Coco Chanel, -Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel-, was born August 19, 1883, Saumur, France. French fashion designer who ruled over Parisian haute couture for almost six decades. Her elegantly casual designs inspired women of fashion to abandon the complicated, uncomfortable clothes—such as petticoats and corsets—that were prevalent in 19th-century dress. Among her now-classic innovations were the Chanel suit, the quilted purse, costume jewelry, and the “little black dress.”
Chanel was born into poverty in the French countryside; her mother died, and her father abandoned her to an orphanage. After a brief stint as a shopgirl, Chanel worked for a few years as a café singer. She later became associated with a series of wealthy men and in 1913, with financial assistance from one of them, Arthur (“Boy”) Capel, opened a tiny millinery shop in Deauville, France, where she also sold simple sportswear, such as jersey sweaters. Within five years her original use of jersey fabric to create a “poor girl” look had attracted the attention of influential wealthy women seeking relief from the prevalent corseted styles. Faithful to her maxim that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” Chanel’s designs stressed simplicity and comfort and revolutionized the fashion industry. By the late 1920s the Chanel industries were reportedly worth millions and employed more than 2,000 people, not only in her couture house but also in a perfume laboratory, a textile mill, and a jewelry workshop.
The financial basis of this empire was Chanel No. 5, the phenomenally successful perfume she introduced in 1922 with the help of Ernst Beaux, one of the most-talented perfume creators in France. It has been said that the perfume got its name from the series of scents that Beaux created for Chanel to sample—she chose the fifth, a combination of jasmine and several other floral scents that was more complex and mysterious than the single-scented perfumes then on the market. That Chanel was the first major fashion designer to introduce a perfume and that she replaced the typical perfume packaging with a simple and sleek bottle also added to the scent’s success. She partnered with businessmen Théophile Bader of the Galeries Lafayette department store and Pierre Wertheimer of the Bourjois cosmetics company, who both agreed to help her produce more of her fragrance and to market it in exchange for a share of the profits. After signing a contract wherein she received only 10 percent of the royalties, Chanel enacted a series of lawsuits in the ensuing decades to regain control of her signature fragrance. Although she was never able to renegotiate the terms of her contract to increase her royalties, Chanel nonetheless made a considerable profit from the perfume.
Chanel closed her couture house in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Her associations with a German diplomat during the Nazi occupation tainted her reputation, and she did not return to fashion until 1954. That year she introduced her highly copied suit design: a collarless, braid-trimmed cardigan jacket with a graceful skirt. She also introduced bell-bottomed pants and other innovations while always retaining a clean classic look.
After her death in 1971, Chanel’s couture house was led by a series of different designers. This situation stabilized in 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld became chief designer. Chanel’s shrewd understanding of women’s fashion needs, her enterprising ambition, and the romantic aspects of her life—her rise from rags to riches and her sensational love affairs—continued to inspire numerous biographical books, films, and plays, including the 1970 Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn.
1. She is known all around the world as Coco Chanel, but this wasn’t her original name. Born Gabrielle Chanel, she became “Coco” after being given the nickname by soldiers in the audience while singing on stage
2. Coco Chanel became very rich and famous during her life, but her childhood was a humble one. She was the daughter of a peasant and a street vendor and was born in a poorhouse.
3. After her mother died, she was sent to an orphanage in a convent, where she stayed until she was 18. It was here that Gabrielle learnt to embroider, iron and sew.
4. Coco Chanel started her fashion career by designing hats. With the help of one of her male admirers, she opened her first shop in Paris in 1913. As it became more popular, she started selling clothes as well.
5. In the 1920s she introduced the Little Black Dress to fashion. Intended to be affordable and easy-to-wear, Vogue rightly predicted that it would be worn around the world.
6. Her influence wasn’t just on clothes. At night, she appeared at the opera house with short hair, inspiring many women to adopt the new “garçon” (boyish) style.
7. In 1921, she created her first perfume, Chanel No 5. It was the first fragrance to bear the name of a designer, and was accompanied by the number five because Chanel had been told by a fortune teller that this was her lucky number.
8. Coco Chanel’s revolutionary designs were elegant but also comfortable and practical, as they freed women from wearing corsets. She also dared to shorten skirts so that ankles could be seen!
9. In 1954, aged 71, Chanel reopened her fashion house after it had been closed for 15 years during the war. She told the actress Marlene Dietrich it was because she was “dying of boredom”.
10. On 10 January 1971, after returning from a walk with her friend Claude Baillen, Coco Chanel died on her bed in the Hotel Ritz. Her last words to her maid Celine were, “You see, this is how you die.”