When asked who their fashion influence is, you can bet that any fashion designer, stylist or fashionista worth his or her salt would include Coco Chanel at the top of the list. There are few fashion designers who have reached the same iconic level as Coco Chanel. Additionally, her fascinating and, at times, devastating life has made her a relatable yet larger-than-life figure. The talent, tenacity and drama of the lady who coined and lived by the phrase “to be irreplaceable, you must be different,” led to a revolution in fashion which challenged the society’s outdated views on what really makes a woman. Whether you wear her label or simply admire her, you can agree and relate to the notion that the life of Coco Chanel emboldens and captivates women all over the world.
In mid-August of 1883, the town of Saumur, France unknowingly received the newborn baby girl who would eventually be one of the biggest names in fashion. However, few would have known at that moment. In the charity hospital which was overseen by the Sisters of Providence, an unwed laundrywoman gave birth to her second daughter, sired by a peddler. The laundrywoman was Eugenie Devolle and the peddler was Albert Chanel. Their daughter was named Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, the woman who would grow up to achieve great things.
Admittedly, not much is known about the early years of the woman known as Coco Chanel. To mask her humble beginnings, Chanel was known to fabricate her upbringing publicly and in various social circles, thus making it difficult to know what the fashion legend was like in childhood. However, it has been ascertained that Chanel’s mother died at a young age and her nomadic father sent her and her sisters to a convent for abandoned girls. While the life at the convent in Aubazine was strict and stark, she was taught to sew by the nuns which eventually became her salvation.
Upon her 18th birthday, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel legally became too old to be under the care of the nuns at the convent of Aubazine and was relocated to a boarding house in Moulins.
Although she found work as a seamstress, her passion was performing. At a cabaret called La Rotonde, which was a favourite among cavalry officers, Chanel transformed into Coco thanks to her two crowd-favourite songs, "Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco". Coco Chanel pursued her singing career in the resort town of Vichy, but returned to Moulins when she realised that a career in singing was not for her. The return did not produce a bitter ending. Rather, it led to the events which enabled her to go down in history.
Coco's coquettish charm enticed the wealthy textile heir, Ètienne Balsan. Not only did Balsan introduce Chanel to the finer things in life, he also introduced her to the wealthy Captain Arthur "Boy" Capel. Through the relationships and financial support of these two men, Chanel was able to establish her first boutique on Rue Cambon in Paris in 1910. Her lease only enabled her to sell hats as there was already a dress shop in the location, so she acquired two shops in Deauville and Barritz three years later, and started selling her own prêt-à-porter designs. Despite the outbreak of World War I, Chanel's business flourished, thanks to her usage of different materials and her wealthy clientele. After the war, Chanel had acquired an entire building in the fashionable rue Cambon which became her maison de couture.
The fashion trend before Chanel arrived on the scene was very different to what we know today. Women's clothing was often quite restrictive and structured, using corsets to achieve that sometimes impossible hourglass figure. Chanel turned that concept upside down by introducing clothes that were functional and stylish, which flattered a woman's shape rather than attempted to turn it into something it was not. Part of this was the creation of the Chanel Suit. Modern and comfortable yet feminine and fashionable, the Chanel Suit sparked the birth of the suit for women. Closely after this, Chanel paired up with Ernest Beaux to create the legendary perfume Chanel no. 5.
Even before the outbreak of World War II, Coco Chanel was gaining a reputation as a notorious figure. While her innovative designs were skyrocketing the success of her lucrative business and she rubbed elbows with the very wealthy, she was openly known to have a drug habit, was rumoured to have a dislike for homosexuals and Jewish people and was the mistress of a number of men.
Her political views were confirmed during World War II. Upon closing her shops under the basis that it was not a time for fashion, Chanel attempted to leverage her Nazi affiliations to gain control of Parfums Chanel, which had been majority owned by the Wertheimer brothers, who were Jewish. She was also linked to the chief of SS Intelligence, General Walter Schellenberg, and paid for his hospital and funeral bills after his imprisonment for his crimes during the war. Upon the end of the war, despite her questionable activities and affiliations, she was not prosecuted for espionage.
After the war, Chanel re-entered the fashion world during Dior's New Look era. It had been 17 years since she had designed and she was already over 70 years old. While the Parisians did not welcome her new collection due to disapproval over her wartime activities, the Americans and the British welcomed her back.
As an enterprising businesswomen, Chanel knew that she had to expand by introducing completely new products into the line-up. Known for wearing long strands of paste pearls, Chanel partnered with Robert Goossens to introduce jewellery into the brand which would provide a feminine contrast for the masculine suits she created.
This was also the time where the highly covetable Chanel handbag was introduced into her label. Understanding the growing demand and potential success to be made from handbags and leather accessories, Chanel created the quilted Chanel 2.55. It became one of the most covetable handbags in existence, frequently seen under the arm of many celebrities today. Additionally, Chanel began to open her company up to men with the creation of a men's fragrance, Pour Monsieur.
Business was certainly booming during the 1950s and 1960s, and Chanel was a force to be reckoned with. However, in early 1971, Coco Chanel felt ill. She had been busy designing her spring collection, even though she was already 87 years old. She went to bed early on January 9 in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz, the apartment which she had resided for over 30 years. The next day, a chambermaid found her dead. She was found to have died peacefully in her sleep, a calm and subtle exit by a dramatic woman.
The death of Coco Chanel was fully mourned by the fashion world. However, the world has ensured that Coco Chanel lives on. The Chanel fashion house has continued to innovate and remain on top as a global fashion, perfume and cosmetics empire. Many designers and fashionistas use the modern concepts that Chanel introduced during a time where everyone was doing the same thing as their inspiration. Women all over the world look up to Chanel as a provocative and revolutionary woman who challenged outdated and conventional concepts. While her life was ripe with drama and controversy, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel a.k.a. Coco Chanel had a truly inspiring and fascinating life which has been marvelled by those in and out of the fashion world.