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Coco Chanel - a style icon for the ages
The Chanel Revolution - from her film biography
Coco Chanel 1883 - 1971
She lived an unconventional life during her lifetime and reached the pinnacle of the fashion industry as a style icon and became the world's wealthiest woman and clothing designer. She left bold and lasting impressions on women's fashions and introduced to women timeless designs, trademark suits, and the little black dress with pearls.
She began by liberating women from the corset and popularized sportive, casual chic designs made of jersey in the post WWI era. Her fashion and style influence extended beyond just couture clothing by also designing jewelry, handbags and fragrances.
Her signature fragrance scent, Chanel No. 5, still sells as strongly today as it did when she first presented this iconic product in 1920.
She is, of course, Coco Chanel, the style icon of the 20th century and beyond; her fashion designs even eclipsing her death. Today, German clothing designer Karl Lagerfeld heads the House of Chanel in Paris and continues on with her timeless designs as chief designer for the house.
Coco Chanel is my favorite of all dress designers past and present. The simple, clean lines of her suits and dresses are the height of elegance. Her collarless suit jackets and slim fitted skirts are the epitome of the classic elegant woman's suit. Her designs have lived on under the sharp designer eye of Karl Lagerfeld and no one but he could have picked up the reigns of the House of Chanel after her death and continued her lovely designs.
Her timeless fragrance, Chanel No. 5, I have worn all my life. It enters and leaves the room with an elegant scent.
And, her invention of the 'little black dress' with several strands of pearls has been the anchor of a woman's wardrobe since 1920. She designed clothes that have last a lifetime and beyond. Even into the 21st century her beautiful designs are still famous, popular and work well with the minimalism of this century.
Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883 in Saumur, France in the Loire Valley to a poor, unwwed mother. Her mother, Eugenie "Jeanne" Devolle was a laundrywoman in a charity hospital in Saumur and she was Devolle's second daughter.
Her father, Albert Chanel, was a poor street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments from house to house. It is from these humble beginnings that Chanel rose to become the most famous clothing designer in the world.
Her parents did marry in 1884 at the insistence and a monetary bribe from her mother's parents to the groom, Albert Chanel. They had five other children: Julia-Bertha, Antionette, Alphonse, Lucien, and Augustine, who died in infancy.
In 1895, when Gabrielle was twelve, her mother died of bronchitis and her father sent all the girls to a Catholic convent for the poor. Here Gabrielle learned to sew and this would be her skill offered to the world in beautiful clothing designs.
At age 18 she left the convent and went to live at a Catholic boarding house for single girls in Moulins, France. Here Gabrielle began life as a seamstress and in the evenings sang in a cabaret frequented by calvary officers. It was here she acquired the name 'Coco', the nickname believed to have come from the two songs she sang each night or as an allusion to a 'coquette' which in French means a kept woman.
She eventually returned to Moulins, France as she realized there would be no stage career for her other than in the chorus. It was here in Moulins for the second time that she met a young French ex-calvary officer and a wealthy textile heir, Etienne Balsan.
At age 23, she became his mistress and for the next three years she lived with him at his chateau Royallieu near Compiegne, France, an area known for its equestrian and hunting pursuits.
Chanel and Balsan lived a life style of self-indulgence, wealth, leisure and cultivated a social set of partying and decadence. Balsan lavished Chanel with 'diamonds, dresses and pearls.' Thus began a lifetime of becoming men's mistresses and lovers and she achieved success as a businesswoman and her social prominence from the connections she made through her work.
Her biographer, Justine Picardie, in her book, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins) has described Chanel as having a competitive and opportunistic personality that led to questionable life choices.
In her biography, Picardie claims that Chanel's nephew, Andre Palasse, was really her son by Balsan, sent to live with her sister, Julia-Bertha. With Julia-Bertha's death, Coco was known to be 'raising her nephew' who she ensconsced in boarding schools until he was grown.
Chanel never married and remained independent all her life though she dallied with wealthy, aristocratic men all her life. These life choices led to controversy around her reputation, particularly during the German occupation of France during WWII, when she was seen in the company of a German officer.
Chanel began her illustrious clothing designer career during her time with Balsan and used his money to become a designer of hats first. She turned the hat designing into a commercial business and became a licensed milliner in 1910. She opened her first shop at 21 rue Cambon, Paris and named it Chanel Modes.
She moved on from Balsan in 1908 and began an affair with Balsan's friend, Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel, an Englishman, who eventually became the love of her life. Both men fought over her, which Chanel enjoyed, and Capel won out. He was a wealthy member of the English upper class and bought Chanel a Paris apartment and financed her first shop.
Capel's own style influenced Chanel's as the design of the Chanel No.5 parfume bottle with its rectangular beveled lines is believed to have been a copy of Capel's toiletry bottles he carried in his leather traveling case.
Chanel's affair with Capel lasted nine years but during that time he was never faithful to her. He married Lady Diana Wyndham in 1918, but continued his affair with Chanel until his death in a car accident in 1919. Chanel was devastated by his death and felt she had lost everything. She said that she was never truly happy again after his death.
During her time with Balsan and Capel, Chanel also opened two other stores. One was a boutique in Deauville, France and financed by Capel. Here she introduced her signature deluxe casual clothes for leisure and sport. Her clothes were revolutionary because they were made from fabrics such as jersey and tricot, a fabric primarily used for men's underwear. They were soft and clung to the body, something never seen or worn before Chanel's designs. She was revolutionizing women's clothing.
They were flexible and comfortable and worn without corsets and became wildly popular. Chanel also sold hats, jackets, sweaters and mariniere which were sailor blouses, at her boutique. Her sister, Antoinette and her aunt, Adrienne were very supportive of Chanel and modeled her dress designs at the boutique and walked through town wearing and advertising Chanel's creations.
Chanel also opened a boutique in Biarritz in 1915, a beach resort town in southern France that bordered on Spain on the Cote Basque. Wealthy Spanish and French women flocked to Chanel's boutique making it popular and Chanel wealthy.
The Biarritz boutique was in a villa opposite a casino, and in one year Chanel was able to repay Capel his initial investment and became totally independent.
The House of Chanel
Coco Chanel formally registered as a courturiere and established her maison de couture (house of couture) at 31 rue Cambon in 1920. It is here in this same year that she launched her first parfume, Chanel No.5, she introduced the Chanel suit and also introduced the little black dress.
The Chanel suit was a collarless jacket with a well fitted dress or skirt. The designs were revolutionary for the time as she borrowed elements from men's wear for her designs. With her little black dress, she took the color black which was worn for mourning at that time and made it chic. Her designs stressed comfort over constraints. The fabrics she used were soft and felt great on a woman's body and skin.
Chanel did so well with her House of Chanel, that by 1927 she owned the original building in Paris and five other properties on the rue Cambon, the most fashionable section of Paris at the time.
In 1924, Chanel entered into a business arrangement and agreement with Pierre Weitheimer to sell her fragrances, specifically Chanel No. 5, in his department stores. She lent her name, but Weitheimer made all the profit. It took Chanel twenty years to re-negotiate the agreement and get her signature fragrance back.
At this time she also met Misia Sert, a member of the Parisian bohemian elite and wife of
Spanish painter Jose-Maria Sert. Misia and Chanel discovered they were soul mates and maintained a life-long friendship sharing interests, confidences and a drug habit. Chanel injected herself with morphine on a daily basis until her death in 1971, it has been said, to relieve her of vicious nightmares.
Chanel also met Vera Bate Lombardi, the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, who helped Chanel with entry into the highest levels of the British aristocracy. Through Lombardi she met and became close friends to Winston Churchill, the Duke of Westminster, and Edward VIII, Prince of Wales.
The Duke of Westminster (Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor) and Chanel entered into a ten year affair in which he lavished her with jewels, art and a home in London's Mayfair district.
Even Edward VIII, Prince of Wales was drawn to Chanel and pursued her despite her affair with the Duke. She declined his advances and in 1927 Westminster gifted Chanel with land he had purchased in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. It is here that Chanel built her villa, La Pausal (restful pause).
Westminster had asked for Chanel's hand in marriage many times and when asked why she declined each time, it is rumored that Chanel answered, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Coco Chanel." Chanel always treasured her independence and uniqueness.
While in Monte Carlo during the 1931 season, Chanel met Hollywood movie mogul, Samuel Goldwyn. She and Goldwyn entered into a business agreement and Chanel would come twice a year to Hollywood to design costumes for the MGM stars. She was paid one million dollars which in 21st century valuation would be approximately $75 million.
Chanel designed for Gloria Swanson, Ina Claire, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Garbo and Dietrich liked her designs so much that they would become lifelong clients of the House of Chanel.
Chanel harbored a great dislike for Hollywood and America in general and she felt the culture was infantile. She also designed for the French film industry which she preferred and designed costumes for the films of Jean Renior and the plays of Jacques Cocteau.
During the 193's Chanel's designs began to falter as the short dresses of the 1920s were no longer in fashion. She was creatively eclipsed in Paris by designer Elsa Shiaparelli, who incorporated surrealism in her designs which became very popular with the public.
Also, during the 30s Chanel became the mistress to some of the most influential French men of her time. She had an affair with Pierre Reverdy, a poet which was one she enjoyed and she had one with Paul Iribe, an illustrator and sometime Hollywood director, that was not so enjoyable. Chanel maintained her independence through all her affairs with the men in her life.
At the beginning of WWII, Chanel closed the House of Chanel, including all her shops and boutiques that sold her designs. She said wartime was not a time for fashion. Her shops would remain closed for nearly twenty years.
During WWII, Chanel took advantage of the German law that took all business deals with anyone Jewish and declared them null and void. Here was Chanel's chance to reclaim her Chanel No.5 and other fragrances back to her ownership and control as Pierre Wertheimer was Jewish. Chanel petitioned as an 'Aryan' to get them back.
Unbeknownst to Chanel, Wertheimer had transferred the fragrance rights to a French businessman during the war. Finally, in 1947, Chanel and Wertheimer re-negotiated their agreement and came to terms over Chanel No. 5.
Werheimer paid Chanel $9 million for all the sales he made during WWII. From 1947 on Chanel received 2% of all parfume sales, approximately $25 million a year from Chanel No. 5 alone. Wertheimer also agreed to pay Chanel all her living expenses from the trivial to the large for the rest of her life. Coco Chanel was now the richest woman in the world.
WWII was not a pleasant time for Chanel. She committed herself to the German cause as early as 1941. She lived alone in her apartment above the boutique at 31 rue Cambon, but was seen constantly in the company of a German officer. She made several trips to Germany during the war and many believed her to be a spy working for the Germans. There was never any evidence to prove this as a fact, but her friendship with the German's lead to this kind of talk.
Actually, during the war, Chanel corresponded with Winston Churchill and some thought she was working as a spy for him and the English. There have never been any clear documents or sources to verify her associations during the war, but there has been much speculation.
After the war, a German, General Walter Schellenberg, was diagnosed with an incurable liver disease and Chanel paid for all his medical bills and his lifestyle until he died. This was more evidence for the public to believe that Chanel was associated with the Nazis. She fell out of favor with the French public over all this.
In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland and lived a quiet life mostly out of the public eye. She returned to Paris in 1954, at age seventy and re-established her house of couture, this time financed by Wertheimer. The Parisians did not accept Chanel, but the British and Americans favorably embraced her fashions.
Coco Chanel died in 1971 in her suite at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Paris, France where she had been living for some years. Services for her were held in Paris but Chanel was buried in the cemetery in Lausanne, Switzerland as she wished.
Her apartment above her House of Chanel, 31 rue Cambon, Paris, France remains today closed and untouched and as Coco Chanel last left it.
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Today, Chanel SA, founded in 1909, is a French privately held company owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Werheimer, Coco Chanel's early business partner. In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld came on board as the chief clothing designer for the House of Chanel and has remained as chief designer today. He also designs for himself and the Italian house of Fendi.
The House of Chanel, today, is a high fashion brand that specializes in haute couture, ready to wear clothing, luxury goods and fashion accessories. Lagerfeld has incorporated the Chanel fabrics and detailing such as tweed, gold accents and chains into his designs. He has kept what was signature, innovative and revolutionary of Coco Chanel's clothing designs:
- the use of jersey material
- the camillia flower - her signature flower and associated with the House of Chanel
- the little black dress - her contribution to the fashion lexicon; 1926 Vogue Magazine highlighted this Chanel dress
- the Chanel bag - Chanel invented the shoulder strap to liberate women from the hand held bag
- the suntan - for the first time it became acceptable with Coco Chanel and the symbol of privilege and leisure; Chanel made sunbathing fashionable
Along with keeping the signature Coco Chanel designs, Lagerfeld has broken with the ladylike look of Chanel and has began to experiment with different fabrics and styles.
Some of the famous women of today who buy, wear and model Chanel designs are Catherine Deneuve, Vanessa Paradis, Nicole Kidman, Audrey Tautou, Keira Knightley, and of course the late, iconic Marilyn Munroe.
With Coco Chanel and the House of Chanel people know what to expect: class, elegance and the eternal feminine.
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