Coco Chanel story is known as one of the most influential and relevant 20th century stories among fashion designers. Not only was she a revolutionary designer that wrote her own rules and changed the way that women dressed worldwide, she also a pioneer in the world of perfumery. With an undeniable eye for style and a personality that preceded her, Coco Chanel is a fashion icon whose legacy will forever live on.Want to know more about this iconic designer’s humble beginnings and inspiring rise to fame? Read on to learn how an orphaned French girl would go on to become one of the world’s most fashionable, powerful, and influential figures.
In 1883, Gabrielle Chanel was born to an unwed mother in a small town in west-central France. Although her parents eventually married, the family was very poor and lived a very unpredictable life. Due to her father’s occupation as a street vendor, the Chanel family travelled from town to town and lived a generally nomadic lifestyle. Everything changed for Gabrielle when her mother died of tuberculosis when she was just 12 years old. Her uncaring father sent her away to a Catholic orphanage, where she would remain until she became an independent adult at the at of 18. Although her circumstances were dire, living at the orphanage would prove to be a life altering experience for Gabrielle. It was there that she learned to sew and manufacture clothing, a skill that would serve her well later in life. After turning 18, she moved to a Catholic boarding house and worked as a seamstress to earn a meager living. At night, however, she was a stage performer at a local cabaret. It was there that she would adopt the nickname “Coco,” which is said to have been due to her alluring “coquettish” good looks. Although her career as a cabaret performer never truly took off, it was during that time that she caught the eye of several men serving in the French military. Eventually, a wealthy man named Étienne Balsan swept her off of her feet and invited her to live with him at his chateau. There, Coco rubbed elbows with prominent members of Parisian high-society and indulged in an ultra-lavish lifestyle. Eventually, Coco ran off to Paris with one of Balsan’s wealthy friends and began her long and lucrative career in the fashion industry.
A Global Brand is Born
Coco Chanel’s success within the French fashion industry did not happen overnight. It took years and years of designs and failed attempts to truly put her on the map. She first began as a hat designer and sold her designs at several already-established retailers around Paris. In 1913, she opened her very first boutique in the town of Deauville, France, and employed her female family members to model her clothing on the boardwalk in an attempt to advertise her designs to shoppers in the area. After opening another small yet successful boutique in the southern France, she took her talents to Paris and opened her famous flagship storefront at 31 Rue Cambon in 1918, which remains a Chanel boutique to this very day.During the 1920s and 1930s, Coco Chanel had enormous success designing exquisite, high fashion clothing for the wealthy women of Paris. Many of her achievements are due to the fact that she was the very first fashion designer to produce pants or trousers for women, which was nothing short of revolutionary during this time period. Her unique ability to put a feminine twist on practical menswear-inspired garments solidified her as a true tour-de-force in the world of French fashion. Another facet of her success was due to her own unique sense of self. Her svelte figure, cropped hair cut, and confident personality made her a sensation among elite members of Parisian society. She was a true influencer in every sense of the word, and her own preference for wearing relaxed, pajama-style suits and slim trousers made other women want to emulate her style. People truly wanted to copy her every move - after she returned from the French Riviera with a sunburn, tan skin suddenly became fashionable first in Paris and then around the world thanks to her immense influence.
The Iconic Fragrance
Coco Chanel story is also about creating one of the world’s most iconic perfumes. In the early 1920s, Chanel worked alongside a popular perfumer named Ernest Beaux. He presented her with an entire portfolio of fragrances to sample, and the fashion designer’s fifth selection ended up becoming her absolute favorite scent. Thus, Chanel Number 5 was introduced to the world and became one of the most iconic perfumes ever to be sold. During this era, perfumes nearly all had an overpowering floral scent. Chanel Number 5, however, had a delightfully spicy aura due to the extra aldehydes that were included in the original formula. No one knows if the addition of large amounts of aldehydes was done so purposefully or on accident. Once the smell was approved by Chanel, however, the rest is truly history. Notably, it has also been said that Chanel designed the fragrance’s very first bottle to resemble her lover’s favorite whiskey decanter. The exceptional fragrance not only became popular, it became iconic. In the 1960s, the fragrance’s popularity would once again rise thanks to an endorsement from blonde bombshell Marilyn Monroe. During an interview in 1960, the actress seductively stated that the only thing that she wore to bed was Chanel Number 5. After that interview, sales of the perfume once again peaked. Today, the fragrance is still sold worldwide and is incredibly popular among consumers.
The Little Black Dress
While the Chanel brand produces iconic purses, fragrances, and suit sets, Coco Chanel’s most legendary garment is surprisingly simple. In 1926, a photograph of a sleek, streamlined black gown graced the pages of Vogue and became an overnight sensation. Coco Chanel’s understated crêpe de Chine dress was accessorized only by a strand of pearls. The minimalistic style was accessible, easy to wear, and exceptionally flattering. After Vogue writers heralded the look as a “uniform for all women of taste,” the idea of the Little Black Dress was born. There are several reasons that Chanel’s Little Black Dress became a staple item that every woman wanted to own. Fashion publications compared Chanel’s original design to Henry Ford’s cars, as it was a luxurious item that was still relatively accessible to everyone. Released during the Great Depression, the sleek, affordable look was exactly what the world was looking for. In World War II, many luxury fabrics were rationed thanks to the war effort. A chic black dress remained an easy way for the average woman to look elegant without being too extravagant. Audrey Hepburn’s iconic dress from 1960’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” was designed by the fashion house Givenchy, but still borrowed heavily from Chanel’s original iconic look. The Little Black Dress also had a resurgence in popularity during the 1990s, when celebrities and fashion icons were frequently photographed wearing black slip dresses paired with minimalistic accessories. Fashion trends always wax and wane, but thanks to Coco Chanel’s incredible foresight, the Little Black Dress will always be in style.
During World War II, Chanel closed her doors and stopped designing clothes. There are many rumors as to why (most of which center around her controversial stance during the war), however she is quoted as saying simply that wartime was “not a time for fashion.” Not long after the war ended, Christian Dior released his “New Look” collection, which featured exaggerated and contrived silhouettes. Chanel believed that women wanted something more realistic than the heavily structured designs that walked the runway, so in 1954, 15 years after closing her doors, she re-entered world of fashion. While many were worried that her controversial actions during wartime would tarnish her reputation, her 1954 collection was celebrated by fashion publications worldwide. Once again, her looks centered around less “feminine” silhouettes and featured suiting, trousers, and other relaxed menswear-inspired items. At the age of 71, Chanel once again received accolades for her unique and statement-making designs.
The Designer’s Legacy
Coco Chanel died in 1971 inside of her residence at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Although she has passed, her legacy forever lives on. The fashion house of Chanel saw a veritable revitalization when Karl Lagerfeld – a fashion icon in his own right – brought the company into the modern era after stepping in as the creative director of Chanel in the early 1980s. Not only is he responsible for much of the brand’s modern success, he is also the one who created the brand’s iconic interlocking “C” logo. While fashion trends are continually changing, the name “Chanel” will forever be synonymous with class and sophistication. Coco Chanel story was not only about creating beautiful clothing – she completely changed the way that women dressed. Her amazing achievements were once again recognized in 1999 when Time Magazine released a list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Chanel not only made the list, she was the only fashion designer to do so. Her legacy is a reminder that breaking the mold, questioning social norms, and being true to your signature sense of style are the most fashionable things a woman can do.