“You live but once; you might as well be amusing.”
Coco Chanel lived a glamorous life with beautiful clothes, famous friends, and rich lovers. She was the epitome of chic in her day, yet more than forty years after her death – and a hundred years after opening her first shop – she continues to inspire and amuse. Small wonder that her label continues to endure when so many others have come and gone. Chanel is the 2nd oldest couture house still operating (1909); only Lanvin is older (1889).
So how did it all start? At some grand chateau in the South of France? A fairy tale romance between a lord and lady? A legendary match of artists?
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in Saumur, France in the summer of 1883 to a market stallholder, Albert Chanel, and his laundress girlfriend, Jeanne Devolle. She was their second child, and they married later that year and had four more children in quick succession. When Gabrielle was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis, and her father quickly abandoned the family. Gabrielle and her siblings were sent to a Catholic orphanage in Central France.
The nuns taught Gabrielle how to sew. When she visited her mother’s relatives during school breaks, her aunts taught her how to sew with flair and style. Gabrielle learned the trade willing enough, but had her sights set on something else: a singing career.
When she turned 18 in 1901, she left the orphanage and became a singer in Moulins, taking the stage name Coco Chanel (coco is short for coquette, the French word for “kept woman”). When the singing didn’t pan out, she took a job in a tailoring shop where she soon met a young, rich French textile heir named Etienne Balsan. She became Etienne’s mistress, and he introduced her to “the good life” of fast cars, fine food, and beautiful homes. Gabrielle kept her tailoring job for a while, but left it to travel and party with Etienne. In her down time, she began making hats. In 1909, she and Etienne ended their relationship, but he lent her his Paris apartment to start her hat shop, which she opened on the ground floor. She also became the mistress of one of Etienne’s friends, Arthur Capel.
Arthur helped her find a proper location for her hat shop on the Rue Cambon in Paris in 1910. She began adding clothes in 1912 and by 1913, had opened additional locations in Deauville and Biarritz, seaside resort towns in the north and south. Her clothes were simple and comfortable and a welcomed change from the ornate styles of the period. She made jersey fashionable, because she couldn’t afford expensive fabrics in the beginning. During World War I, she drew inspiration from military uniforms, and her sailor and menswear styles were an instant hit. By 1915, Harper’s Bazaar was calling her, “One to watch.”
Coco Chanel became known for her meticulousness and her attention to detail. She began beading evening dresses in the 1920’s, as was the fashion, but she also began introducing two and three piece day suits, which have been the signature of her house ever since. She debuted her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1921, costume jewelry in 1924, cardigan sweaters in 1925, and “the little black dress” in 1926. She also began a romance with the Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, who was divorcing his 2nd wife and very much wanted Coco to be his 3rd. She reportedly told him, “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster but there is only one Coco Chanel.” (She knew what she was talking about – the duke was married four times).
By the 1930’s, The House of Chanel was catering to the couture elite and enjoying tremendous success. Their main competitor was the Italian Elsa Schiaparelli, who created outrageous and ornate ensembles as compared to Chanel’s simple and refined looks. Coco referred to the House of Schiaparelli as, “Those little dresses.”
When World War II began in 1939, Coco Chanel retired and moved to the Hotel Ritz in Paris with her new beau, Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Only her perfume and accessories were sold in her existing shops. The relationship caused her problems after the war; she was accused of aiding the Germans and arrested after the liberation. Winston Churchill intervened and had her released, but she packed up and fled to Switzerland, where she remained for several years.
She finally returned to Paris in 1953 to find the city abuzz about Dior and his very feminine “New Look.” To reinvent herself and compete, Coco knew it would require a sizable investment, and she turned to Pierre Wertheimer, the partner behind her perfume line and with whom she’d had a love/hate business relationship for 30+ years, to help her start again. He agreed, and The House of Chanel re-opened in 1954 to great fanfare. She relaunched the Chanel suit, introduced the quilted Chanel bag, and ventured into men’s fragrances with Pour Monsieur. By 1960, she was one again the undisputed Queen of Paris fashion.
She continued to challenge herself throughout the 1960’s, and was working on the Fall 1971 collection when she died of a heart attack in her home at the Hotel Ritz in January 1971 at age 87.
At the time of her death, the Wertheimer family owned a 90% stake in the House of Chanel. Pierre’s son, Jacques, quickly bought out the remaining 10%, but was more interested in his race horses than the fashion house, and the brand began to wane from neglect. Jacques son, Alain, took over in 1974, and spent the next decade re-creating the cachet that Chanel once had by pulling Chanel perfumes out of drugstores and putting them back in department stores and boutiques. He also searched for a head designer who shared his vision, and upon finding him, Karl Lagerfeld, convinced him to end his contract with Chloe and come design for Chanel in 1983.
Since then, Chanel has grown into a multi-billion dollar a year enterprise, offering clothing, accessories, and beauty products online and in 310 boutiques and department stores world wide. It’s one of the most iconic brands in the world, and a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is reportedly sold somewhere every 30 seconds, generating $100 million a year on that fragrance alone.
From an orphaned wannabe singer to a potential duchess to a legendary fashion designer, Coco Chanel lived the kind of life few will ever know. She took away the staunch corsets of the Victorian era and clothed women in comfortable clothes they looked and felt good wearing. In the end, isn’t that what fashion is all about?
You can see the current Chanel offerings here.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
— Coco Chanel