Chanel, Coco

views updated Jun 11 2018

Chanel, Coco



Gabrielle Chanel, known for most of her adult life as "Coco," created a fashion revolution in women's clothing, not once, but twice. In the 1920s, she introduced comfortable, simplistic designs that stood in stark contrast to the popular designs that incorporated numerous frills and ruffles. Again, in the 1950s, she freed women from the trends toward tight–fitting, uncomfortable clothing and returned them to simple elegance and functionality. Chanel was larger than life, a legend before her death and revered after. Over three decades after her death, Chanel remains a highly respected line of clothing and perfumes.

Personal Life

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, born on August 19, 1883, in a poorhouse in Saumur, France, was the second of five children born to Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle. Her parents did not marry until Chanel was one year old. Her father, a migrant market merchant, moved from town to town peddling his wares, sometimes with and sometimes without his family in tow. In 1894 her mother lost her health after a difficult pregnancy that resulted in the death of the infant. In February 1895, Chanel's mother died. Her father, never known to be dependable, abandoned his five children, never to be seen by them again. Chanel and her two sisters were placed in a boarding school in the town of Moulins run by nuns. Her two brothers were placed with a farm family, as unpaid child laborers.

Many of her memories of her childhood are tainted with feelings of being unloved and unwanted, despite her elaborate and baseless stories of her father's eventual return to reunite the family. In reality, during the six years of her residence there, she slept in the unheated dormitory and sat at the table with the other destitute children who had no family to pay the tuition. She would never accept or admit the extent of the poverty of her youth. Even as an adult, Chanel consistently refused to admit her humble beginnings and talked instead of being raised by her aunts. But always her tales were obscure or contradictory, and the scenario or characters often changed as the moment suited her.

When Chanel was old enough to leave, the nuns found her a job at a local boutique, the House of Grampayre, where she worked as a shop assistant and seamstress. Word circulated of Chanel's adept needlework, and soon she had customers coming directly to her for alterations. She also worked at a tailor shop once a week, where she met several calvarymen who took an interest in the petite, but spunky, Chanel. In their company, Chanel began going to the local cafe, La Rotonde. Amateurs were invited to sing between shows, and Chanel, always known for her boldness, stepped up on stage one night. Chanel's singing voice was marginal, but the support of her escorts encouraged the crowd. According to the tale, Chanel sang of a poor girl who had lost her dog Coco; the crowd began to call back to her "Coco! Coco!" thus bestowing on her the nickname by which she would be known the remainder of her life.

While frequenting La Rotonde, Chanel met Etienne Balsan, a calvaryman from a wealthy French family. When Balsan invited her to visit his racing horse farm in 1903, 20–year–old Chanel accepted and stayed. The young couple enjoyed each other's company, but the relationship was far from perfect. Balsan loved horse racing, women, and parties. Chanel was well aware that men such as the wealthy Balsan did not marry orphaned seamstresses. Nonetheless, during her time with Balsan, she became an expert horsewoman, and was introduced to a social group well beyond her own standing. Through them Chanel first began to draw attention as a fashion designer, primarily at first as a hat designer. When the women appeared at the racetrack with copies of Chanel's hats, the tabloids took note and wrote of the new styles.

As Chanel began making a name for herself within Balsan's social circle, she began to envision herself as a professional milliner with a shop in Paris. Balsan put off her attempts to convince him to finance her idea, but then in 1914 she met the love of her life, Arthur "Boy" Chapel, who found it perfectly fitting that Chanel should want a business of her own. Chapel, an Englishman, and Chanel met during a week–long fox hunt, and when he left to return to England, Chanel caught up to him at the train station, without a bag in hand. Balsan, quite in concert with his nature, decided to live and let live, even allowing Chanel to set up her millinery shop in his Paris apartment. With Chapel's financial help, Chanel opened a new shop at 21 Rue Cambon. Her new simple and comfortable designs became popular, and success soon followed; she soon added clothing to her selection of hats. People were as fascinated by Chanel as they were by her designs, often coming into her shop just to see what she looked like. As she grew in fame, her illegitimate birth and lower class origins gradually disappeared, and Chanel became a full, if unique, member of Parisian society.

Chapel, who never gave up his playboy ways despite his sincere affection for Chanel, eventually married the daughter of a lord. However, he soon renewed his relationship with Chanel, finding he missed her greatly. When he died in an automobile accident in 1919, Chanel was crushed. According to biographer Axel Madsen, Chanel later said, "We were made for each other. That he was there and that he loved me, and that he knew I loved him was all that mattered."

Although Chanel had numerous and often well–publicized relationships after Chapel's death, including the Duke of Westminster and a Nazi officer, she never married or had children. She retained her residence and boutique at 21 Rue Cambon the remainder of her life, although she always slept across the street at the Ritz Hotel. She died at the Ritz on January 10, 1971; she was 87 years old.

Career Details

Chanel opened her first business, a millinery, in 1909 with the assistance of Balsan and Chapel. In 1915 Chapel helped Chanel open additional shops in the coastal resort towns of Deauville and Biarritz. It was while spending a leisurely summer with Chapel in Deauville in 1913 that Chanel first invented her famous sportswear design. According to Madsen, "In 1913, knits were considered unsuitable and too limp and lifeless for anything but underwear, flannel too working class or masculine, to be stylish for women. She made jersey chic with her simple gray and navy dresses that were quite unlike anything women had worn before." According to Chanel's later retelling, she cut the front of an old jersey so she would not have to pull it over her head. She then added a ribbon, a collar, and a knot. When people asked where she got her dress, she volunteered to sell them one. Later she told biographers, "My dear, my fortune is built on that old jersey that I'd put on because it was cold in Deauville."

As she would do throughout her career, Chanel created clothing that was backed on functionality and comfort. Unlike the current styles that emphasized frills and tight–fitting corsets, Chanel's new designs emphasized straight flowing lines with plain colors—usually gray, beige, and navy—that displayed an air of simple elegance. The rich flocked to her designs—Chanel single–handedly created a women's fashion revolution.

When Chapel died in 1919, Chanel was crushed, but she was no longer in need of his financial backing. By that time she had a staff of 300 and was selling her dresses for over 7,000 francs (over $2,000 in current terms) each. The House of Chanel was coming into the height of its success. According to the Smithsonian, "Harper's Bazaar ran the first picture ever of her couture, 'Chanel's charming chemise dress.' No collar, no bodice, but a deep V–necked, near–masculine waistcoast, no puffs, no frills, with a large hat with a twist of fur. She was stealing on the early march on the flapper look of the upcoming '20s." During the early 1920s, Chanel also designed costumes for the theatre and ballet.

In 1923 Chanel began selling her trademark perfume, Chanel No. 5. Collaborating with well–known perfume expert Ernest Beaux, Chanel wanted to create a new scent, void of the flowery, rose–water smells of the popular perfumes of the day. Starting with benzyl acetate, a coal tar derivative that smells like jasmine, Beaux added real jasmine. Of the final seven samples, Chanel chose the fifth, thus the name Chanel No. 5. She also designed the simple square–shaped bottle for her new perfume, a drastic change from the fancy bottles on the market. Chanel wanted to make No. 5, which she referred to as "a woman's scent," the most expensive perfume in the world; it definitely became the most popular. To meet the demand, Chanel entered into an agreement with a perfume company to manufacture the product. Although she made a fortune on the perfume, throughout her lifetime she was convinced that the deal had been heavily weighted in favor of the perfumer and that she had been cheated out of a huge sum of money.

Chronology: Coco Chanel

1883: Born.

1909: Opened first business, a millinery, in Paris.

1910: Moved business to 21 Rue Cambon, where it remains throughout her life.

1913: Designed first women's sportswear.

1923: Introduced new fragrance, Chanel No. 5.

1925: Introduced what becomes known as the classic Chanel suit.

1926: Created the highly praised and often copied "little black dress."

1939: Closed the House of Chanel.

1954: Staged a successful comeback at the age of seventy.

1971: Died.

In 1925 Chanel introduced what became known as the classic Chanel suit—a collarless cardigan jacket with tight–fitting sleeves and braid trim, matched with a plain but graceful skirt. The following year she created the "little black dress," which was a revolution in color and style, as black was traditionally associated with funerals. Vogue called the dress the "Ford" of eveningwear, based on its functionality and enduring quality. She added to her fashion creations by designing costume jewelry, mixing real and imitation pearls and gems. Her jewelry designs added flair and color to her simplistic clothing designs. Chanel, who could not draw her designs, often created them on live models. Her talents were extensive, and along with her standard suit and little black dress designs, Chanel added glitzy eveningwear and cocktail dresses. She created a new trend in women's fashion when she began attending social functions wearing pants—nearly unheard of until Chanel.

During World War II, Chanel's reputation suffered. In October 1939, just weeks after the war began, Chanel closed the House of Chanel and dismissed all her workers. Despite attempts by her employees and the French government to force her to reopen, Chanel remained closed. To add injury to insult, when Nazi forces overran France, Chanel began a relationship with a young handsome Nazi soldier, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, known as Spatz. With German permission, Chanel continued to live at the Ritz. When France was liberated in 1944, Chanel underwent three hours of interrogation by French authorities about her relationship with Spatz. She was released, but her actions had tarnished her public image. For the next decade, she wandered about, living in a self–imposed exile for a time.

In 1954, at the age of seventy, Chanel staged a comeback and reopened the House of Chanel. Complaining that the new lines of clothing coming out were much too constrictive, Chanel later explained that the problem stemmed from the fact that men had taken over women's fashion design, and men, declared Chanel, did not know how to make clothing for women. She debuted her new line of clothes on February 5, 1954, in Paris. The show was highly publicized and highly anticipated, but the affair received shockingly poor reviews, with the London Daily Express running the condemning headline "A Fiasco—Audience Gasped!" The European press roundly criticized Chanel for depending too heavily on her previous fashion designs. However, the response in the United States was different; Life magazine ran a four–page spread that praised Chanel's comfortable style. The following month a Chanel navy blue suit appeared on the cover of French Vogue. When Chanel had another show in May 1955, this time her designs were met with approval and enthusiasm. Triumphant, Chanel had reclaimed her past fame and legendary status.

Social and Economic Impact

When Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at the Ritz Hotel, she left behind an estate worth over $90 million (in present terms). She had nearly single–handedly transformed women's fashion from the frills and constrictive designs to loose–fitting, easy–wearing clothing that provided both style and functionality. After her death, several assistants assumed command of her business, but the business stagnated during the remainder of the 1970s. During the 1980s Karl Lagerfeld took over the design for Chanel fashions and began to focus on a younger customer base. He has been routinely praised for his ability to retain the quality and style of the original Chanel. The company owns 100 boutiques throughout the world and is one of the most recognized names in fashion and perfume.

Chanel never spoke of feminism, but referred frequently to femininity, and yet she challenged and conquered many social limits in women's fashion. Madsen concluded, "Coco Chanel had influence before she had money. She was the Pied Piper who led women away from complicated, uncomfortable clothes to a simple, uncluttered, and casual look that is still synonymous with her name. . . . From beyond the grave, her name is enough to define a pair of shoes, a hat, a pocketbook, a suit, a perfume. It conveys prestige, quality, taste, and unmistakable style. It is a sign of excellence, of fulfilled sensibilities for women who want to be in fashion without screaming fashion."

Chanel's success was powered by the strength of her personality, her desire for independence, and her need to be different. Her impact can be readily seen in the simple but smart designs that dominate twenty–first–century women's fashions. The irony is, of course, that in her desire to be different, Chanel created a trend that was copied by everyone. She became that which she had first rebelled against. And yet her triumph was that she, a poor orphaned girl, influenced and reigned supreme in the highest social circles.

Sources of Information


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"Chez Chanel: Couturiere and Courtesan, Coco Made Her Own Rules as She Freed Women From Old Fussy, Frilly Fashions." Smithsonian, July 2001.

"Gabrielle Chanel." Contemporary Designers. 3rd ed. New York: St. James Press, 1997.

Madsen, Axel. Chanel: A Woman of Her Own. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1990.

"Time 100: Artist and Entertainers. The Designer: Coco Chanel.", 2001. Available at

Chanel, Gabrielle "Coco"

views updated May 18 2018

CHANEL, Gabrielle "Coco"

French fashion designer

Born: Saumur, France, 19 August 1883. Education: At convent orphanage, Aubazine, 1895-1900; convent school, Moulins, 1900-02. Career: Clerk, Au Sans Pareil hosiery shop, Moulins, 1902-04; café-concert singer, using nickname "Coco," in Moulins and Vichy, 1905-08; lived with Etienne Balsan, Château de Royalieu and in Paris, 1908-09; stage costume designer, 1912-37, established millinery and women's fashion house with sponsorship of Arthur "Boy" Cappel, in Paris, 1913, later on rue Cambon, Paris, 1928; established fashion shops in Deauville, 1913, Biarritz, 1916; fragrance, No. 5, marketed from 1921; film costume designer, 1931-62; headquarters closed during World War II; exiled to Lausanne for affair with Nazi officer, 1945-53; rue Cambon headquarters reopened and first post-war showing, 1954; Broadway musical Coco, starring Katherine Hepburn debuted on Broadway, 1969; company continued after Chanel's death, 1971; ready-to-wear introduced, 1977; Karl Lagerfeld brought in as designer for couture, 1983; Lagerfeld took over ready-to-wear, 1984; gun manufacturer Holland & Holland acquired, 1996; French beachwear company Eres pruchased, 1997; one licensing agreement with Luxxotica for eyewear. Other fragrances include No. 22, 1921, Cuir de Russie, 1924, No. 19, 1970, and from the House of Chanel, Cristalle, 1974, Coco, 1984, Egoïste for men, 1990, Allure, 1996, and Allure Homme, 1998; launch of Precision skincare line, 1999; introduced line of his-and-hers watches, 2000. Exhibitions: Les Grands Couturiers Parisiens 1910-1939, Musée du Costume, Paris, 1965; Fashion: An Anthology, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1971; The Tens, Twenties & Thirties, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1977; Folies de dentelles: Balenciaga, Cardin, Chanel, DiorExposition du 24 juin au octobre 2000, Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la dentelle, 2000. Awards: Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1957; Sunday Times International Fashion award, London, 1963. Died: 10 January 1971, in Paris. Company Address: 29-31 rue Cambon, 75001 Paris, France. Company Website:




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A woman of ambition and determination, Gabrielle Chanel, nicknamed "Coco," rose from humble beginnings and an unhappy childhood to become one of the 20th century's most prominent couturiers, prevailing for nearly half a century. In contrast to the opulent elegance of the belle époque, Chanel's designs were based on simplicity and elegance. She introduced relaxed dressing, expressing the aspirations of the day's woman, replacing impractical clothing with functional styling.

Chanel's early years tended to be vague in detail, being full of inaccuracies and contradictions, due to her deliberate concealment of her deprived childhood. It is generally accepted that Chanel gained some dressmaking and millinery experience prior to working in a hat shop in Deauville, France. Using her skills as a milliner she opened shops in Paris, Deauville, and Biarritz with the financial assistance of a backer. Chanel was an astute businesswoman and skillful publicist, quickly expanding her work to include skirts, jerseys in stockinette jersey, and accessories.

Recognized as the designer of the 1920s, Chanel initiated an era of casual dressing, appropriate to the occasion, for relaxed outdoor clothing created to be worn in comfort and without constricting corsets, liberating women with loosely fitting garments. Her style was of uncluttered simplicity, incorporating practical details.

In 1916 Chanel introduced jersey, a soft elasticated knit previously only used for undergarments, as the new fashion fabric. Wool jersey produced softer, lighter clothing with uncluttered fluid lines. She made simple jersey dresses in navy and grey, cut to flatter the figure rather than to emphasize and distort the natural body shape. The demand for her new nonconformist designs by the wealthy was so great and the use of jersey so successful Chanel extended her range, creating her own jersey fabric designs, which were manufactured by Rodier.

Highly original in her concept of design, Chanel ceaselessly borrowed ideas from the male wardrobe, combining masculine tailoring with women's clothing. Her suits were precise but remain untailored, with flowing lines, retaining considerable individuality and simple elegance. Riding breeches, wide-legged trousers, blazers, and sweaters were all taken and adapted. A major force in introducing and establishing common sense and understated simplicity into womenswear, Chanel's coordination of the cardigan, worn with a classic straight skirt, became a standard combination of wearable separates.

Chanel produced her cardigans in tweed and jersey fabrics, initiating the perennially popular "Chanel suit," which usually consisted of two or three pieces: a cardigan-style jacket, weighted with her trademark gilt chain stitched around the inside hem, a simple easy-to-wear skirt, worn with a blouse (with blouse fabric coordinated with the jacket lining). Her work offered comfort and streamlined simplicity, creating clothes for the modern woman, whom she epitomized herself. The key to her design philosophy was construction, producing traditional classics outliving each season's new fashion trends and apparel. While other designers presented new looks for each new season, Chanel adapted the refined detailing and style lines.

Her colors were predominantly grey, navy, and beige, incorporating highlights of a richer and broader palette. Chanel introduced the ever popular "little black dress,"created for daywear, eveningwear, and cocktail dressing which became a firm fixture in the fashion world during her tenure, and is still popular today.

Attentive to detail, adding to day and eveningwear, Chanel established a reputation for extensive uses of costume jewelery, with innovative combinations of real and imitation gems, crystal clusters, strings of pearls, and ornate jewelled cuff links, adding brilliant contrast to the stark simplicity of her designs. The successful development of Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1922 assisted in the financing of her couture empire during difficult years. An interesting aspect of Chanel's career was the reopening of her couture house, which was closed during World War II. After 15 years in exile for having an affair with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage, Chanel relaunched her work in 1954 at the age of 71, reintroducing the Chanel suit, which formed the basis for many of her collections and become a hallmark. The look adopted shorter skirts and braid trimmed cardigan jackets.

Despite her work and individual style, Chanel craved personal and financial independence, and was ruthless in her search for success. She was unique in revolutionizing the fashion industry with dress reform and in promoting the emancipation of women. Her influence touched many American and European designers, who have continued to reinforce her concept of uncomplicated classics. Once such designer is Karl Lagerfeld who took over designing the Chanel couture line in 1983 and its ready-to-wear collections the following year. He is widely credited with bringing Chanel back to the forefront of fashion, by taking original Chanel designs and tweaking them to appeal to younger customers.

Throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s Lagerfeld kept the Chanel name alive and well. His collections receive high praise, season after season, and he is among the last of the great old-school designers. As Suzy Menkes of the International Herald Tribune so aptly put it in March 2000, "Lagerfeld will soon be the last of the fashion Mohicans, the tribe that came center stage in ready-to-wear in the 1960s but were schooled in the old couture ways of rigorous cut, perfect execution, invention in detail. Who in the next generation can ever fill his seven-league boots?" Who indeed?

Carol MaryBrown;

updated by SydonieBénet

Chanel, Gabrielle "Coco"

views updated Jun 27 2018


Probably the most important fashion designer of the twentieth century, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (18831971) created the basic look of the modern woman. That look, like one of Chanel's classic suits, has remained original and vibrant from the 1920s, when it first appeared on French fashion runways, into the twenty-first century. Chanel's success as a timeless designer comes from her very practical approach to women's fashions. Real elegance, according to Chanel, came from feeling comfortable and free in one's clothes. The point of fashion, she insisted, was to allow the real woman to show through, not to cover her up with frills and fluff.

Gabrielle Chanel was born in poverty to unmarried parents in the small French town of Saumur. Her father was never a part of her life, and her mother died when Gabrielle was twelve, leaving her to spend the rest of her youth in an orphanage. The nuns there taught the young girl only one skill: sewing. Gabrielle was energetic, spirited, and determined to leave the orphanage and her deprived childhood behind her. As a young woman she earned the nickname "Coco" from the word cocotte, a French word for a woman with loose morals.

Chanel used her sewing skills and a fine eye for design to create hats that were simple and stylish, unlike the elaborate, plumed (ornamental) hats French women were wearing. Soon she opened a hat shop in Paris, France, and began to design clothes as well. In 1909 she created the House of Chanel, her own fashion house. Chanel's designs came from watching people relax at the seaside and in the country. Deciding that women needed comfort and freedom of movement just as much as men did, she eliminated the confining corset, a restrictive under-garment, and invented the concept of "sports clothes," clothes that could be worn at a variety of informal occasions. She used fabrics formerly considered low-class and too practical to be fashionable, like jersey knits and wools to create beautiful, expensive dresses and suits.

Some of Chanel's most enduring contributions to women's fashions were the simple knit suit and the "little black dress," a simple black cocktail dress that is still often considered a basic of any woman's wardrobe. In 1926 she shocked some and thrilled others by adding trousers for women to her clothing line. During the mid-1920s she also joined with famed perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the scent that would become her signature, Chanel No. 5.

The worldwide economic depression of the 1930s dealt a blow to the House of Chanel, and during the occupation of France by the Germans during World War II (193945), Chanel closed her design business. She reopened in 1954, reintroducing many of her classic designs, such as a navy blue suit in wool jersey. Her European customers did not appreciate Chanel's return to simplicity after the war, when other designers were using frills and other ornaments to emphasize femininity. However, American women continued to love the practical and stylish new fashions. Chanel suits and copies of Chanel suits were very popular with American women, including influential first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (19291994), during the early 1960s, causing many Europeans to rethink their criticisms.

Coco Chanel continued to work and design until her death at age eighty-eight. The House of Chanel continues to operate in the twenty-first century, carrying on its founder's tradition of breezy elegance and practical style.

Coco Chanel

views updated May 23 2018

Coco Chanel

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971) was noted for her free-flowing, loose-fitting designs for women's clothing, first introduced in 1919, and again in 1954.

In 1919 French designer Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel released women from the tight corsets of the era and introduced them to comfortable jersey clothing. In 1954, after fifteen years of retirement and just six months before her seventy-first birthday, she made a comeback and freed women once again from highly structured, constricting designs—this time the clothing of the "New Look." Critics were lukewarm, but women, particularly American women, loved her casual, softly shaped clothes and snapped them up. These designs ushered in a new relaxation in fashion that continues today.

Early Years

Little is known of Chanel's early years except that she was orphaned as a young child. She started in fashion in 1910, making hats in Paris. Chanel opened her first dress shop in Paris in 1914 and closed it in 1939 at the onset of World War II. But in the period between the world wars she revolutionized women's fashion with her straight, simple, uncorseted, and, above all, comfortable "Chanel Look." She also popularized short hair for women in the 1920s and introduced shorter skirts. She created her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume in 1922.

Later Years

In 1954 Chanel said her competitive spirit was aroused because Parisian high fashion had been taken over by men. "There are too many men in this business," she told a magazine interviewer in May 1954, "and they don't know how to make clothes for women. All this fantastic pinching and puffing. How can a woman wear a dress that's cut so she can't lift up her arm to pick up a telephone?" She had a knack for knowing what women wanted, and women responded enthusiastically. In the 1950s her famous Chanel suit—a collarless, braid-trimmed cardigan jacket and slim, graceful skirt—was an enormous hit. She also popularized pea jackets and bell-bottom trousers plus magnificent jewelry worn with sportswear.

In 1969 Coco Chanel's life was the basis for Coco, a Broadway musical starring Katharine Hepburn. Chanel died in 1971, working to the end on a new collection. □

Chanel, ‘Coco’

views updated May 21 2018

Chanel, ‘Coco’ ( Gabrielle) (1883–1971) French fashion designer. She revolutionized women's fashion, borrowing many elements of her designs from men's clothing. She is associated with the Chanel suit, jersey dresses, bell-bottom trousers, trench coats, and Chanel No. 5 perfume.