Birthplace: Samur, France
Awards: Neiman Marcus Award, 1957
London Sunday Times International Fashion Award, 1963
Born in a poorhouse and raised in an orphanage, Gabrielle Chanel was, as a pauper, forced to wear clothing which set her apart from the rest of the young ladies in her convent school. And that is why, explains psychoanalyst Claude Delay-Tubiana, a friend of hers during the last years of her life, "she put all women in a uniform . . . her revenge" (Fire, p. 137).
When Gabrielle turned twenty years of age she was placed, by the school she had attended as a seamstress, in a shop which served wealthy customers. Desiring to become a singer, she often performed at a local music hall where her limited repertoire included a song entitled "Qui Qu'a Vu Coco" from which came her nickname—Coco. One of the patrons of the hall, a wealthy infantryman named Etienne Balsan, became her lover. He invited her to live with him at his estate in the horse-breeding area of France, where she became an accomplished horsewoman, well known for her mannish mode of dress and her disdain for the era's frilly, overly ornamented fashions. Since she was a small, slender woman, masculine attire suited her much better than the opulent Belle Epoque clothing which celebrated the voluptuous figure.
At twenty-six (1909), Chanel opened her first shop in Paris—a hat shop—which promptly became so successful that she moved to the Rue Cambon (1910) where the House of Chanel is located today. In the summer of 1913, a new lover, a rich Englishman named Boy Capel, set her up in a shop in the fashionable resort of Deauville, where she began adding sporty knitwear to her line. These pieces offered relaxed style and required no corsets. Soon after, she opened an even larger shop in Biarritz, in Southwestern France, which attracted wealthy Spanish customers. She had somehow tapped in to a new kind of chic ... a complete departure from the elaborate designs of Paul Poiret, the reigning king of couture.
Sadly, Capel, said to have been the greatest love of her life, was killed in a car accident, and Chanel, strong willed and independent as she was, needed the attention and devotion of a man. Her relationship with Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, a nephew of the czar, began in 1920 and led her to develop an interest in Russian-inspired tunics and enormous gems, characteristic of the Romanov jewels presented to her by Pavlovich, many of which she used as models for her opulent costume jewelry designs. The duke also introduced her to the son of the czar's own perfumer, with whom she developed her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, packaged in a bottle so elemental and sleek that it could be compared in its simplicity to her "little black dress," also conceived in the 1920s. Today, Chanel No. 5 is the top-selling perfume in France and England and among the top five in Germany and the United States, with yearly sales at approximately 10 million bottles a year.
Chanel was, by this time, socializing with the greatest artists of the era, including Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau, and Igor Stravinsky, as well as Winston Churchill, whom she met through her new companion,
Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel: Chanel's unstructured jackets and skirts in wool jersey provided the new, modern woman of the 1920s with a comfortable ensemble to complement her active lifestyle.
the duke of Westminster, the man Chanel hoped would become her husband. He married, however, an English socialite.
In the 1930s, Horst's famous photographs of Chanel captured her extraordinary looks and signature style—the tanned complexion, the red lips, the stacked bracelets, piled-on necklaces, and the cigarette. Even the appearance of Paris's newest darling, designer Elsa Schiaparelli, did not keep Chanel's business from flourishing. In 1939, when France declared war on Germany, Chanel closed her couture house and began an affair with a German diplomat, thought by many to be a German spy. Chanel's activities during the war years were less than honorable. It has been reported that she tried to gain control of the perfumery, which had been producing her fragrances for many years, by taking advantage of the fact that the owners were Jewish and not allowed to own a business under the Nazi regime. Because of her connections to the Germans, she was exiled to Switzerland following World War II and spent nine unhappy years there, but she was able to travel to Paris on occasion.
In 1954, at the age of seventy, Chanel staged a brief comeback, relaunching her formulaic suit with its two-pocket cardigan jacket, pearl buttons, and braided trim, her quilted handbag, and her black toe pumps. Throughout her design career, she endorsed neatness and perfection in everything from clothing to coiffure, with comfort and proper fit her obsessions. The only deviation from her dedication to tidiness was the cascade of necklaces, both real and fake, she piled on with abandon.
Mademoiselle Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel died in her suite at the Ritz Hotel, in Paris, in 1971. The first choice for her successor was Yves Saint Laurent, who was unavailable. Her two assistants, Yvonne Dudel and Jean Cazaubon, took over the company. The house stagnated for over a decade until 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld was hired as head designer for Chanel. Determined to present clothing right for the moment, but ever mindful of those magical "Cocoesque" elements, Lagerfeld uses the ingredients that are essentially Chanel—the pearls, the gold chains, the white camilla—and gives these classics a new and spirited look.
Today, although the House of Chanel has approximately 150 couture clients, its ready-to-wear line is the mainstay of its clothing sales; there are well over 100 Chanel boutiques around the world. In 1993 the company reintroduced a collection of precious jewelry, with most of the pieces based on the designs from Mademoiselle's 1932 exhibition, Bijoux de Diamants. As for its scarves, belts, cosmetics, sunglasses, and so on, the House of Chanel refuses licensing agreements of any kind and maintains control over all divisions of the company. In fact, Chanel is one of the only fashion houses to have its own perfume factory. The current owners and directors insist on sole control of all products that bear its respected label, determined to maintain the image for which the Chanel name is known. Today, the house is owned by the Wertheimer family and is the only one of the larger couture houses to remain in private hands. See also: Karl Lagerfeld; Elsa Schiaparelli. Website: http://www.chanel.com
Collins, Amy Fine. "Haute Coco." Vanity Fair 57 (June 1994): 132. Edelman, Amy Holman. The Little Black Dress. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Lynam, Ruth, ed. Couture. Garden City N.Y.: Doubleday, 1972. Mackrell, Alice. Coco Chanel. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1992. Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. Tapert, Annette, and Diana Edkins. The Fower of Style. New York: Crown Publishers, 1994.
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