In the small town of Saumur in France, Gabrielle Chanel (she later changed her name to Coco) was born to Albert Chanel who was a market stallholder and Jeanne Devolle, a laundrywoman on August 19, 1883. She had five siblings. Her mother passed away of tuberculosis when she was twelve, leaving the children to the father, who left them after a week of their mother’s death. She stayed for six years in an orphanage of Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine where she learnt the art of being a seamstress. She left at the age of eighteen for the town of Moulins where she became a shopkeeper for a while, and then tried her luck as a cabaret singer. Not much could be achieved by this, other than her name – Coco, for the songs that she sang. Four years after she had left the orphanage, she met a man named Etienne Balsan, a horse breeder and a riding enthusiast. She accepted his proposal to live with him and became his mistress, and enjoyed the luxuries of high society in his company. Soon she met and had an affair with Arthur Capel, an influential English industrialist who despite his youth had attained much success and had many connections. With his keen sense of enterprise, he turned Chanel into a modiste by helping her open her first milliner shop in Paris in 1910, and later a boutique in Deauville, France in 1913. She adopted features of men’s clothing for female use as she borrowed clothes of her lovers – shirts, ties, coats.
She started off by designing hats, and gradually added jackets, jumpers, and “the sailor blouse” which became the war-time garment for women of the higher strata. In 1915 she opened another boutique in Biarritz, France which even during World War I was visited by royals from all over Europe. This enterprise was a huge success. In Biarritz in 1920, she met Grand Duke Dmitri of Russia. They were inseparable for a year and she adopted his sense of luxury as part of her designs. Her embroidered dresses, the Russian peasant blouse and furs became widely popular. The Grand Duke Dmitri also introduced her to Ernest Beaux, an outstanding Russian chemist, who created the formula for Chanel’s first perfume – Chanel Number 5. Presented in a simple square bottle, contrasting with the fanciful flagons used at the time, it represented her freedom of thought and an urge to create trend, rather than follow it. Create trend is exactly what she did, with the perfume gaining instant popularity also because of its exclusivity. She then widened the market for the perfume by giving production and distribution rights to Wertheimer, a large cosmetic and fragrance company of which she received 10% royalty. Chanel Number 5 still remains one of the top-selling perfumes in the world. To her luxury was not the opposite of poverty, but the opposite of vulgarity.
She then designed the “little black dress” which took the world by storm. First introduced in 1926, Chanel’s little black dress, “the Ford” as the American Vogue called it, became a fashion icon – the design being any black dress, with no fancy lace or embroidery, sleeved or sleeveless and short or long by choice. She used the colour black which was earlier worn only at funerals or was reserved for the clergy or lawyers. This dress was designed during the period of her romantic involvement (from 1926 to 1931) with the Duke of Westminster. She incorporated English fashion into her designs – taking English tweeds, sweaters, sailors berets, etc. Through the Duke, she met the Prince of Wales and was introduced to Winston Churchill.
For a while, Chanel even designed dresses for Hollywood in movies like “Palmy Days” (1931), “Tonight or Never” (1931) and “The Greeks Had a Word For It” (1932). But she did not appreciate being dictated by actresses and never came back to Hollywood. During World War II she closed down all her shops, not believing it to be a time for fashion. She was immensely discredited for having an affair with a Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She was allegedly also a part of “Operation Modelhunt”, an attempt by Nazi officials to get to Winston Churchill through Coco Chanel’s old associate Lombardi. She was arrested by the Gestapo as a collaborator to a British spy when Lombadri refused to resume professional relations, but they avoided trial due to intervention by the British royal family. She was also said to have links with another Nazi Walter Kutschmann in 1943, who was responsible for the murder of thousands of Polish Jews. She then left for Switzerland in 1945 where she stayed for almost ten years. In 1954, Chanel reopened her boutique, but her new collection was thrashed by critics. Even so, she found some faithful clients in Britain and America. It took her a long time to regain her lost glory. She was still working in 1971 when she died.
Chanel’s designs were a materialisation of women’s liberation. She was a designer for the aristocracy, but her designs slowly permeated to the streets and became a choice for thousands of women. Her designs were generally criticised by the fashion critics of her time as being too simple, too casual, too soft and not sensational enough. But she refused to heed their remarks. Chanel was an innovator and not a follower. She shed gaudy colours, frills, layered dresses and traditional hair styles. Her designs were modern and fresh. They were fit for the outdoors, so that women may feel comfortable while they look fabulous. Chanel designed everything that should and could have been known as fashion – from hats to clothes, from handbags to sunglasses, from perfumes to accessories – Chanel truly redefined fashion in the way she wanted.
Coco Chanel was not only a masterful dressmaker, she was also a brilliant entrepreneur who did not lose an opportunity where she saw one. She was enterprising and her designs inspire not only those in the world of fashion, but also women and men from other fields to believe in their creation and in their style.
“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”
- Coco Chanel