August 19, 1883– Coco Chanel:
“A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.”
She was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in Saumur, France.
Chanel adopted the name Coco when she attempted a career as a cabaret singer as a young woman. The name came from two popular songs in her act: Ko Ko Ri Ko or Qui Qu’a Vu Coco, a ditty about a girl who had lost her dog. Chanel claimed it was a shortened version of “coquette”, a French word for “kept woman.”
Growing up, her family did not have a permanent place to live. For a while they stayed in an abandoned shack on a primitive farm. Her mother was a laundrywoman and her father was a street vendor who tellingly sold hats.
Chanel was afraid that reporters would find out about her childhood: Her parents lived together without being married; her mother died of bronchitis when she was 31-years-old; her father simply gave her to an orphanage when she was 12-years-old. Chanel often claimed that when her mother died, her father sailed to America, and that she lived in a lovely house with two very strict aunts, who in reality, never did exist. It wasn’t the only way Chanel worked to reinvent herself. She said that the year of her birth was 1893. She probably considered that her stories created an alluring sense of mystery, but Chanel didn’t need mystery. She had style, and that was more than enough.
She learned to sew in the orphanage and when she was 16-year- old, Chanel found a job as a seamstress.
In her early twenties, Chanel concluded smartly that the most important thing in life was money. In 1905, when a young and wealthy bourgeois Étienne Balsan came into her life, she saw her future. When she moved in to his castle, Chanel took full advantage of her new life.
In 1908, Chanel was introduced to a pal of Balsan, Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel, a handsome English polo player. Capel urged Chanel to open a millinery and promised her financial support. He became her partner in business and life.
She was, however, obliged to Balsan, who had helped to start her career and had taken her in when she was down and out. But, Balsan was all too happy to have Chanel gone from his estate. She settled in his bachelor pad in Paris where he usually had fun with his girlfriends. This was the first spot where Chanel made and sold her hats. Interestingly, Balsan’s other girlfriends became her first clients. They also introduced her to their friends.
In 1910, Chanel finally broke it off with Balsan and she moved in with Boy Capel. She opened a boutique, Chanel Modes at 21 Rue Cambon.
Her millinery business boomed and she moved beyond just hats. Chanel decided to introduce a line of luxury casual wear. The chapeaus remained popular, but they didn’t make Chanel a rich woman. Her unique early clothing designs were a direct result of her thriftiness. At the time, Jersey, a stretchy knit fabric, was commonly used for men’s underwear. But, it had an elegant drape and its comfort proved perfect for Chanel’s line of sportswear, and it could be purchased at a low cost.
The casual knit fashions in Chanel’s boutique were new and exciting for a generation of young French women who had been forced to wear corsets, but who wished to live active lives. Chanel was the epitome of what these young ladies wanted to be: Self-sufficient, strong, slim and sporty. Her cropped hair and boyish figure became the ideal, and the straight lines and boxy silhouettes of her designs were tailor-made for that sort of figure. Her sense of color was a key element in Chanel’s fashion design. At her home and in her wardrobe, Chanel chose classic blacks, whites and beiges. These colors are the essence of the House Of Chanel, particularly the “Little Black Dress”, a modern woman’s wardrobe staple made famous by Chanel.
She even created a style that had been previously unthinkable for women…tracksuits. She dared to appear in public wearing a sailor suit or in tight skirts.
Her boutiques flourished in the 1910s, and by the 1920s her clothing was extremely popular and wildly successful. Her clients came from all over the globe and young women everywhere clamored to wear her designs. Even those who couldn’t afford the couture of the House Of Chanel still went for the look of her clean lines and cropped skirts with few curves. She came up with new ideas, including the first female skinny suit, dress shirts and pants for women, and beach pajamas. The flappers went crazy for Chanel’s comfortable, unrestrained look.
In 1919, Capel died in a car accident. Chanel said: “Either I die as well. Or I finish what we started together”. She was not allowed to grieve officially because she was not married to Capel. There was no business contract that bound them together, just as there was no marriage certificate, but they nevertheless joined together, as the Chanel double C logo seems to suggest.
In the summer of 1920, Chanel opened a shop in the resort town Biarritz where she met a Russian émigré, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich. Their romance was short but important. Pavlovich introduced Coco to a Russian perfumer, Ernest Beaux, who had worked for Russia’s Imperial Court.
The meeting was eventful for both of them. After a year of hard work and many experiments, Beaux placed ten samples in front of Chanel, dividing them into two groups. The first half Beaux numbered from one through five, the second from 20 through 24. Chanel chose the sample No. 5 and when Beaux asked her why, Chanel replied:
“I always launch my collection on the fifth day of the fifth month, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck, therefore, I will name it: No. 5.”
The list of clients who wore Chanel No. 5 perfume included the most beautiful women of the century. Chanel No. 5 was a favorite perfume of Jacqueline Kennedy. The perfume continues to be the ultimate symbol of classy sensuality. Marilyn Monroe:
“What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No. 5, of course.”
Chanel No. 5 is still the best-selling perfume in the world.
When WW II broke out in Europe, Chanel closed her shops. She declared that wartime was no a time for fashion. Her connections with the Nazis, mostly because of her affair with a German SS officer, Walther Friedrich Schellenberg, made a dent in the love from her fans in France. About her loyalties Chanel said:
“My heart is French, my bottom is international.”
But, Chanel was back after the war, more popular than ever. She was driven by a decided distaste for the new fashions of the 1940s and early 1950s.
This era also brought the introduction of the Chanel Handbag: quilted leather with a gold chain with the familiar Chanel logo featured prominently. It remains an enduring classic. The handbag’s basic look hasn’t changed substantially over the decades, and it’s still a status symbol today.
Chic women responded favorably to her classic suit with its slim skirt and boxy jacket. But, it took a while for the Chanel look to take off in the USA, but she got a big boost in the early 1960s when Fashion Icon Jacqueline Kennedy was spotted sporting Chanel. When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, his wife was wearing a double-breasted pink Chanel wool suit.
Chanel became one of the most famous and recognizable women in the world. Among her many friends and lovers were Pablo Picasso, ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Jean Cocteau, and Winston Churchill. She had a 15 year affair with Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster. She was known to enjoy liaisons with women on occasion also.
She was noted as an especially intelligent, witty and original thinking woman. Picasso called her: “The most sensible woman in the world”. She was irresistibly flirty, sharp, straightforward and a bit cynical.
Through the decades the Chanel Little Black Dress developed in to the classic choice for women. It has been often copied, redesigned and retailored. New versions continue to appear. I can confidently say that this dress will never go out of style.
“Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”
Her first lover, Balsan, showed a lifelong loyalty to Chanel. He never married. They remained good friends until his death in 1953.
Chanel left this world in January 1971. She went quietly in her hotel room at The Ritz with a view of The House Of Chanel. After her passing, Chanel’s friends found only three dresses in her closet.