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Saturday, 8 March 2014

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

Gabrielle Chanel was born to an unwed laundrywoman mother, Eugénie "Jeanne" Devolle in Saumur, France on August 19, 1883. Her father, Albert Chanel, was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments.

In 1895, when Gabrielle was twelve years old, her mother died of bronchitis.  Her father sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, whose religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was "founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls.”

Having learned the art of sewing during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel was able to find employment as a seamstress.

When not plying her needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers.  It was at this time that Chanel acquired the name "Coco", possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, "Ko Ko Ri Ko", and "Qui qu'a vu Coco", or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte.

At the age of 23 Chanel became the mistress of the young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan.

Chanel began designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner (hat maker) in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes.

In 1913, Chanel opened her first boutique in Deauville. Her simple wardrobe attracted women from society to the Chanel brand. In 1915, she opened a second shop in Biarritz. She became a licenced haute couture dress designer and maker in 1919.

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, 1920

Chanel's initial triumph was the innovative use of jersey fabric, a machine knit material traditionally relegated to the manufacture of undergarments. Her wool jersey traveling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket, and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. This ensemble, worn with low-heeled shoes, became the casual look in expensive women's wear.

Chanel No. 5 was created by perfumer Ernest Beaux for Coco Chanel in 1921. The fragrance’s unusually unfussy name is said to be because it was the fifth sample that its inventor Ernest Beaux presented to Coco Chanel for consideration.


Her 'little black dresses' from the 1920s were famous, and are still copied today. Its first incarnation was executed in thin silk, crèpe de chine, and had long sleeves.  In 1926, the American edition of Vogue highlighted such a Chanel dress, dubbing it the garçonne (little boy look).

Chanel promoted her own ideas through her line of clothing. She became one of the first women to create simple and practical clothes, based on a dynamic and sporty lifestyle. She made simplicity in women's apparel high fashion.

She helped to reform women's lifestyle: short hair, tanned skin and casual style were the new trends. She banned corsets and other uncomfortable garments

It was Chanel who first declared that she wanted to use models who would make other women feel envious and discontented so they would buy new clothes.

She was the mistress of a number of rich men, and reputedly turned down marriage to the Duke of Westminster. When asked why she did not marry him, she said: "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel". She never married.

Chanel wearing a sailor's jersey and trousers. 1928.
Chanel lived at the Hotel Ritz, Paris, for over thirty years. She was there during World War II, when the Germans occupied Paris, and her shops were closed.

During World War II, Chanel was linked to German intelligence officer Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a noted German spy. After the war she was accused of being a collaborator. The British Royal Family intervened to get her released. Chanel promptly moved to Switzerland, and gave up fashion.

After renegotiating the contract with the makers of her signature Chanel No. 5 perfume, Coco Chanel received her share of wartime profits from its sale on May 17, 1947. The amount she received was equivalent to some $9 million in 21st century valuation. In addition her future share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. Her earnings were projected at $25 million a year, making Chanel at the time one of the richest women in the world.

Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1969 Broadway musical Coco based on the life of Coco Chanel.

Chanel died on January 10, 1971 in her apartment at the Ritz Hotel in Paris, where she had resided for more than 30 years.

The House of Chanel is still in business, and still a member of the Chambre syndicale de la haute couture, the top fashion clique in Paris.


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