“Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury”. Her own words sum up the brand that has become one of the most popular in the world. With the idea that women’s fashion should be comfortable Chanel transformed the fashion industry and revolutionised women’s clothing. The designer behind the brand associated with upscale fashion, the little black dress and the iconic Chanel No. 5 perfume came from humble beginnings.
Born August 19th 1883, in Saumur France, she was given the name Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel at birth. Chanel often claimed that she was born in 1893 to appear younger, and stating that she was actually born in Auvergne in an effort to make her upbringing appear more glamorous.
The truth is that her childhood was an underprivileged one. Born to an unwed mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, who worked as a laundrywomen in a workhouse and a father that worked as a peddler, life wasn’t easy for the family. Two parents and five children were living in cramped, run down lodgings. Illness was prevalent and when Chanel was only 12 her mother passed away from bronchitis, leaving her father, Albert Chanel with five young children. Following this misfortune Albert quickly farmed out the children and Chanel and her sister were sent to live at the convent of Aubazine.
The cruel twist of fate that bound Chanel to spend the rest of her teenage years in a convent was to shape the rest of her life and success. It was in the convent that the nuns taught Chanel how to sew.
School holidays were spent with relatives in the provincial capital of Moulins. Here Chanel was able to sew with more flourish as she wasn’t under the strict rule of the convent.
At the age of 18, Chanel’s time at the convent ended. She left and worked two jobs, one as a seamstress and the other as a singer at a cabaret bar that was frequented by cavalry officers. Her youth, good looks and charm made quite an impression on the clientele, and it was here that she met Etienne Balsan, a wealthy French military officer – first in a string of high profile affairs. During her brief few years as a singer, 1905-1908, she was given the nickname “Coco” an abbreviation of the word cocotte, a French word meaning kept women. During this time Chanel did try to pursue signing professionally but soon realised that a stage career was not for her as her success in local cabernets was attributed to reasons other than her singing voice. Her voice failed to impress when she auditioned in prominent theatres, cafes and concert halls and so she decided to discontinue her efforts.
At the age of 23 Chanel became Balsan’s mistress. She moved into his chateau near Compiègne, a very beautiful and desirable area, where she lived for the next three years living a life of luxury. He spoiled her with gifts of expensive dresses and jewellery while they socialised with other wealthy like-minded people. During this time she mixed in influential social circles and built connections that would lead to important opportunities later on. Also it was in Balsan’s chateau that she started to design hats. It was just for enjoyment at the time but would later turn into a business venture.
In 1908, never short of male admirers, Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, a wealthy English Industrialist. Chanel moved out of Balsan’s residence and Capel set her up in an apartment in Paris.
Like Balsan, Capel treated her to the finest things in life. It is said that Chanel had hoped to settle down with this man but he was never faithful to her. In 1918 Capel married an English aristocrat, Lady Diana Wyndham. This was very hard for Chanel to deal with but the two didn’t stop seeing each other and continued the affair even after Capel’s wedding.
In 1910, recognising Chanel’s creative talent Capel financed her first shop. At 21 rue Cambon in Paris, Chanel designed, created and sold hats in her shop named “Chanel Modes”. Her designs were noticed and became popular with French actresses of the time. Growing her recognition and building a reputation for classic design, Chanel’s millinery business boomed.
Success didn’t stop there. In 1913, again with financing from Capel she opened her first boutique in a prime location in the centre of Deauville. Her clothes were a shift from the physically restrictive fashion of the era, which usually involved corsets and full length skirts, which are impractical for most activities. Her vision for fashion was one of comfort, practicality and simplicity. She had the opinion that designers had forgotten that women are inside the dresses they create, and thought that fashion should have a more natural shape. Her designs were menswear inspired, suitable for leisure and sport, introducing trousers and suits for women. Coco Chanel used jersey cloth because of its physical properties – it was comfortable and draped well over the body. These jersey garments proved to be revolutionary, changing the relationship between woman and their bodies. It is said that Capel’s sartorial style is what inspired many of Chanel’s fashion concepts.
Like her millinery business, her clothes swiftly got recognition. It seemed to come easy for Chanel, her confidence and bold attitude coupled with talent and her aptitude for design lead to her business to thrive.
With determination to grow her success even further, Chanel opened a second boutique in 1915 in Biarritz, a location chosen probably because of its close proximity to wealthy Spanish population. A wise choice of location as within one year of business, Chanel was able to reimburse Capel for his original investment.
It wasn’t all work in Biarritz, as it was here she came across an expatriate aristocrat, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. The two began a romantic relationship that continued on for a number of years.
As a result of the phenomenal success she found with her clothes, in 1918 Chanel, as a registered couturiere, established her couture house at 31 rue Cambon, one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. Here she sold day-wear creations, simply designed dress-and-coat outfits and elegant black evening dresses, hats, accessories and later expanding to jewellery and fragrance.
Chanel suffered a huge blow in 1919 when Arthur Capel was killed in a car accident. Losing someone she had been with for nearly ten years as well as the person that financed and supported her first business venture a defining moment in Chanel’s life, herself stating that “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”.
Chanel’s signature perfume, Chanel No. 5 proved just as successful as her clothes and was noticed by some very wealthy business owners. In 1924 Chanel made an agreement with two brothers, Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, who were the directors of perfume and cosmetic house Bourgeois. A separate corporate entity was created, and the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of the perfume. In this agreement Chanel received 10% of the profits and had no further involvement with the business, an agreement that Chanel greatly regretted and fought a losing battle for 20 years over it.
At the start of World War Two Chanel closed her shops giving the reason that war was not a time for fashion leaving only jewellery and perfume for sale. 3,000 workers were devastated to have lost their jobs.
During the German occupation of Paris, Chanel was linked romantically with a German officer named Hans Gunther von Dincklage, which damaged her reputation in her home country. She lived with him in a luxury apartment in the Ritz Hotel Paris for the duration of the war.
At the end of WWII, with a 15 year absence, Chanel thought it was the right time to renter the fashion industry and in 1954 her grand couture house was re-established. The end of the war Europe saw a prominence of male designers, including Christian Dior. Chanel was not a fan of their designs and was convinced that women would rebel against the “illogical” design that their collections encompassed with cinched in waists, a padded bust, heavy skirts and stiffened jackets.
Despite this opinion being the reason that Chanel’s designs were so popular prior to the war, Parisians did not receive her new collection well. However across the waters in Britain and America, her return to fashion was welcomed and she enjoyed success with these markets for the rest of her days.
Chanel although tired and ailing didn’t stop working. She was busy preparing the spring catalogue for the year of 1971 when she began to feel ill. She went to bed early and on Sunday morning, January 10th Chanel passed away in her home in the Ritz, where she had remained for over 30 years. Her funeral was held at the Église de la Madeleine. Her funeral was as style focused as she was as the front row of seats at the ceremony was occupied by her fashion models and her coffin was decorated with a selection of white flowers with a few red roses.
Chanel, being one of the most recognisable names in fashion still to this day, redefined the fashionable woman of her time. Revolting against the overly feminine, uncomfortable designs that women had lived in for so long, she introduced simplicity and coupled style with casual wear. She prided herself on her creativity and her awareness of what women wanted.
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