful that I could not resist asking her for an interview, which is presented below.

Ingrid:  Your other books are not about fashion. How and why did you chose the revered Coco Chanel as the subject for your book?

Karen: "In 2007, I published a book called How to Hepburn about the life of the great Katharine Hepburn. During the research, I came upon the 1969 musical "Coco" about the life of Coco Chanel, in which Hepburn improbably starred. That got me thinking about the life of Chanel. My own grandmother was a couturiere in Los Angeles in the 1950s and even though her work was definitely in the Dior school, she made sure I knew Chanel. It was only after I started reading about Chanel's life that I realized she'd made this extraordinary journey from the poor house - quite literally - to being one of the most celebrated women in the world."

Ingrid: What was the most surprising discovery you made about Chanel?

Karen: That she was an expert horsewoman. I knew she lived on a thoroughbred breeding farm with Etienne Balsan, her first lover, but I'd never realized she'd become such an accomplished rider herself.

Ingrid: If you were going to adopt one lesson from her life as a new year's resolution for 2010, which lesson would it be?

Karen: Learn your strengths and work them without second guessing yourself. When Chanel got started she had very little going for her. She was the second string mistress of a wealthy horse breeder. Otherwise, she had no money, no family, no other connections. But she had a few terrific ideas, in which she had absolute confidence.

Ingrid: How would you describe your own style?

Karen: Last year's J. Crew, I'm afraid to say.

Ingrid: Do you wear the mulberry, plum and rose boucle Chanel style jacket that you made?

Karen: The jacket is nearly finished. It's still awaiting its buttons.

Ingrid: Your experience at Didier Ludot's shop in Paris is something that probably all of us can relate to - being intimidated by a haughty salesperson. What did you do with the photo of le bulldog? (He died last year btw). Any chance you were contacted by Didier after your book was published?

Karen: Awwww! Le bulldog was the most adorable pup ever. Parisian sales people are a breed unto themselves; they really don't care if you buy what they are selling. And if you're a silly American in cowboy boots, they prefer that you just move along. I have the picture of the dog taped to the wall over my desk. And no, no word from Monsieur Ludot. Tant pis pour moi.

Ingrid: Chanel said "Elegance is refusal." What do you find it hardest to refuse?

Karen: The obvious answer is everything in the apple fritter food group. Chanel herself ate almost nothing. She used to say, "I eat like a race horse, standing up." But what I really have a hard time 'refusing' is throwing on a jeans and t-shirt and thinking I'm properly dressed. I live in Portland, Oregon, where you never have to own anythin gmore stylish than a pair of dark wash Levis. Plus, I've got a kid, a horse, and a career in which technically I never even have to get out of my bathrobe. There's just not that much call for me to invest in style. And yet I love it. I love beautifully made clothes and statement shoes and big jewelry. That I don't have much occasion to wear these things doesn't mean I need to look as if I'm a paycheck away from living under a bridge.

Ingrid: You have a delightfully refreshing wit and candor that seems to be rare among authors. Where does this come from?

Karen: That's nice of you to say. It's most likely a mix of genes and having spent my formative years as the wise-cracking best friend of the Homecoming queen.

Ingrid: Is there any other fashion icon that you would like to research and write about?

Karen: Although Chanel loathed her, I love Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiap, as she was known, believed clothes could be witty. She invented hot pink and added zippers to ski wear. She created buttons that looked like other things: peanuts, flowers, beetles. Chanel was rather strict. She was raised in an orphanage by nuns and when it came to clothes she shared their same sense of play.

Ingrid: In one of your author photos, I can see a huge stack of books beside your bed. What are you currently reading?

Karen: *Haha* Yes that stack keeps growing and growing. I just finished reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall and I'm currently rereading Lolita.