Coco Chanel, Queen of Haute Couture
Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. Her simple, expensive clothes made of luxuriously soft materials changed the face of fashion, forever. Coco Chanel eliminated corsets from the catalogue of women's undergarments and made clothes that flattered a woman's natural shape. He styles were smooth, with great lines. Her colors were simply black and white. Coco Chanel defined glamour with bold, clean lines, stunning contrasts, and materials that made a woman feel like a million dollars.
Coco Chanel was the only person in the field of fashion and couture to be named in the Time magazine's list of the top 100 most important people of the century.
Coco Chanel was the second daughter of Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle. They were both illiterate.Coco's mother worked, off and on, as a laundress. Her father was a carter. They were very poor. Coco Chanel was the first child of six. Her baby brother, Augustin, died when he was a baby. She had two other brothers and two sisters. When Coco was twelve, her mother died of tuberculosis and her father ran away.
Coco Chanel was sent to an orphanage, the orphanage attached to the Catholic monastery at Aubazine, where she learned to sew. She became very skillful with her needle, but her heart was in the white lights of the city. When Coco turned 18, she left the orphanage to become a cabaret singer in Moulins and Vichy (yes, the same Vichy of Vichy water fame).
Coco Chanel wasn't a success as a caberet singer but she had something, some special quality. It made her very attractive to men. Maybe it was her aloofness, or her natural style. She had that air, that quality, of being made of something more precious than human flesh. She was untouchable, and the men felt the challenge.
Coco Chanel met a rich young textile heir named Etienne Balsan in Moulins, where she worked part-time as a cabaret singer and full-time in a tailor's shop as a seamstress. She became his mistress and went to live him, but retained her employment in the tailor shop. Always, independent, our Chanel.
Coco eventually left Etienne. He loaded her with diamonds and pearls, but he couldn't keep her forever. She took over his apartment in Paris, and began to design hats. She thought the women's hats of the day were ridiculous--big, feathery concoctions balanced on the tops of their heads. Coco Chanel designed hats with those same clean lines, modest in their simplicity and classically timeless in design.
Coco Chanel started having an affair with another of Balsan's wealthy friends: Captain Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel, an Englishman. Capel had the foresight to underwrite Coco Chanel's design efforts. She opened a hat shop, financed by him, and it was a huge success.
Coco Chanel learned how to be a businesswoman as she went along. It was her vision of women's garments and the revolution in the fashion industry that she started that really made her a household name in fashion and haute couture after a very short time of opening her Paris boutique, Chanel Modes.
She opened another boutique in Deauville in 1910, then another in 1915 in Biarritz, a fashionable Spanish resort area, where she introduced deluxe sports clothes for women made of a material that was formerly only used for men's underwear: Jersey wool. It was lovely material, rich, lightweight and soft, and excellently suitable for sportswear.
By 1919, Coco Chanel was firmly established as courtiere and a name in the Parisian fashion industry.
By 1920, Coco Chanel was accepted by Parisian society. She was introduced to the world-famous composer Igor Stravinsky, with whom she may have had an affair. She dated or saw socially many of the most important bachelors of high society, both English and French, but she never married. She felt no need to. When asked why she refused the hand of the Duke of Westminster, she said, "There have been many Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel."
In 1924, Coco Chanel made an agreement with Pierre and Paul Wetheimer, brother directors of an eminent perfumery, making a new corporate entity, "Parfums Chanel".
They produced, marketed and distributed Chanel No. 5 perfume. Coco Chanel got 10% of the stock. Ms. Chanel wasn't happy with this arrangement, after the huge and profitable success of Chanel No. 5, and worked for years to regain ownership of Parfums Chanel.
Coco Chanel fell in love with Vera Bate Lombardi, nee Arkwright. Vera became Coco Chanel's muse. Coco Chanel designed the "English look", based on Vera's style. It's a timeless part of any woman's wardrobe, the Chanel suit. That suit is the "English look". It hasn't gone out of style in 90 years.
While in Monte Carlo in 1931, Coco Chanel met Samuel Goldwyn. They were both mutual friends of the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, cousin to the tzar of Russia, Nicholas II. Samuel Goldwyn, of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer fame, made Coco a proposition.
He offered Coco Chanel a million dollars to design costumes in Hollywood for MGM stars twice a year. That million dollars would be worth about 75 million dollars in today's money! Of course, Coco accepted the offer. she travelled in style, with a personal railroad car painted white, one of her two trademark colors, which was outfitted with every luxury known to man (or woman!) at the time.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Coco Chanel closed up her shops. It wasn't a time for fashion.
Paris was occupied by Nazi Germans. Coco Chanel, who knew on which side her bread was buttered, had an affair with a Nazi German officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who arranged for Coco to stay at the Ritz hotel, where all the upper echelon of the German occupation were staying.
Coco Chanel was much criticized after the war for her collaboration with the Nazis. Coco Chanel was arrested as a collaborator but avoided trial due to the intervention of the British Royal family.
The years of World War II were some dark years for Coco Chanel, and for the French, and for Paris, generally speaking. All is not told of Coco's full extent of collaboration with the Nazis of the occupation. There are some grim hints that Coco Chanel was also intimately acquainted with Walter Kutschmann, who murdered thousands and hundreds of thousands of Polish Jews.
She regained control of Parfums Chanel during this time, due to the Nazi siezure of all Jewish property. The Wertheimers, who formerly owned 90% of the stock of Parfums Chanel, were Jewish.
Eventually, the Wetheimers and Coco Chanel renegotiated their deal. The Wertheimers had anticipated the Nazi seizures of businesses and transferred their ownership legally to a French Christian businessman, Felix Amiot.
After the war, In 1947, Coco Chanel received the wartime profits of Chanel No. 5, and in the future her share would be 2% of all Chanel No. 5 sales, worldwide, which made Coco Chanel rich beyond her wildest dreams as a girl. Her income exceeded 25 million dollars per year, making her one of the richest women in the world.
Coco Chanel moved to Switzerland in 1945, where she stayed until 1954. Paris wouldn't have her, due to her collaboration with the Nazis.
Enough time had gone by, she thought. She reopened her Paris boutique. It wasn't very successful locally. The Parisians remembered, and punished her by boycotting her spring collection.
However, her name and innate fashion sense made her a big hit with wealthy British and Americans, who became her faithful customers the world over.
Coco Chanel hung in there, living down that wartime reputation. By 1960, all was forgiven and forgotten. She even entered into a new business deal with Pierre Wertheimer. In exchange for full ownership of Parfums Chanel, Pierre agreed to pay ALL of Coco Chanel's expenses until the end of her life!
By 1971, Coco Chanel was 87 years old, and ailing. She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971, in her hotel room at the Hotel Ritz, where she had been living for the last 30 years.
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