What a woman! Nothing stopped the dynamic Coco Chanel from becoming the most stylish, sophisticated fashion icon of the 20th century. History has proven her right as Coco escaped a life of poverty and hardship to propel herself into a powerful fashion designer of her own making.
Gabrielle Chanel was born illegitimate in Saumur, France on August 19th 1883, but she would later claim that her real date of birth was 1893, making her ten years younger. Her mother died at the young age of thirty three and her father sent Coco and her older sister Julie to an orphanage when she was only 12. “By the time I was 12, I realized that money is freedom,” she said.
The young Chanel was sent to the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress.
When she turned 18 she left the orphanage and began working for a local tailor. She also had a brief stint as a singer in cafes and concert halls where she was given the nickname Coco by local soldiers who went to watch her.
In 1908 when Coco was 23 she became the mistress of a rich ex-military officer, the textile heir Etienne Balsan in 1908.
She lived at his chateau for three years where she started designing and creating hats as a diversion to her aristocratic lifestyle.
Balsan introduced Coco to his friend, the wealthy industrialist Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel who later became involved with Coco and installed her in a Paris apartment and helped finance her first millinery shops.
The relationship lasted nine years, even after Capel married in 1918.
She soon opened boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz, but in 1919 Capel was killed in a car accident and shattered her world personally and professionally. Twenty-five years after his death, Coco explained to a friend: “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness I have to say.”
Chanel then focused on expanding from hats to clothing and selected an unusual fabric: jersey. The decision was rather shocking since it was commonly used for men’s underwear. Purchased primarily for its low cost and ample supply, the fabric draped well and suited Chanel’s designs, which were simple and practical especially after World War I broke out.
No longer were women forced to wear corsets and need a lady’s maid to dress and undress. Society and history was never the same again. By 1916 Chanel’s stores are so financially successful that she has three hundred employees.
Not only was she able to pay back the money she received from Boy Chapel, but also became financially independent, which was a remarkable achievement.
By the 1920s, Coco moved into 31, rue Cambon in Paris, where Chanel company headquarters remain to this day.
Chanel transformed herself into a style icon with an attention grabbing bob haircut that put her at the cutting edge of a new modern style. In 1922, she launched the Chanel No. 5 fragrance, which remains one of the most classic perfumes in history.
Two years later, Coco went into a partnership with Pierre Wertheimer for entering the fragrance business and the family continues to control the perfume company today.
In 1925, Chanel launched her signature cardigan jacket and the following year had another breakout success with her little black dress (forever known as the LBD).
Both have become staples of every Chanel collection and any modern women’s wardrobe. Upon returning to Paris after the end of the war, Coco expanded her signature style with the introduction of pea jackets and bell-bottoms for women.
Her new collection was a huge success in the United States.
It was during a trip to Monte Carlo that Chanel meets the English aristocrat the Duke of Westminster and embarks on a decade long relationship.
The popularity of tanning can be traced to Coco in 1923 after cruising from Paris to Cannes with her English lover the Duke of Wellington whose yacht they traveled on. Chanel had gotten too much sun by accident, but the press and fashion world assumed the immensely influential Frenchwoman was making a fashion statement.
‘I think she may have invented sunbathing,’ Prince Jean-Louis de Faucigny-Lucigne said. ‘At that time, she invented everything.’ Soon, it was vogue for women to tan their skin in the sun.
She begins to move her business into accessories and becomes the first designer to make costume jewellery fashionable.
When the Duke leaves Chanel to marry another, Coco takes a chance at designing clothes for Hollywood films and signs a lucrative million dollar contract.
Stars Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly fell in love with her effortlessly stylish cardigan suits. She also designed costumes for the stage, including Cocteau’s ‘Antigone’ (1923) and ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1937) and cinematic works such as ‘La Regle de Jeu’.
Chanel’s position as fashion leader in the 1930’s is threatened by Italian designer Elsa Schiaperelli. Regardless, she released a new collection betting that elegant and sophisticated women will prefer her designs. She was right.
In 1936 Chanel is faced with her workers going on strike, which she promptly fires. Realizing their skills, she hires them back after conceding to their demands.
With the outbreak of World War II Chanel declares it was ‘no time for fashion’ and took a fifteen year break from retail and lived off the royalties from her perfume.
Chanel closed her fashion house during the war and began a relationship with German officer named Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Her affair with the Nazi military officer forced her to move to Switzerland to escape controversy. She had been suspected of spying, but records show that she was released after being questioned about her ties to Nazi Germany by a judge in France.
Later, in 1954 Coco at age 70, she presented a new collection for the first time in 15 years. The reviews are harsh and many felt she should have stayed in retirement.
Nevertheless, the obstacles to returning were formiable: finding financing, suitably trained employees, selecting new fabrics and lastly competing at against the next generation of designers.
Although not a critical success, the designer persevered and within a few seasons, Chanel was enjoying newfound respect. Coco updated her signature looks with a redesign of the classic tweed suits that made her famous.
The Chanel suit became a status symbol for a new generation, with its slim skirt and collarless jacket trimmed in braid, gold buttons, patch pockets, and sewn into the hem, a gold-colored chain ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders.
Coco was able to turn a small boutique that employed two teenage girls into one of the most profitable fashion houses of all time.
At her death in1971, the French couturier had long since established herself as the twentieth century’s single most important arbiter of fashion. Coco never married, nor did she have children.
Instead, Coco pursued her dreams and went from rags to seamstress to one of the world’s most respected fashion designers at the House of Chanel.
Coco once said: “How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.” No matter what, Coco Chanel was certainly someone.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” At the age of eighty-seven, while living at her private apartment at the Ritz-Hotel Coco Chanel died.