Designer Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883, although she would later claim that her real date of birth was 1893, making her ten years younger.
Her place of birth was also something that she sought to disguise. Coco was born in the workhouse in the Loire Valley where her unmarried mother worked, although she asserted that she was born in Auvergne.
Her mother died when she was six years old, leaving her father with five children, whom he quickly farmed out to various relatives. The young Chanel was sent to the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress.
School vacations were spent with relatives in the provincial capital of Moulins where Gabrielle learnt to sew with more flourish than the nuns at the monastery had been able to teach her. When she turned 18, she left the orphanage, and took up work for a local tailor.
Later, when questioned, Chanel would claim that when her mother died, her father sailed for America and she was sent to live with two cold-hearted spinster aunts. She even claimed to have been born in 1893 as opposed to 1883, and that her mother had died when Coco was six instead of 12. All this was done to diminish the stigma that poverty, orphanhood, and illegitimacy bestowed upon unfortunates in 19th-century France.
It was during a brief stint as a singer in cafes and concert halls that Gabrielle adopted the name Coco, a nickname given to her by local soldiers who went to watch her.
World War I led her to move to the resort town of Deauvile, where Chanel became the mistress of a rich ex-military officer and textile heir Etienne Balsan in 1908. At the age of 23, she became his mistress and moved into his chateau, where she lived for three years. It was here that she started designing and creating hats as a diversion, which then turned into a commercial venture.
She then started a relationship with a wealthy English Industrialist called Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel who was a friend of Balsan. He installed her into a Parisian apartment and financed her first shops. The relationship lasted nine years, even after Capel married in 1918.
Through the patronage and connections that these men provided she was able to open her own millinery shop in Paris in 1910 and she soon had boutiques in both Deauville and Biarritz. In 1919, the single most devastating event of her life occurred when Capel was killed in a car accident. She commissioned a roadside memorial at the site of the accident.
Twenty-five years after the event, she told a friend: “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.”
During the 1920s, Coco Chanel became the first designer to create loose women’s jersey, traditionally used for men’s underwear, creating a relaxed style for women ignoring the stiff corseted look of the time. They soon became very popular with clients, a post-war generation of women for whom the corseted restricted clothing seemed old-fashioned and impractical.
By the 1920s, Maison Chanel was established at 31, rue Cambon in Paris (which remains its headquarters to this day) and become a fashion force to be reckoned with. Chanel became a style icon herself with her striking bob haircut and tan placing her at the cutting edge of modern style.
In 1922, she launched the fragrance Chanel No. 5, which remains popular to this day. Two years later, Pierre Wertheimer became her business partner (taking on 70% of the fragrance business), and reputedly her lover. The Wertheimers continue to control the perfume company today.
In 1925, Chanel launched her signature cardigan jacket, and the following year matched its success with her little black dress. Both items continue to be a staple part of every Chanel collection.
During World War II, Chanel was a nurse, although her post-war popularity was greatly diminished by her affair with a Nazi officer during the conflict and she moved to Switzerland to escape the controversy.
However, she ended this self-imposed exile in 1954, returning to Paris when she took on Christian Dior’s overtly feminine New Look. She expanded the signature style with the introduction of pea jackets and bell-bottoms for women. Her new collection, panned by the press in Europe, was a hit in the United States.
During her life, Coco Chanel also designed costumes for the stage, including Cocteau’s ‘Antigone’ (1923) and ‘Oedipus Rex’ (1937) and cinematic works such as ‘La Regle de Jeu’.
A Broadway musical of her life opened in 1969, with Katharine Hepburn taking the role of Chanel.
Coco Chanel worked until her death in 1971 at the age of 88, spending her last moments in the style she had become accustomed to at her opulent private apartment in The Ritz.
Karl Lagerfeld has been chief designer of Chanel’s fashion house since 1982. His ability to continuously mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance
of Coco Chanel’s contribution to the world of fashion.
The first film about Chanel was ‘Chanel Solitaire’ in 1981, with Marie-France Pisier playing the designer. This was followed by the American TV movie ‘Coco Chanel’ in 2008, which rewrote her history by overlooking her connections to the Nazis.
In 2009, French actress Audrey Tatou played the designer as a young woman in ‘Coco Before Chanel’.