On January 10, 1971, famed French fashion designer Coco Chanel died. Coco Chanel was the founder and original designer of the Chanel brand, most well-known for liberating women’s fashion from the “corseted silhouette,” and creating designs that were both stylish and comfortable. Some of her most celebrated works were her collarless fitted suits, the little black dress, and her iconic fragrance, Chanel No. 5.
The future designer was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. Her mother was a laundrywoman and her father was a peddler, who traveled from town to town selling goods. At age 12, her mother died of bronchitis, and Chanel’s father sent her and her sisters to live in a convent which took in abandoned and orphaned girls. Later in her life, after her fame grew, Chanel tried to keep her past an enigma by starting rumors about her childhood. The most prominent rumor being that her father sailed to America to seek fortune after the death of her mother and she was sent to live with her two spinster aunts. It was in her real life at the convent, however, that she was taught to sew by the nuns who raised her. Little did she know that this skill would help her develop her life’s work.
Chanel stayed at the convent until the age of 18, and then moved to a Catholic boarding house in Moulins. She found work as a seamstress using the skills she had learned in the convent, but on the side, began singing at cabarets in Moulin and Vichy. She adopted the name “Coco” during her time performing, though the origin of her name remains somewhat of a mystery. It is speculated that she was given the nickname because of two songs she often performed and was thus associated with – “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco.” Some say she began calling herself this as a nod to the french word for “kept woman,” cocotte. Whatever the reason, from then on, she was “Coco.” She clung to the idea of finding success through performing, and auditioned for stage shows frequently. Though people were drawn to her youthful beauty and her charming demeanor, her singing voice was lacking and she found difficulty booking gigs. Soon she realized her dreams of becoming a stage star would never pan out.
While living in Moulins, Chanel met Étienne Balsan, a young French ex-cavalry officer and wealthy textile heir. She became his mistress and lived in his chateau for three years, where he gave her a luxurious lifestyle filled with expensive jewelry and clothing and a lavish social life. While living with him, she began to dabble in millinery. Soon, she began having an affair with Balsan’s friend, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel. The two men began trying to outbid each other for Chanel’s affection. Also part of the wealthy upper-class, Capel offered Chanel an apartment in Paris and offered to finance her fashion ventures by helping her open her first shop in the city. Although her love affair with Capel never became official because he never stayed faithful to Chanel, and eventually married an English aristocrat, Chanel was heavily influenced by the sartorial style of Capel, which was reflected in her designs. Eleven years after the beginning of their affair, Capel was killed in a car accident, and Chanel later in her life told a close friend, “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”
In Chanel’s first shop, on Paris’s Rue Cambon, she started out selling hats, and began producing clothing after she opened two more shops in Deauville and Biarritz in the early 1900s. Producing clothing for the chilly weather out of jersey and tricot, which were typically only used to make men’s underwear, her fashions began to get noticed.
As the 1920s began, so did Chanel’s exploration into new fashion territories. With the success of her clothing line, she moved on to making accessories and fragrances. Perhaps one of her greatest legacies was the introduction of Chanel No. 5, the first perfume to include the designer’s name. She was once quoted in saying that perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . .that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure.” Chanel No. 5 has certainly kept Chanel’s name alive even after her departure, remaining one of the most popular perfumes in the world to this day.
In 1925 came the invention of Chanel’s signature suit, featuring a menswear inspired look with a collarless jacket and fitted skirt. She was escaping the era of corsets and uncomfortable fashions and exploring a world where women could dress stylishly and comfortably. The 1920s also saw another iconic invention of Chanel’s – the little black dress. Turning a color that had always been associated with death and mourning into a new chic insert into the fashion world became a legacy of Chanel’s. Friends with several culturally important artists and literary minds like Pablo Picasso and Jean Cocteau, Chanel began designing costumes for ballets, plays, and movies.
Economic depression and the beginning of World War II, however, had a negative effect on Chanel’s business. She closed her business and her shops, claiming it was not a time for fashion. Thousands of workers who had found jobs under her growing fashion empire were fired. During the war, when Germany occupied France, Chanel began a relationship with a Nazi officer, through which she gained permission to continue living in her apartment in the Hotel Ritz in Paris. Looked down upon for her involvement with the German military officer and seen as betraying her country, she fled to Switzerland and lived there for several years, exiling herself from her home in France.
She eventually returned to Paris in 1954, and reignited her Chanel line after a 15 year absence. She thought the current fashion world which was being overtaken by male designers like Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga were creating “illogical” designs that women would soon rebel against. The new collection she created received unfavorable reviews from the French who believed her reputation had been tainted by her wartime actions, but British and American audiences soon became her loyal customers.
At 87 years old, Chanel died in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for 30 years on January 10, 1971. Her influence on women’s fashion has had a lasting impression on the designers who followed her. After her death, her company was taken over by designer Karl Lagerfeld, who has continued the Chanel legacy. The thriving business which retains her namesake accrues hundreds of millions in sales every year.