Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
Founder of the House of Chanel
"Success is often achieved by those who don't know that failure is inevitable."- Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel
Her first customers were princesses and duchesses, but she dressed them like secretaries and stenographers in faux pearls, trench coats, simple knits, turtleneck sweaters and "little black dresses." By thumbing her nose at the haute couture styles of the 19th century, Coco Chanel freed women from the suffocating clutches of corsets and bustles and created a fashion revolution that would influence every designer that came after her. In fact, her signature suit-a collarless cardigan jacket trimmed in braid with an elegantly straight skirt-is the single most copied fashion of all time.
But perhaps this entrepreneurial dilettante's true genius lay in her shrewd recognition of the value of spinning off her name-a name that would remain one of the most famous and revered in the fashion world, even 30 years after her death.
Chanel's rags-to-riches story reads like a Harlequin romance novel. The illegitimate daughter of a poor French peddler and a shop girl, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel was born in 1883 in the Auvergne region of France. After her mother died and her father ran off, Chanel spent much of her early life in a convent. When she was 17, the nuns who ran the convent helped Chanel get a job as a seamstress. But the beautiful young woman secretly yearned to escape the humdrum life of provincial France and ran off to the garrison town of Moulins to become a cabaret singer.
While she never found stardom as a chanteuse, she did find Etienne Balsan, a rich young playboy who took her in as his "back-up" mistress and moved her to Paris. Always the rebel, Chanel refused to dress her part. Instead of the extravagant satin dresses that were de rigueur for coquettes of the day, Chanel wore plain, dark-colored dresses that marked the beginning of the fashion trend that would make her name famous throughout Europe.
To keep her busy while he attended to his other mistress, Balsan helped Chanel open her own hat and dress shop in Paris. That arrangement led to bigger and better things when Chanel left Balsan for his friend Arthur "Boy" Chapel in 1913. A wealthy English businessman, Chapel, who is claimed to have been the true love of her life, provided the capital for Chanel to open two additional boutiques in the coastal towns of Deauville and Biarritz.
Chanel had always loved wearing men's clothing, which she borrowed freely from her lovers' closets, so it's no surprise that the inspiration for her early designs came from menswear. She even made many of her creations out of traditionally masculine materials, such as wool jersey, which had never before been employed for women's clothing. Almost at once, her simple, yet elegant designs began to alter the way women of style looked and dressed. Urged by Chanel, women the world over cut their hair and discarded their corsets in favor of loose-fitting sweaters, blazers, simple knit skirts, trenchcoats and Chanel's trademark "little black dress." Chanel was so successful that she was able to pay back Chapel in full, just four years after he set her up in business. Their affair continued, even after he married another woman, and did not end until Chapel died in a car crash on his way to join Chanel for New Year's Eve in 1919.
Throughout the 1920s, Chanel's social, sexual and professional progress continued, and her eminence as a fashion designer grew to the status of legend. Her growing fame made her one of the "in crowd." She befriended Stravinsky, Picasso and other members of Paris' exclusive art clique, and she designed costumes for Russian ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev and French filmmaker Jean Cocteau. (Known for her generosity to her friends, Chanel paid for Diaghilev's funeral when he died penniless in Venice.)
During this time, Chanel experimented with many different styles, including Gypsy skirts, over-the-top faux jewelry and glittering eveningwear made of crystal and jet beads. It was also during the '20s that Chanel introduced the product that would ensure her immortality. After the death of Chapel, Chanel became the mistress of Russian Grand Duke Dmitri. Through him, she met Ernest Beaux, a perfumer whose father had worked for the Czar. Beaux was working on an essence for French perfume maker Francois Coty. According to legend, after sampling the scent, Chanel made a few suggestions, then convinced Beaux to give it to her.
In 1924, she released it as Chanel No. 5-the first perfume ever to bear a designer's name. Boldly advertised as "A very improper perfume for nicely brought-up ladies," the dark, leathery, distinctly masculine blend in its Art Deco bottle proved to be liquid gold.
Chanel's fame continued to grow throughout the 1930s, as Hollywood courted her services and she nearly married one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster. (In later years, explaining why she chose not to marry the duke, Chanel replied, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.") Chanel's confidence, some say arrogance, was hard won. She'd worked her way up from literally nothing to become one of the most popular designers in the history of fashion. But with the coming of World War II, her fame would turn into infamy.
During the war, Chanel became mired in controversy. When the Nazis marched on Paris, Chanel responded by shutting down her business and becoming involved with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi officer 13 years her junior. In return, von Dincklage allowed Chanel to continue to reside in her beloved Ritz Hotel.
Believing her career as a designer was over, Chanel stayed out of the public eye for the next decade and a half, relying on the sales of her perfume as her main source of income. Then in 1954, at the ago of 71, Chanel announced she was making a comeback.
Depending on the source, Chanel's return to the fashion world has been attributed to falling perfume sales, disgust at what she was seeing in the fashion world of the day or simple boredom. Some say she became jealous of Christian Dior's growing fame and returned to fight for her fashion crown.
Regardless of why she returned, reactions to her return were decidedly mixed. In Europe, her comeback was initially deemed an utter failure. Fashion critics were less than impressed with her new line, which merely reiterated her message of casual chic. But in the United States, Americans couldn't buy her suits fast enough. Both Europe and the critics soon relented to Chanel's success in America.
Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, Chanel once again found herself at the forefront of fashion by following the same simple yet radical philosophy with which she started: It is possible to be comfortable and chic at the same time. While it did not destroy Dior, by the time of her death in 1971, Chanel's remarkable comeback had earned her the title of "the best designer of her time."
Today, under the guidance of designer Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel remains not only one of the oldest, but also one of the world's most prestigious fashion houses still active. A tribute to her unique vision, the designs of the woman who carried fashion into the 20th century promise to remain just as popular well into the 21st century.
The Mata Hari Of The Fashion World?
Alternately the toast and scourge of Paris, Coco Chanel's reputation never fully recovered from her affair with a Nazi intelligence officer during World War II. But according to one historian, Chanel may have been more of a war hero than a war criminal. Edmonde Charles-Roux, considered the most reliable of Chanel's biographers, has offered circumstantial but credible evidence that Chanel was sent by Walter Schellenberg, a ranking officer in German intelligence, on a peace mission to British prime minister Winston Churchill. Schellenberg was reportedly acting on behalf of Gestapo leader Heinrich Himmler, who attempted to offer secret peace initiatives to the Allies toward the end of the war.
After the liberation of France, French resistance forces arrested Chanel for her wartime activities. But Churchill, a close friend of one of Chanel's former lovers, the Duke of Westminster, is said to have intervened on her behalf. Chanel was released just 24 hours after her arrest and immediately left France for Switzerland.
Rumor Has It
One of the enduring mysteries surrounding Coco Chanel is exactly how she got her nickname. Some of her biographers go along with the story that her father nicknamed her "Coco." Others contend that Chanel came by the name during her brief stint as a cabaret singer because her repertoire consisted of only two songs: "Ko ko ri Ko" and "Quiqu `a vu Coco?" But according to one source, Chanel herself once explained that the name was nothing more than a shortened version of "coquette," the French word for "kept woman."