Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and businesswoman. She was the founder and namesake of the Chanel brand. Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited in the post-World War I era with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, realising her design aesthetic in jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. She is the only fashion designer listed on TIME magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Chanel designed her iconic interlocked-CC monogram, meaning Coco Chanel, using it since the 1920s.
Chanel was known for her lifelong determination, ambition, and energy which she applied to her professional and social life. She both achieved financial success as a businesswoman and catapulted to social prominence in French high society, thanks to the connections she made through her work. These included many artists and craftspeople to whom she became a patron.
Her social connections appeared to encourage a highly conservative personal outlook. Rumors arose about Chanel’s activities in the course of the German occupation of France during World War II, and she was criticised for being too comfortable with the Germans but never thoroughly investigated. One of Chanel’s liaisons was with a German diplomat, Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklage (de). After the war ended, Chanel was interrogated about her relationship with von Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator. After several years in Switzerland after the war, she returned to Paris and revived her fashion house. In 2011, Hal Vaughan published a book on Chanel based on newly declassified documents of that era, revealing that she had collaborated with Germans in intelligence activities. One plan in late 1943 was for her to carry an SS separate peace overture to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to end the war.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 to an unmarried mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle—known as Jeanne—a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. She was Jeanne’s second child with Albert Chanel; the first, Julia, was born less than a year earlier. Albert Chanel was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns. The family resided in rundown lodgings. In 1884, he married Jeanne Devolle, persuaded to do so by her family who had “united, effectively, to pay Albert to marry her.” At birth, Chanel’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel”. Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as “travelling”.With both parents absent, the infant’s last name was misspelled, probably due to a clerical error. The couple had five children who survived—two boys and three girls—who lived crowded into a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.
When Gabrielle was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 32. Her father sent his two sons out to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. Its religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was “founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls”. It was a stark, frugal life, demanding strict discipline. Despite the tragedy of this, being placed in the orphanage may have been the best thing for Coco’s future because it is where she learned to sew. At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Later in her life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently; she would often include more glamorous accounts, which were generally untrue. She said that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune, and she was sent to live with two aunts. She also claimed to have been born a decade later than 1883 and that her mother had died when she was much younger than 12.
Personal life and early career
Aspirations for a stage career
Having learned the art of sewing during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel was able to find employment as a seamstress When not plying her needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Chanel made her stage debut singing at a café-concert (a popular entertainment venue of the era) in a Moulins pavilion, “La Rotonde”. She was among other girls dubbed poseuses, the performers who entertained the crowd between star turns. The money earned was what they managed to accumulate when the plate was passed among the audience in appreciation of their performance. It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name “Coco”, possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, “Ko Ko Ri Ko”, and “Qui qu’a vu Coco”, or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte. As a café entertainer, Chanel radiated a juvenile allure that tantalized the military habitués of the cabaret.
In 1906, Chanel was working in the spa resort town of Vichy. Vichy boasted a profusion of concert halls, theatres and cafés where she hoped to achieve success as a performer. Chanel’s youth and physical charms impressed those for whom she auditioned, but her singing voice was marginal and she failed to find stage work. Obliged to find employment, she took work at the “Grande Grille”, where as a donneuse d’eau she was one of the females whose job was to dispense glasses of the purportedly curative mineral water for which Vichy was renowned. When the Vichy season ended, Chanel returned to Moulins, and her former haunt “La Rotonde”. She now realised that a serious stage career was not in her future.
Balsan and Capel
At Moulins, Chanel met the young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan. At the age of twenty-three, Chanel became Balsan’s mistress, supplanting the courtesan Émilienne d’Alençon as his new favoriteFor the next three years, she lived with him in his château Royallieu near Compiègne, an area known for its wooded equestrian paths and the hunting life. It was a lifestyle of self-indulgence; Balsan’s wealth and leisure allowed the cultivation of a social set who reveled in partying and the gratification of human appetites, with all the implied accompanying decadence; Balsan lavished Chanel with the beauties of “the rich life”—diamonds, dresses, and pearls. Biographer Justine Picardie, in her 2010 study Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), suggests that the fashion designer’s nephew, André Palasse, supposedly the only child of her sister Julia-Berthe who had committed suicide, was Chanel’s child by Balsan
In 1908, Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel. In later years, Chanel reminisced of this time in her life: “two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body.”] Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class, installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris. and financed her first shops. It is said that Capel’s sartorial style influenced the conception of the Chanel look. The bottle design for Chanel No. 5 had two probable origins, both attributable to the sophisticated design sensibilities of Capel. It is believed Chanel adapted the rectangular, beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles he carried in his leather traveling case or she adapted the design of the whiskey decanter Capel used; she so much admired it that she wished to reproduce it in “exquisite, expensive, delicate glass”.The couple spent time together at fashionable resorts such as Deauville, but despite Chanel’s hopes that they would settle together, Capel was never faithful to her. Their affair lasted nine years. Even after Capel married an English aristocrat, Lady Diana Wyndham in 1918, he did not completely break off with Chanel. He died in a car accident on 21 December 1919. A roadside memorial at the site of Capel’s accident is said to have been commissioned by Chanel. Twenty-five years after the event, Chanel, then residing in Switzerland, confided to her friend, Paul Morand: “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”
Chanel had begun designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris, named Chanel Modes. As this location already housed an established clothing business, Chanel sold only her millinery creations at this address. Chanel’s millinery career bloomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat wore her hats in Fernand Nozière’s play Bel Ami in 1912. Subsequently, Dorziat modelled Chanel’s hats again in photographs published in Les Modes.
Deauville and Biarritz
In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauville, financed by Arthur Capel, where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport. The fashions were constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot, at the time primarily used for men’s underwear. The location was a prime one, in the center of town on a fashionable street. Here Chanel sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse. Chanel had the dedicated support of two family members, her sister Antoinette, and her paternal aunt Adrienne, who was of a similar age. Adrienne and Antoinette were recruited to model Chanel’s designs; on a daily basis the two women paraded through the town and on its boardwalks, advertising the Chanel creations.
Chanel, determined to re-create the success she had enjoyed in Deauville, opened an establishment in Biarritz in 1915. Biarritz, situated on the Côte Basque, in proximity to wealthy Spanish clients, had neutral status during World War I, allowing it to become the playground for the moneyed and those exiled from their native countries by the hostilities. The Biarritz shop was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. After one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment. This was her sole decision; she did not consult with Capel. It was in Biarritz that Chanel made the acquaintance of an expatriate aristocrat, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. They had a romantic interlude, and maintained a close association for many years afterward. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturière and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, Paris.
In 1918, Chanel purchased the entire building at 31 rue Cambon, which was situated in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. In 1921, she opened what may be considered an early incarnation of the fashion boutique, featuring clothing, hats, and accessories, later expanded to offer jewellery and fragrance. By 1927, Chanel owned five properties on the rue Cambon, encompassing buildings numbered 23 to 31.
In the spring of 1920 (approximately May), Chanel was introduced to the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky by Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. During the summer, Chanel discovered that the Stravinsky family was seeking a place to live, having left the Soviet Union after the war. She invited them to her new home, “Bel Respiro,” in the Paris suburb of Garches, until they could find a more suitable residence. They arrived at “Bel Respiro” during the second week of September and remained until May 1921. Chanel also guaranteed the new (1920) Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) against financial loss with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to be 300,000 francs ]In addition to turning out her couture collections, Chanel threw her prodigious energies into designing dance costumes for the cutting-edge Ballets Russes. Between the years 1923–1937, she collaborated on productions choreographed by Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, notably Le Train bleu, a dance-opera; Orphée and Oedipe Roi.
In 1922, at the Longchamps races, Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris Galeries Lafayette, introduced Chanel to businessman Pierre Wertheimer. Bader was interested in inaugurating the sale of the Chanel No. 5 fragrance in his department store. In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors since 1917 of the eminent perfume and cosmetics house Bourjois. They created a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel,” and the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive seventy percent of the profits, and Théophile Bader a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and withdrew from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She said that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me”.
One of Chanel’s longest enduring associations was with Misia Sert, a notable member of the bohemian elite in Paris and wife of Spanish painter José-Maria Sert. It is said that theirs was an immediate bond of like souls, and Misia was attracted to Chanel by “her genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone”.Both women were convent schooled, and maintained a friendship of shared interests and confidences. They also shared drug use. By 1935, Chanel had become a habitual drug user, injecting herself with morphine on a daily basis, a habit she maintained until the end of her life. According to Chandler Burr‘s The Emperor of Scent, Luca Turin related an apocryphal story in circulation that Chanel was “called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris”.
The writer Colette, who moved in the same social circles as Chanel, provided a whimsical description of Chanel at work in her atelier, which appeared in “Prisons et Paradis” (1932). “If every human face bears a resemblance to some animal, then Mademoiselle Chanel is a small black bull. That tuft of curly black hair, the attribute of bull-calves, falls over her brow all the way to the eyelids and dances with every maneuver of her head.”
Associations with British aristocrats
In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi, (born Sarah Gertrude Arkwright),[ reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, afforded Chanel entry into the highest levels of British aristocracy. It was an elite group of associations revolving around such figures as politician Winston Churchill, aristocrats such as the Duke of Westminster, and royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales. In Monte Carlo in 1923, at age forty, Chanel was introduced by Lombardi to the vastly wealthy Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known to his intimates as “Bendor”. The Duke of Westminster lavished Chanel with extravagant jewels, costly art, and a home in London’s prestigious Mayfair district. His affair with Chanel lasted ten years.
The Duke, an outspoken anti-Semite, intensified Chanel’s inherent antipathy toward Jews. He shared with her an expressed homophobia. In 1946, Chanel was quoted by her friend and confidant, Paul Morand:
“Homosexuals? … I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and to wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women—but they are lousy women. They are charming!”[
Coinciding with her introduction to the Duke, was her introduction, again through Lombardi, to Lombardi’s cousin, the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. The Prince allegedly became smitten with Chanel and pursued her in spite of her involvement with the Duke of Westminster. Gossip had it that he visited Chanel in her apartment and requested that she call him “David”, a privilege reserved only for his closest friends and family. Years later, Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, would insist that “the passionate, focused and fiercely independent Chanel, a virtual tour de force,” and the Prince “had a great romantic moment together”.
In 1927, the Duke of Westminster gave Chanel a parcel of land he had purchased in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. Chanel built her villa here, which she called La Pausa (“restful pause”), hiring the architect Robert Streitz. Streitz’s concept for the staircase and patio contained design elements inspired by Aubazine, the orphanage in which Chanel spent her youth. When asked why she did not marry the Duke of Westminster, she is supposed to have said: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”[
Credit to: Wikipedia.org