“Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know failure is inevitable.”
- Coco Chanel
There are several versions of how the iconic French designer Coco Chanel, née Gabrielle Chanel, earned her iconic nickname “Coco.”
One is that it originated in her youth when she was a cabaret singer in Moulin, France, where she known for performing "Ko Ko Ri Ko" (French version of “Cock-a-doodle-doo”) and "Qui qu'a vu Coco?” (“Who has seen Coco?”).
However, another version is that the nickname came from the French word “coquette,” with one definition being “kept woman.” Chanel had been a kept woman of several rich patrons before becoming the international face of fashion. Both stories are plausible based on her history.
Born in Saumur, France in 1883, Chanel was one of six offspring of a traveling salesman and a laundress. After her mother died when she was 11, her father dropped Chanel and her two sisters, Antoinette and Julie, off in a convent orphanage, never to return. There, she learned how to sew and worked as a seamstress at the age of 17. But the young fashion-mogul-to-be had her eyes set on another dream: to become a cabaret singer. She ran off to the town of Moulin, where militia officers were stationed and singing halls were aplenty.
It was during her time as a cabaret singer -- at the age of 20 -- she met her first patron. Named Étienne Balsan, the rich, young textile heir initially took Chanel on as a “back up” mistress. She eventually left the cabaret and moved into Balsan’s chateau located in Compiègne, a municipality north of Paris, where she lived a leisured existence of late mornings, horseback riding and endless parties.
It was during her life as Balsan’s mistress that she developed her avant-garde look. The ingredients that fueled her fashion-forward creativity during that time period was not only her inability to financially keep up with the expensive wardrobe of the jet-set ladies of the privileged set, but also her propensity toward a more practical and comfortable style without all the frills.
Having been a trained seamstress, she could create her own “look,” altering the dresses she already had or dipping into Balsan’s wardrobe and tailoring his clothing to her taste. Chanel loved wearing men’s clothing and favored loose-fitting dresses minus the corset. She embodied one of her sayings, “It’s possible to be comfortable and chic at the same time.”
It was also through Balsan that the then 28-year-old Chanel met her next patron, his close friend, Arthur “Boy” Chapel. A wealthy self-made Englishman, Chapel became the reported “love of her life,” although he was never faithful and eventually went on to marry an English aristocrat.
She left Balsan for Chapel in 1913, who provided the money for Chanel to open her flagship clothing store that same year in Deauville, France. Her store sold sportswear for women made out of wool jersey, a fabric not commonly used for women’s clothing. Soon, she opened another shop in the coastal town of Biarritz.
Her stores were so successful, she was able to pay Chapel back his investment, as well as open more locations -- with five shops in Paris alone. She expanded her brand to include women’s scents -- her most famous and profitable Chanel No. 5 -- a makeup line of lipsticks and powders and skincare products. At the height of her industry in 1935, she employed 4,000 employees and was the world’s wealthiest woman.
Regardless of where her nickname “Coco” had originated from, one thing is clear: The illegitimate child of a street peddler lived by her wits, grit and innovative vision. And while she certainly got help from powerful men in life, she used her relationships to become an international business woman whose brand has staying power. Chanel has grown into an international company worth $6.8 billion as of May 2015, according to Forbes with 310 shop locations worldwide.
Here are five additional facts about this radical and visionary.