Deep in the countryside of Saumur France, August 19, 1883 bore the birth of a baby girl given the name Gabrielle Chasnel. As the illegitimate daughter of a forsaken romance between an aspiring seamstress and a Nomad, Gabrielle would grow up ashamed of her family and later lead her life in denial of her past. Still against all odds, she would become a legend; one who would eventually be known to the world as Coco Chanel. As an integrative fashion designer, Coco single-handedly launched what is now considered to be one of the world’s most recognized brand names: Chanel. Named after her adopted surname, the company which first began in a small French village nearly 100 years ago is now worth an estimated 11.8 billion dollars. How exactly did Coco Chanel accomplish such a rags-to-riches fairytale? Her journey was not a simple one.
Gabrielle Chasnel began her life as the second child of Jeanne Devolle and Albert Chanel, a young and unwed couple searching for independence and identity. When Gabrielle was born, her birth was recorded by two illiterate employees of a local hospice. The workers were not sure of how to spell ‘Chanel’, prompting them to improvise and spell her surname incorrectly as ‘Chasnel’ on the birth certificate. Later as an adult, Gabrielle would refuse to correct this mistake in fear that the truth of her illegitimacy would become public. The Chanel family struggled financially during Gabrielle’s childhood, with Albert and Jeanne often sacrificing their own food to feed their children. By the time Gabrielle was 12 years old, she had 4 siblings in total. Despite having relatively close relationships with her family now, Gabrielle would later insist that she was an only child, and pay her real siblings off as a way to prevent public humiliation from the truth about her real family. Her father left early in 1895 that year to expedite across Europe, leaving Jeanne alone to support their 5 children. The combination of loneliness and stress led Jeanne to face a series of medical problems. Her health matters only became worse over the years, and she eventually died from tuberculosis in the winter of 1895.
Gabrielle’s father returned for a short while, but soon left again in hopes of saving up money to raise his family. Because of his absence, the Chanel children were divided to stay with extended family and orphanages. Gabrielle, along with her older sister were sent to an orphanage. Since they had no money, the girls stayed at the home for free. Still, this was in no way considered a privilege. The nuns or “aunts” as they were referred to at the Catholic-based home were extremely cruel to the Chanel sisters in particular, and often singled them out for being ‘charity cases’. To ‘earn her keep’, Gabrielle was forced to became a seamstress. Though assured that her stay there was temporary, Albert never returned to his family.
Gabrielle remained in the orphanage, visiting her other relatives only during school vacations. On the occasions that she did visit, various female family members adamantly taught Gabrielle techniques to improve her sewing. At the age of 18, Gabrielle left the orphanage and began working for a local tailor. Despite talking freely about her experience at the orphanage, and explaining in meticulous detail the abuse in which she encountered from the ‘aunts’, Gabrielle later insisted that she was more than thankful for her upbringing. She once told a French newspaper that “I’ve been ungrateful toward the odious aunts. I owe them everything. A child in revolt becomes a person with armor and strength. It’s the kisses, caresses, teachers, and vitamins that… turn [children] into unhappy or sickly adults. It’s the mean and nasty aunts who create winners… under nastiness looms strength, and a passion for grandeur.” Still, Coco frequently contradicted herself, blaming the aunts for her all her inferiorities. This irregularity from her interviews led many to question her honesty in later years.
The first decade of the 1900’s not only brought the fresh start of a new century, but also many personal changes for Gabrielle. After adopting the name Coco during a brief stint as a café singer from 1905-1908, Gabrielle met and began an affair with a man she was introduced to while working at a tailoring shop: a French playboy and millionaire, Etienne Balsan. Gabrielle, hereafter referred to as simply ‘Coco’, quickly turned into a member of an accustomed high-class society. Life became a materialistic game in which Coco thrived to have more riches than anyone else. Balsan endowed Coco with splendors of the rich life, including diamonds, dresses, and pearls. During her time spent living with Balsan, Coco took on the hobby of designing hats for herself. Soon, this frivolous pastime became a much more profound talent and interest of the budding designer. In 1907, Coco opened up her first shop which offered a range of chic raincoats and jackets for a generous cost. Coco later confessed that the shop was in fact Balsan’s lavish Paris apartment, and that she had taken it over after leaving him the prior year. Though the fashionable boutique was located in the center of thriving Paris, France, the store was not as prosperous as Coco had hoped. She was requested to surrender the property in early 1908. Still, the lack of success from her shop failed to disappoint or discourage Coco; it only made her more determined.
On a chance occasion prior to World War I, Coco reconnected with Etienne Balsan’s former best friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, a wealthy English polo player who Coco later referred to “the only love” of her life. The two soon began a madly passionate relationship that lasted from 1909 until 1918, though Capel was never completely faithful to Coco. Still, Arthur had a lasting impression on the styles of Coco, and his abundance of money helped her to gather enough resources to open another shop. With his support, Coco eventually gained access to a desirable property and financial assistance to open her second millinery shop in Brittany, France.
This time Coco experienced much more success than she did with her previous shop. Impressive clientele at Chanel’s shops, including famed American diplomats and renowned French actresses helped to build her notable reputation. In the middle of 1913, Coco opened her third and largest boutique in Deauville, featuring original women’s sportswear. This was a huge change from the common corsets that most women opted to wear to impress their husbands. A preferred location helped this shop become more profitable than the others; most women in Deauville during the World War I era were coming to realize that women should dress for themselves instead of their men. The wardrobe in which Chanel offered seemed captivating and liberating to women of this time.
Nonetheless, Capel’s influence played a huge role in deciding what fashions Coco would choose to style and sell. For example, the design of Arthur’s favorite blazers inspired Coco to incorporate a squared, masculine touch on classic suit designs. These styles still remain a staple part of the Chanel wardrobe. Coco and Arthur’s affair lasted for many years. Though Capel married Diana Wyndham, an honorable English aristocrat in late 1918, he still remained close to Coco. Later in her life, Chanel listed Capel’s fatal car accident in late 1919 the “single most devastating event” in her life. Many believe that the tragic loss of her great love was the sole reason why Chanel never married.
In the year preceding Capel’s death, world ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev introduced a distraught Coco to famed composer Igor Stravinsky. Aside from consoling Coco’s broken heart, Sergei became a close friend and supposed companion. Chanel offered Diaghilev and his family to reside with her in her French estate. During the time in which this temporary abide took place is when it was rumored that the two had an affair. Two years after her so called ‘illicit affair’ with Diaghilev ended, Coco introduced a new product: a perfume, called Chanel No. 5. The new fragrance quickly became, and remains one of the most lucrative products of the Chanel empire. A man named Pierre Wertheimer was announced Coco’s partner in the perfume portion of the business in 1924. It was also speculated that Wertheimer may have been yet another one of the many lovers Coco had in her lifetime. Still, Wertheimer remained a close confidant and his family continues to control Chanel’s perfume company today.
In 1923, Coco told Harper’s Bazaar magazine that “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance”. Chanel applied this statement to each and every feature of her company. The clothing she designed was always ensured to be simple, comfortable, and revealing. One of Coco’s greatest talents was the art of upgrading fabrics that were considered ‘poor’, such as jersey. Coco was also extremely influential in helping design the iconic 1920’s flapper: young women who strutted around with sleek hair and flat chests, publicly applying their makeup and smoking with long cigarette holders.
In 1925, a woman named Vera Bate Lombardi became Chanel’s official public relations liaison to several European royal families. Lombardi was reported to have had the highest correlations to build the House of Chanel. Interestingly enough, it was Lombardi’s personality whom Coco established her English Look based upon. Lombardi introduced Coco to her aristocratic family members, including her uncle, the Duke of Westminster and her cousin, the Duke of Windsor. Her close relations with many other royals only assisted in Chanel’s creative rule of the fashion world.
Also in 1925, Coco introduced her long-anticipated signature cardigan jacket. The iconic Chanel jackets have several distinguishing designs, and are constructed differently than the traditional tailored jacket. For example, Chanel’s original pieces contain silk lining quilted directly to the fabric, opposed to the usual inner structure of pad stitching. Additionally, Chanel jackets all feature machine sewn and hand-stitched fabric, providing them with more durability. The distinctive Chanel three-piece sleeve is also constructed similarly before being hand sewn to the jacket’s body. The arrays of heavy trims, metal buttons, and curbed chains sewn to the hem have a functional purpose as well. All of these factors together grant the finished product with a tremendously comfortable garment. Most of Chanel’s inventive fashions, including her signature jacket have not changed much since their original debut. This can prove that Chanel’s integrative styles were the product of a brilliant woman beyond her time.
The year 1926 brought the birth of what is now considered to be ‘the’ staple item in every woman’s closet: the signature little black dress. Now commonly referred to as simply a “LBD”, the little black dress was an instant success for Chanel, prompting American Vogue to call it the “Ford”; just as Henry Ford’s Model-T car, the LBD was an immediate hit and widely available. Chanel’s first creation of the little black dress was a slash-necked, short silk dress with diagonal pin-tucks serving decoration. Though many may perceive the LBD as too plain, Coco strongly believed that fashion should be just as functional as it was chic. Ideally simple, her interpretation of the LBD was designed to conceal stains and to fit every woman. The little black dress also is extremely versatile and can be dressed up or down to fit different people’s needs perfectly. Some believe that Coco’s early years spent at the convent orphanage with nuns offered Coco an intuitive affinity for the “uniform” worn by the women who had raised her in her time of need. Regardless, Chanel’s legendary LBD has remained the epitome of simple elegance for over 80 years.
In 1939 at the start of World War II, Coco closed all of her shops. She believed that in the middle of the entire world’s chaos, fashion was not a top priority. Coco began residing in what would become a more than 30 year stay at the Hotel Ritz Paris. During the Nazi occupation of Paris, she was widely criticized for engaging in a steamy affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Nazi spy who secretly arranged for Coco to remain in the hotel. During this same time period, Coco maintained two other residences, both of which were also located in France.
In fall of 1943, Coco sought to end 4 years of professional partition with Vera Bate Lombardi who was staying in Rome. Though Lombardi was unaware of it then, Coco’s true intention was to contact Lombardi’s relative, Sir Winston Churchill. Churchill was a member of the Walter Schellenberg Nazi plan “Operation Modellhut”. Chanel extended an offer for Lombardi to resume her work for Paris’ House of Chanel. Lombardi was overwhelmed until she discovered the truth behind Coco’s request. Vera adamantly repudiated Coco’s request, citing the fashion designer’s guise as “cut-throat”. Vera was later captured as an English spy and was locked in a Roman prison by the Gestapo. Chanel was also briefly arrested for war related crimes, shortly after Lombardi’s detainment. However, Coco’s close ties with the British Royal family ultimately prevented her from being taken to trial.
Two years after her close encounter with prison, the Nazi Empire crumbled and France was free once more. Still, the French government warned of harsh punishments to French citizens who may have partnered with the Nazis. Coco’s previous ties with Hans Gunther von Dincklage provoked several rumors about her loyalty to France. Fearfully Chanel fled to Switzerland, in hopes of obtaining a fresh new start. Coco chose to convey an upscale, yet relatively low-key lifestyle, residing in upper Lausanne aside the sandy shores of Lake Geneva. She could often be seen indulging in beauty treatments at the Valmont Clinic, which was in close proximity to her oceanfront home. Chanel was also frequently witnessed at the Steffan tea room in upper Montreux, a popular spot for local celebrities. During her stay in Switzerland, a distraught and spiteful Coco began to create her own collection of perfumes without informing her partner Pierre Wertheimer. Though Wertheimer believed his legal rights were breached, he settled the disagreement with Coco civilly. She eventually sold inclusive rights to her name to the Wertheimer family in exchange for a monthly remuneration. This stipend helped to support her and her live-in friend: former Nazi spy, Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
1953 marked the year that Chanel finally returned to Paris, only to discover that famed designer Christian Dior was now the alpha of the couture world. Coco decided to consult her estranged former business-partner Pierre Wertheimer for guidance and financial back-up. In return, Wertheimer was awarded full rights to all Chanel products. Their alliance was hoped to have sparked a flame that would reignite Coco’s majestic stance in the fashion industry. However, this was not the case for the French selection of her clientele. Chanel’s new collections were not successful with local Parisians. It is widely speculated that this is because of Coco’s publicized previous relations with German officer von Dincklage. Still, her collection was celebrated by Americans, who would later become her most prevalent purchases.
In February of 1955, the now famous Chanel suit was re-introduced to the public. Her casual yet sophisticated styles once more captured the eyes of women globally. Also in the same month, the fashionable Chanel chain handled quilted leather handbag originally premiered. Coco additionally and impressively established her first men’s cologne, referred to in France as eau de toilette, which she named Pour Monsieur. Chanel’s spring collection was granted the Fashion Oscar at the 1957 Fashion Awards in Dallas. Soon after, Chanel introduced pea jackets and bell bottoms, whose popularity soared in the 1970’s. Coco is also believed by many to be the initial trend-setter for the now popular suntanned skin look. On the eve of her return from St. Barts, Coco sported a summer glow to a fashion show, standing out from the rest of the powdered and pale faces of all the other women.
January 10, 1971 was the final day of Coco’s life. Her obituary listed her as still “designing, still working” at the time of her death. Though she led a remarkable and extraordinary life, Chanel died alone, with only the presence of her sketches and fabric samples to keep her company. In the last years of her life, Coco had become somewhat of a recluse, only leaving her home when absolutely necessary. She had few real friends, and no family. Many may have envied the aspects of Coco’s glamorous and wealthy lifestyle in theory, but most would not have traded their own lives for hers. Though Coco died with a superfluous amount of money, she was lonesome, and never got to experience the one-of-a-kind love and joy of having a husband or children. After her death, Coco Chanel left behind a true legacy. Still, her life seemed as empty as her pockets were during her childhood. She was 87.