Coco Chanel: Revolutionist of Women’s Fashion

Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was a notorious French modernist designer, and founder of the US$9 billion luxury brand, Chanel. Her perception of fashion as an amalgamation of comfort and elegance, revolutionised women’s fashion. Coco Chanel’s innovative designs liberated women from the complex and uncomfortable 19th century conventions such as petticoats and corsets.

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel once disclosed “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury.”

She was the only designer to be listed in TIME Magazine’s 100 most influential people of the Twentieth Century.

Coco Chanel’s upbringing was nothing of the luxury her brand evokes. A myriad of sources indicate that she was born in 1883, however this was a relatively hidden fact due to Chanel’s unwillingness to divulge her birth date. In fact, Chanel was not prepared for the world to know of her difficult childhood, leading her to fabricate her lifestyle. This included claims that when her mother passed away, her father had sailed to America and she resided in a cozy and clean house with two strict aunts, who in reality did not exist.

Her mother, Eugenie Jeanne Devolle was not married and worked as a laundry woman in the Charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence in Saumur, France. Chanel’s father, Albert Chanel was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, travelling to and from market towns.  The family resided in a single room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.

Coco Chanel and Étienne Balsan

At the age of 12, Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis at 32 years old. This drove her father to send his two sons to work as farm labourers and his two daughters to the covenant of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. Its religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was “founded to take care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls.” Chanel’s childhood in the orphanage was stricken with poverty and hardship. However, it was the place that provided her with the skills necessary to start her fashion brand later in life, as it was where she first learned to sew.

At the age of eighteen, Chanel was forced to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins as she outgrew the required age to remain in the orphanage. Due to her acquired sewing skills, Chanel found a job as a seamstress. When she was not sewing, she performed in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. It was during her time in the cabaret that she gained her iconic nickname, ‘Coco’, after the famous song “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco?” that she used to sing.

In her early twenties, Chanel became fixated on money and the idea of being wealthy. At 23, she began an affair with a rich bourgeois Étienne Balsan. This enabled her to delve into the upper class lifestyle and she became acquainted with numerous wealthy aristocrats. Chanel lived in his castle where Balsan pampered her with his riches in the form of diamonds, pearls and dresses. She later left Balsan for his friend, Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel who provided her with the finances to open her first store in 1910 named ‘Chanel Modes’, in Paris’ Rue Cambon, selling hats.

Coco Chanel's sister, Antoinette Chanel and aunt, Adrienne Chanel modelling Chanel's designs

She later opened a small millinery shop selling fashionable clothes in Deauville. Chanel’s innovative use of the fabric of an old jersey to fashion a dress, allured the attention of influential wealthy women seeking relief from the uncomfortable corseted styles. This prompted her reputation for being on the forefront of fashion, where it has remained since. She enlisted her sister, Antoinette Chanel and her aunt, Adrienne Chanel to model and advertise Chanel’s designs.

Chanel rapidly became a notable figure in Parisian literary and artistic worlds. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée and forged a close relationship Jean Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso.

In 1919, after the passing of her beloved Arthur “Boy” Capel due to a car accident, Chanel began experimenting with black cloth. In the early 20’s, Chanel designed the notorious, “little black dress”, making the 44 year old designer’s name synonymous with elegance, luxury and good taste. The little black dress has often been emulated, redesigned and retailored. A number of companies and fashion houses continue to produce this dress around the world.

Chanel further elevated her brand with the introduction of her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. A deal was negotiated with department store owner Théophile Bader and businessmen Pierre and Paul Wertheimer. The Wertherimer business would take 70 percent for the Chanel No. 5 profits provided the perfume is produced at their factories, leaving Bader with 20 percent and Chanel with only 10 percent. Over the years as No.5 became a fundamental source of revenue, Chanel repeatedly sued to renegotiate the terms of the deal.

Coco Chanel's Little Black Dress worn by Audrey HepburnIn 1925, Chanel introduced the iconic Chanel suit with the collarless jacket and fitted skirt, extracting elements of men’s wear and perpetuating her emphasis on comfort.

By the late 1920’s, the Chanel brand was allegedly worth millions and employed over 2,000 people in her couture house, perfume laboratory, textile mill and jewellery workshop.

The international economic depression of the 1930s in addition to the outbreak of World War II forced Chanel to close her business. It wasn’t until the age of 70 that Chanel made a jubilant return to fashion world with her original and feminine designs, captivating people worldwide.

Coco Chanel passed away on 10 January 1971 at the age of 87 at the Hotel Ritz, where she had lived for more than 50 years. Hundreds came together at the Church of Madeleine to farewell the revolutionary designer, many dressed in Chanel suits.

Just over a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfield took over her company to perpetuate the Chanel legacy. Her company is now held privately by the Wertheimer family and continues to encapsulate consumers, generating hundreds of millions in sales each year.

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By Sian McCaffery