“Fashion fades only style remains the same” Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19th 1883, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence in Samur, France, to an unwed mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, who was a laundrywoman. Her father, Albert Chanel, was a street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments. In 1884, he married Jeanne Devolle, persuaded by her family who had effectively paid Albert to marry her. At birth, Chanel's name was entered into the official registry as "Chasnel". Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and with Albert ‘travelling’ her last name was mis-spelled.
In 1895, at the age of 31 her mother died of bronchitis when Gabrielle was only twelve years old. Her father sent his two sons out to work as farm labourers and his three daughters were sent to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine. It was a stark life, demanding very strict discipline. At age eighteen, Chanel, was too old to remain at Aubazine, and went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins. During her six years at Aubazine orphanage she was taught the art of sewing which enabled Chanel to find employment as a seamstress. When not plying her needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers.
In 1906 Chanel was to be found in the spa resort town of Vichy which boasted a profusion of concert halls, theatres and cafés where she hoped to find success as a performer. When the Vichy season ended, Chanel returned to Moulins, and realised that a serious stage career was not on the cards. However during her time as a singer, in the clubs in Vichy and Moulins she was called by her nickname ‘Coco.’ Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman,” according to an article in The Atlantic.
Around the age of twenty, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan a young French ex-cavalry officer and a wealthy textile heir, and at the age twenty-three, Chanel became Balsan's mistress. For the next three years, she lived with him in his chateau Royallieu near Compiègne. However in 1908 she left him for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. Both men were instrumental in Chanel’s first fashion venture.
She opened her first millinery shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910, and by 1915 she opened more stores in Deauville and Biarritz where she began making clothes. Her first clothing success came from a dress she made out of an old jumper on a cold day. Many people asked where she got the dress, and she offered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she once told author Paul Morand.
In the 1920’s, Chanel took her expanding business to new heights, launching her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, uniquely being the first to feature a designer’s name. “Perfume, is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion.... that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” Chanel once explained. In one of her many quotes she also stated. “A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future.”
Also in the 1920’s a revolutionary design was born, Chanel’s little black dress. Taking a colour which was associated with mourning and showing just how chic it could be for evening wear. Although Chanel was heard to say. “The best colour in the wholewide world is the one that looks good on you”. Apart from the fashion, Chanel was a popular figure in the Paris literary and artistic worlds, where she designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and for Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends and for a time she had a relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.
During the 1920's another important romance for Chanel began, she met the wealthy duke of Westminster aboard his yacht around 1923, and the two started a decades-long relationship. She reportedly said with regards to turning down his proposal, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster - but there is only one Chanel!”
During 1925, she introduced the legendary Chanel suit with a collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time - borrowing elements of men’s wear, emphasising comfort over the constraints of the - popular fashions, by helping women say good-bye to corsets and other confining garments. Which rings true from Chanel saying "Fashion is architecture: it is a matter of proportions.”
Chanel couture was a lucrative business enterprise and by 1935 she was employing thousands of people. The economic depression during the 1930s had a negative impact on her company, but it was the outbreak of World War II in 1939 that led Chanel to close her business, firing all her 3,000 employees and closing all of her shops. During the German occupation of France, Chanel was involved with a German military officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, and received permission to stay at her apartment at the Hotel Ritz.
The Nazi’s seized all Jewish-owned property and business enterprises, which gave Chanel the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by Parfums Chanel, its most profitable product, Chanel No.5. The directors of Parfums Chanel, the Wertheimers, were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an "Aryan" to petition German officials to legalise her claim to sole ownership. She was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At war's end, Amiot returned ‘Parfums Chanel’ back into the hands of the Wertheimers.
Directly following the end of World War II, the business world watched with interest the ongoing legal wrestle for control of Parfums Chanel. Interested parties in the proceedings were aware of Chanel's Nazi affiliations during wartime, and that if made public knowledge, would undermine the brand. In September 1944 Chanel was interrogated about her relationship with von Dincklage,and because she was not charged as a collaborator, many wondered whether her friend Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on her behalf.
Eventually Wertheimers and Chanel came to a mutual agreement, and renegotiated the original 1924 contract. On 17th May 1947 Chanel received profits from the wartime sale of Chanel No. 5, equivalent to nine million dollars today. Her future share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. The financial benefit to her would make her earnings in the vicinity of twenty-five million dollars a year, making her at the time, one of the richest women in the world. Pierre Wertheimer also agreed to an unusual stipulation proposed by Chanel herself, to pay all of her living expenses - from the trivial to the large - for the rest of her life, to which he agreed.
It did not end there, although not officially charged, in 1945 Chanel suffered at the hands of public opinion, and many viewed her relationship with a Nazi officer as a betrayal of her country. This prompted Chanel to leave Paris, where she spent some years in Switzerland in a sort of exile, she also lived at her country house in Roquebrune for a time.
At the age of 70, Chanel made a triumphant return to the fashion world. She first received scathing reviews from critics, but her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world.
As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing, but nonetheless she stuck to her usual routine of preparing the spring catalogue. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday January 9th and feeling unwell she went to bed early. She died on Sunday, January 10th, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than 30 years.
Having never married she said. “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” Hundreds crowded together at the Church of the Madeleine to bid farewell to the fashion icon. In tribute, many of the mourners wore Chanel suits. She became a revered style icon known for her simple yet sophisticated outfits paired with great accessories, such as several strands of pearls. As Chanel once said, “luxury must be comfortable, it is not luxury.”
A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins to continue the Chanel legacy. Today her namesake company continues to thrive and is believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year. In addition to the longevity of her designs, Chanel’s life story continues to captivate people’s attention.
Image 1: Coco Chanel image credit: wikipedia.com
Image 2: Chanel Boutique on Rodeo Drive image credit: wikipedia.com