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Coco Chanel, Queen of Haute Couture

Updated on May 15, 2013

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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    • Rangoon House profile image

      AJ 3 years ago from Australia

      You've shared some beautiful photographs of Chanel that I haven't seen before - thank you.

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 3 years ago

      Thanks you for the help. I was so happy of your hub and interest in Coco , it was a wonderful surprise to me . Thank you for your tip.

      True of the brand the belt I have is not I researched it it is original from France marked.

      The purse has calve skin in interior. And the shoes are sized differently made In France .

      I will take your advice and contact your sources.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 3 years ago from Upstate New York

      You're welcome. I'm sorry that I misunderstood what you meant and also sorry I can't help you more. There IS a Coco museum in France. They might be looking for original, vintage Coco items, if that's what you have. The Chanel brand is still out there and producing items, so just having the Chanel brand on something might not make it collectible.

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 3 years ago

      Thank you for getting back with me. I am looking for someone that could use what I have. The chain belt with logos charms ,shoes with C 's on the front, and a patent leather purse with Cc , calve interior. All are made in France . The purse is quilted does not have its tag but all the metal parts have Coco.

      I thought maybe with your knowledge you would know someone that is vintage of her Items. Thank you I appreciate your information on her.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 3 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you very much for the comment, Kiss. I'm really not sure about any individual that collects Coco, but I'm pretty sure you can find Coco collectibles on ebay. Just because you can find pretty much anything you want on ebay!

    • Kiss andTales profile image

      Kiss andTales 3 years ago

      Wonderful insight on Coco !

      I have a question do you or do you know anyone that collect her things as collectibles ?

      I have three of her items .if so let me know.

    • profile image

      no name 3 years ago

      i loved how you where very detailed. tell me how did you find all this info

    • profile image

      Linda Oliver 5 years ago

      If you don't wear Chanel something then you are not the one!!....MuchLove

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      I'm not sure. I think just because I had started a "Women in History" series and wanted to get some spice into it.

    • manatita44 profile image

      manatita44 5 years ago from london

      Excellent article. What made you write this, Paradise?

    • profile image

      chanel-addict 5 years ago

      I love Chanel, I have bunch of stuff of them, including make-ups and bags. But no Chanel perfume hehehe. I am pretty addicted to the Chanel bags, I got one already which is a Chanel jumbo flap:

      Planning to buy my 2.55 reissue next year together with a tote bag. I just love Chanel classics, they are so timeless.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      OH, thank you so much for telling me that.

    • profile image

      Sannel 5 years ago

      . . . just to reassure you, there is no big white space in the middle of this article. Perhaps, it's where Google display their ad. You may not see the ad, but others do. That has happened to me on numerous occasions. Your article and the layout is just perfect.

      All the best to you,


    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      You/'re very welcome. There's a big white space in the middle of this article. I've tried to get rid of it and cannot--something strange happened when I first posted it. I hoe that wasn't too distracting for you. I'm glad you enjoyed the article on your namesake.

    • profile image

      Sannel 5 years ago

      Fascinating woman for sure. How can you not admire her creativity, great talent, hard work, determination and getting what she wanted. Definitely a strong minded woman. I applaud her decision to stay unmarried and childless, showing the world that it is okay for a woman to be independent. Quite unique at that time of age. As fascinating as Coco Chanel herself, so is this well researched and well written article. Bravo!

      Thank you for a most enjoyable read, and thank you Epi, for bringing me here, since you know how much I adore Coco Chanel.


    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      You are just so kind. I had fun writing this one! She is just so cool!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 5 years ago from Upstate New York

      Loverly! Thank you, my dear heart, I can hear your voice echoing across the lake now.

    • Amy Becherer profile image

      Amy Becherer 5 years ago from St. Louis, MO

      Fascinating write, Paradise, about an interesting woman. I am a big fan of Vogue magazine and am proud to say that a Letter to the Editor written by moi, made it into one of their issues. I am going to reread your hub because my greedy eyes probably missed some nuances in the first go-round. I love the photos you chose and I believe Coco would, too. I especially adore the perfume ad with Kate Moss in that classic Coco hat that exemplifies the independent, artistic CC attitude. Magnifique, Paradise.

    • epigramman profile image

      epigramman 5 years ago

      ......I am singing that James Bond movie theme to you right now - Nobody does it better - how true how true -another world class hub presentation just like your Monet classic hub tribute - and sharing most proudly and enthusiastically with my FB group Let's just talk music or cinema - once again - and sending some ladies your way - and also sending you warm wishes and good energy from lake erie time ontario canada 9:58pm

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 6 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks for the comment. I'll have to get that book. It sounds like a sure winner to me.

    • BkCreative profile image

      BkCreative 6 years ago from Brooklyn, New York City

      I just read the absolute best book about Coco Chanel by Lisa Chaney. She included so much of what was happening in Paris during the entire Chanel era - well done.

      I even have more respect for Chanel now. There was a time we could rely on our talents and knew that we had to use them for survival - instead of waiting for someone to hand us a job. There was a time people seemed to be so artistic and so creative. She is a classic example. She set so many trends - no one else has even come close. Wow!

      Super hub and rated up.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      True, but...

      Thanks for the comment.

    • profile image

      ruffridyer 7 years ago from Dayton, ohio

      A very interesting hub on a very interesting lady. As far as the Nazi collaboration goes, People do what they have to in order to survive, It is too easy to judge.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Very much so, Sally! And you are welcome.

    • Truckstop Sally profile image

      Truckstop Sally 7 years ago

      Quite a woman! An eye for fashion and getting what she wanted. Thanks for the info.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Radioguy. I agree, what a life that woman had!! I really love the rags to riches part of it.

    • Radioguy profile image

      Radioguy 7 years ago from Maine

      What a story! Saw a movie on her a week ago!

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thank you, Sweetie Pie, sofs and drbj, for your comments! I liked Coco's life story for those very same reasons--she went from rags to riches, she stayed single, and she remained independent.

      I'll have to check out that movie. It's her early life, I take it, which is the part I found the most interesting and could find the least information on.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 7 years ago from south Florida

      Coco Chanel managed to become very successful despite humble beginnings. This is an excellent review of her life, Paradise.

      You might like to look for an intriguing French movie (2009) called "Coco before Chanel" with Audrey Tatou as Coco. Great acting; great story.

    • sofs profile image

      sofs 7 years ago

      Great Hub, well researched and well written. Coco Chanel is one interesting woman. Great choice of topics Pradise!

    • SweetiePie profile image

      SweetiePie 7 years ago from Southern California, USA

      I know about Coco Chanel fashions, but I did not know her life story. What a brave lady, and I commend her for being single in a time when most women were expected to get married and have kids. Her life story was interesting to read.

    • Paradise7 profile image

      Paradise7 7 years ago from Upstate New York

      Thanks, Simone, I love her, too. I didn't know about her WWII thing, though. That shook me a bit when I went to research her.

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 7 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh, Coco Chanel is the coolest! Great Hub!


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