Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel

Born: Saumur, France, 1883
Died: Paris, France, 1971

Gabrielle Coco Chanel biography

Copyright © AFP / Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet

Gabrielle Chanel’s mother died while she was still a child. Following the death of her mother, her father abandoned her and her siblings and they were forced to enter an orphanage. She spent six years in a Roman Catholic orphanage where the nuns taught her how to sew. School holidays spent with relatives encouraged her sewing interest helping her to develop her skills.

Aged 18 Chanel left the orphanage to join a circus as a cabaret singer. During her time performing Chanel was given the nickname ‘Coco’. She later commented it was a shortened version of coquette.

The circus provided Chanel with irregular work but, while staying with them, she met Etienne Balsan a French textile heir. She became Balsan’s mistress and left the circus securing a job in a tailoring shop.

Lavishing Chanel with gifts, Balsan invited her to move in with him. Accepting his offer, she enjoyed a luxurious life and started to design hats as a hobby.

In 1909 Chanel met Captain Arthur Edward Capel, a friend of Balsan’s. The two had an affair which resulted in Capel agreeing to finance the opening of her first shop.

Chanel opened her boutique in Paris at 31 Rue Cambon in 1910. A licensed hat maker, it wasn’t until two years later, when one of Chanel’s hats was modelled by actress Gabrielle Dorziat that her career started to move.

In 1913 opened a boutique in Deauville, where she sold luxe casual clothing. Two years later she opened a third boutique called Chanel-Biarritz, selling to wealthy Spanish cliental.

Chanel started to create clothing made of Jersey. Normally a material used for men, the fashion industry was outraged. For women the fabric had previously only been used for underwear.  This led to Vogue commenting, ‘this designer made jersey what it is today – we hope she’s satisfied’.

Chanel was introduced to Igor Stravinsky, composer of ‘The Rite of Spring’. She invited him and his family to live with her in 1920. A year later Chanel launched her first fragrance, Chanel No. 5. The first designer scent, it went on to become one of the world’s most famous fragrances.

Vera Bate Lombardi became Chanel’s personal muse in 1925. Lombardi inspired her to create her ‘English Look’ style and introduced her into the world of the European Royals.  By 1930 Chanel was so successful that the annual turnover from her boutiques exceeded 120 million francs.

A meeting with Samuel Goldwyn in 1931 saw Goldwyn pay Chanel $1 million to visit Hollywood twice a year designing costumes for MGM stars. Having successfully created her own signature style, Chanel had established the basic modern women’s wardrobe. With her designs already popular, she didn’t feel the need to change the style every year.

When the War broke out in 1939 Chanel closed her shops. Residing at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, she still maintained an apartment above her couture house. During the War she engaged in an affair with Hans Gunter von Dincklage, a German military intelligence office. With the code name Westminster, she became a Nazi intelligence operative.

Chanel moved to Switzerland in 1945 before eventually returning to Paris in 1954. Upon return Chanel re-established her couture house. Her collections didn’t receive the commercial success they had previously. Everyone was excited about Christian Dior’s ‘New Look. cara de Chanel’s classic suit with male influences didn’t fit in with the new style. The French public were also disapproving of her past involvement with the Nazis during the war.

Continuing to design her classic collections, Coco Chanel died in 1971 aged 87.  After her death Yvonne Dudel, Jean Cazaubon and Phlippe Guibourge took over the house. This was followed by Pierre Wetheimer acquiring the company. His grandson Alain Wetheimer took over in 1974. Trying to restore the label’s prestige, Wetheimer persuaded Karl Lagerfeld to end his contract at Chloé and become cara de Chanel’s chief designer in 1983.  Lagerfeld’s ability to exploit, amuse and surprise took the label back to its former glory.

Directly adopting a men’s style, Coco Chanel was the Twentieth Centuries most influential designer. Wearing masculine clothes, sporting a cropped hair cut and flaunting a sun-tan when it was considered working class, Chanel never conformed to what people wanted.

Continuously, she voiced her criticisms of other designers of her time, showing little regard for Elsa Schiaparelli, Christian Dior, and Cristobal Balenciaga.

Revolutionising the use of jersey, Chanel’s classic suits were simply cut, collarless and trimmed with braid. Often accessorised with her signature pieces such as the quilted shoulder bag or strands of pearls, Chanel knew how to make costume jewellery chic.

A faultless elegance and quiet confidence was exuded by Chanel. These timeless elements show through her clothes and will always be associated with her.

Lagerfeld incorporated iconic Chanel fabrics, such as tweed, and signature details like gold accents and chains into his designs. During the 1980s, Chanel experienced significant growth, opening over 40 boutiques worldwide. The brand offered a wide range of products, from perfumes and ballerina slippers to high-end dresses and leather handbags.

In the face of the early 1990s recession, Chanel displayed remarkable resilience and underwent a resurgence by the mid-1990s. This revival was driven by an expansion strategy that included the opening of new boutiques. During this period, Chanel made significant acquisitions, such as Holland & Holland, a gun-making company, and the swimwear label Eres in 1996. The brand also diversified its offerings by introducing new perfumes like Allure and Allure Homme, as well as expanding into skincare and eyewear collections.

Leadership changes occurred with Françoise Montenay taking on the roles of CEO and President, while Alain Wertheimer continued as chairman. Chanel maintained a strong focus on innovation, launching unisex watches, entering the realm of menswear, and collaborating with skilled artisans through the Paraffection subsidiary. This commitment to quality and consistency attracted a loyal customer base spanning various age groups.

In more recent years, Chanel experienced significant developments, including the passing of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019 and the appointment of Virginie Viard as the new Creative Director. The brand’s rich legacy has been celebrated through exhibitions and retrospectives at renowned museums worldwide. Chanel also actively engages in philanthropy, sustainability initiatives, and supports arts and culture through organizations like Fondation Chanel and Chanel Culture Fund.

Chanel’s unmistakable logo, featuring interlocked C’s, has become an enduring symbol of luxury and prestige. With an extensive network of boutiques, Chanel operates globally, catering to affluent communities, high-end department stores, and prestigious shopping districts across continents. The brand has expanded its footprint through notable acquisitions and investments in real estate.

Chanel remains committed to combating counterfeiting and has taken legal action against platforms like The RealReal for hosting counterfeit products. The brand actively educates consumers on how to distinguish authentic Chanel items, collaborating with fashion bloggers to raise awareness about genuine Chanel products.

Gabrielle Coco Chanel Biography

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Written by Saxony Dudbridge

Saxony Dudbridge was one of the first contributors to the Catwalk Yourself project, Saxony studies International Fashion Marketing and she is responsible for our great History and Designers Biographies sections.

One thought on “Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel

  1. Times have changed. The glossy cover picture of The New York Times newspaper Sunday Style section, 20 August 2023, shows a young lady (a celebrity pop singer, Dua Lipa? I never heard of her…), making a somewhat different fashion statement, slightly reclining on a gym bench press seat with a world weary expression on her face wearing in a white t-shirt and gray briefs with white edging, with her bare legs spread as wide as anyone except a trained dancer probably can. This is the publication which at one time earned the sobriquet: “The Gray Lady”,

    What is one to say, except that like many other words, “fashion” has both an ethnographic and an honorific meaning; in the present case would only the former seem to apply? The fashion of the time and The Times. Of course, if one does not like this, a few years ago, U.S. Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wore an otherwise proper long white gown to a Metropolitan Museum gala with “TAX THE RICH” emblazoned in large red letters on the back.

    Where is Ms. Chanel when we need her?

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