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Coco Chanel – The Woman, The Fashion Icon, The Legend
Fashion lovers all over the world know her name. When it comes to luxurious signature items, the brand Chanel is one of the A-listers, and items from this house of fashion are highly coveted. Although famous because of her work on couture clothing, her work extends to handbags, jewelry, and fragrance as well. In the world of fashion, only a few people can be considered as truly iconic and legendary—words that perfectly describe the woman that is Coco Chanel.
Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on January 10, 1883 in Saumur, France. At the time her mother, Eugenie Jeanne Devolle, was unmarried to Coco’s father, Albert Chanel. Her mother was a laundrywoman while her father was a street vendor who went around peddling undergarments and clothes. In 1884, Jeanne was married to Albert after her family convinced Albert to marry her, with some money involved to unite the two.
Upon her baptism, both her parents were absent since her mother was sick and her father was traveling. Her last name was misspelled as “Chasnel” and this was most probably caused by a clerical error. When she was 12, her mother died at the age of 31 due to pneumonia. Her father sent her two brothers to work at a farm while she and her sisters were sent to Correze which was in central France. There they lived in the convent of Aubazine which was known to take care of “abandoned and orphaned girls.” Her life there had been strict and frugal and when Coco turned 18 she was no longer allowed to live at Aubazine so she went to a boarding house for Catholic girls located in Moulins.
Interestingly, Coco Chanel was known to have told the story of her childhood quite differently, saying in a more glamorized way that her father went to America to find his fortune there, and that she lived with her aunts. She also made claims to have been born about a decade later than 1883, making her much younger than 12 when her mother died.
Her Career as a Singer
While at Aubazine she was able to learn sewing and therefore was able to get a job later on as a seamstress. When she wasn’t working with a needle, she sang at a cabaret where cavalry officers frequently went to. Her stage debut was singing at a café-concert and was known as one of the poseuses or performers who entertained the crowd while the main star isn’t available yet. It was during this time that she earned her name “Coco” probably because of the two songs she was associated with which were entitled “Qui qu’ava Coco” and “KoKoRiKo.”
In 1906, she hoped for a more serious stage career in Vichy, a spa resort town. Her youth and beauty impressed the people for whom she made auditions, but her voice had been considered as marginal and incapable of finding stage work. She had to find employment at that time so she started working as one of the those girls who gave out glasses of mineral water at Grande Grille. She made her way back to Moulins when the Vichy season ended and then went back to La Rotonde. It was then that she realized her life as a performer wouldn’t bring a stable future.
Her Career as a Cotourier
Back in Moulins, she met Etienne Balsan who was an ex-cavalry officer and a rich textile heir. At the age of 23, and she became Balsan’s mistress. She lived with him for three years and during those years, Balsan gave her a life of luxury. He gave her jewels, dresses, and everything she never had before. It was also at this time that she began to design hats. She became a licensed milliner (hat maker) in 1910, having her own boutique at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris which was called Chanel Modes. A theater actress named Gabrielle Dorziat modeled her hats in one of her plays and this was what set Coco’s fame in motion.
It must be noted though that in 1908, she began a 9-year affair with Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel who was also an affluent individual who gave Coco luxury and even the capital to start her first few shops. It was believed that Capel’s sartorial look had been the inspiration of many of Chanel’s creation and that the perfume Chanel no. 5 was inspired by the toiletry bottles Capel had with him. He was not completely faithful to Coco and ended up marrying an English aristocrat. His death in 1919 was said to be the single most heartbreaking event in Coco’s life.
Life as an Established Coutourier
Come 1918, much has changed and she was able to acquire the entire building where her first shop was located. Her shops may have been one of the very first incarnations of a real fashion boutique that sold hats, clothing, and other accessories which later on included fragrance and jewelry. Fast forward to 1927, she owned five properties in Rue Cambon which showed her stability as a strong force in the fashion industry.
In the interim, a lot happened which contributed to the steady success of Coco’s life. She met Pierre Wertheimer who was highly interested in selling the Chanel no. 5 fragrance in his department store. He wanted to make it one of the attractions in his store. This deal later on paved the way for “Parfums Chanel” which was one of the first corporate identities for her products.
One friendship which cannot be forgotten was her closeness with Misia Siert. Misia was a prominent Parisian and was a bohemian elite and the wife of a Spanish painter named Maria Siert. Their friendship was said to be the bond of souls. They were both raised in convents, shared interests, including drug use. Towards her later years, Coco was known to have abused drugs on a daily basis, using morphine until her death in 1971.
Coco Chanel Trivia
Below are some interesting pieces of information about Coco Chanel and her products which have made her a legend in the fashion industry:
- She was associated with the Nazi movement in 1941.
- When she was about to be prosecuted, she told her niece Gabrielle Palasse Labrunie that it was Churchill who had her freed.
- To this day, Chanel No. 5 is still one of the top perfumes in the market.
- The Rogue Allure lipstick shade is said to be very similar to the vermillion red color which Coco Chanel herself wore throughout her life.
- The 2.55 handbag which was issued in 1955 has a different lock compared to other Chanel bags. This lock is called the Mademoiselle Lock.
- Faux pearls may have been inspired by Coco Chanel’s release of her faux or costume jewelry in 1924.
- Her two-toned designs are still seen on today’s items like flats—simple yet very much Coco Chanel.
- Coco is said to have freed women from the need to wear corsets and made more comfortable yet fashionable pieces of clothing they can enjoy on a daily basis. Some of the fashion staples she popularized include the little black dress and the tweed suit.
- The Chanel logo was designed by Coco Chanel herself in 1925. It has remained the same ever since and is known as one of the most recognized symbols in the fashion industry.
Because of her timeless creations and significant contributions to the fashion industry, Coco Chanel is one of the world’s greatest fashion legends.