The Life and Times of Coco Chanel
There have been many women of great influence throughout the years, but in the world of fashion there was one above all the rest: Coco Chanel. After years of triumphs and failures, she gracefully stated, Nature gives you the face you have at twenty. Life shapes the face you have at thirty. But at fifty you get the face you deserve. Gabrielle Coco Chanel was a great woman of her time, from her humble beginnings to becoming the most influential designer of her time, she incorporated good looks and comfort for women of the 1920’s and formed a strong capital investment for herself even after her death.
Born into a destitute Auvergnate family August 19, 1883, Gabrielle Chanel was destined to be a notable face in the French and global fashion scene. She was given the very fitting middle name of Bonheur, meaning happiness, by a nun in the convent hospital where she was delivered. The young Gabrielle enjoyed being in the company of friends and was always filled with stories, although they were often falsities (Current Biography 1). But there was one story that proved her intent to participate in fashion, and that was the habitual action of cutting up the curtains in the living room to make dresses for her dolls (1). What a magnificent way to prepare for a life of style.
In February, 1895, Chanels mother, Jeanne, was found dead, presumably because of her constant pregnancies (Chanel, A Woman of Her Own 9); her father, Albert, left for good, abandoning Gabrielle and her four siblings. They were placed into an orphanage in Aubazine. The three Chanel girls, Julie, Antoinette, and Gabrielle, remained at the orphanage for the next six years while the two boys, Alphonse and Lucien, became unpaid child laborers at their young age of eight. (10)
In 1900, Gabrielle left the orphanage at eighteen with her sister, Julie, and they were placed in an institution at Moulins by their grandmother (19). Antoinette would join them the next year. While in Moulins, she got her first taste of designing by working, with her sisters, in a tailoring shop on Sundays. The Chanel girls, known as the Three Graces (25), received a good amount of attention from the army lieutenants who often came into the tailor shop to be graced by their company. This is how Chanel met her first love and her first chance at fame.
The mans name was Etienne Balsan. Not only was he her first romantic interlude, but he introduced her into a new world: one of riches and what would soon be fame. Although she seemed destined to be a fashion designer, Gabrielle Chanel had always aspired to be a singer despite her less than perfect voice. She sang in bars around Moulins known as caf-concerts (29). She gained the nickname of Coco because of her rendition of a popular song about a
young Parisian lady who lost her dog at the Trocadro amusement park across from the Eiffel Tower, the dogs name being Coco. But it was at one of the caf concs that Etienne and Gabrielle met, and they were instantly attracted to everything about one another, especially their adoration of the equestrian sport (29). Soon he would provide the foundation for her rise to the top.
The hustle and bustle of social life in Moulins soon became too overwhelming for Chanel. She had to get out and her escape was provided by Monsieur Balsan. He generously offered her his ground floor flat which she changed into a studio (Chanel 6). She had already produced her first pieces which her friends were so dutifully wearing, but she was often mocked for her extensive use of pearls or her stylish schoolgirl dresses. The world was changing, however, and Coco was on the right track.
When she moved to 21 rue Cambon in Paris, 1910, the world was ready for her. Her self-titled boutique was an instant hit. Crowds flocked to it, soon giving Chanel the capital successes to take over numbers 27, 29, and 31 on the rue Cambon (6). She was now living her life in the lap of luxury, a life she assumed was out of reach because of her childhood. The years of 1911 and 1912 were the happiest times in her life (Chanel, A Woman of Her Own 58). Her hats were seen publicly when Gabrielle Dorziat, an up and coming French actress, got the leading role in Guy de Maupassants Bel-Ami (58). Although
Dorziat wore the clothing of the most famous couturier in Paris, Jacques
Doucet, Mlle Chanel persuaded the actress to wear her hats in the play.
Gabrielle had still not finished expanding her what would be global empire. Not entirely by chance the place where she was grow and become her own person was one that combined sea, horses, and men: Deauville in the north of France (Chanel 7). Deauville was a cosmopolitan English Channel resort in a rural setting: a playground for the rich and famous.
Chanel preferred getting a tan, exercising in the fresh air and bathing in the sea, and her composition showed that. Her easy-fitting, flowing designs could be worn for exercise and for sport (7). They were created for a kind of woman who so far only existed in the mind of the creator. She was a privileged partner of men, rubbing shoulders with them as if she were one herself. She would soon prove that she could move above and beyond their capabilities, as she told the New York Journal-American (May 2, 1954), There are too many men in this business and they dont know how to make clothes for women. All this fantastic pinching and puffing. How can a woman wear a dress thats cut so she cant lift up her arm to pick up a telephone? (Current Biography 3). Gabrielle knew what would make the women of her time happy, as she was one herself.
In 1923, Chanel went over the top: she hit forty. She celebrated this
occasion by launching her first and most famous perfume called Chanel No. 5,
five being her lucky number (Chanel, A Woman of Her Own 128). She also
signed a long-term lease agreement on the main-floor residence of the Count Pillet-Wills townhouse on the rue Fauborg St. Honor. It was on this street that Chanel had met the love of her life, Arthur Boy Capel, who had been recently killed at the wheel of his sports car while on his way from Paris to Monte Carlo (100). Coco came out of this ordeal all the stronger, twisting open her outer shell to face her loneliness once more.
To compensate for the decline of Biarritzs (home to another Chanel boutique) popularity as a resort town, Coco annexed 27, 29, and 31 on the rue Cambon to compensate for the lack of business (129). She also opened up a new branch in Cannes, the rediscovered Mediterranean playground.
Chanels habitual costume was a loose jersey cardigan jacket worn over a white shirt and short pleated skirt. Around her neck she wore knots of fakes pearls and other large, fake jewels (Current Biography 2). But for a short period in the early 1930s she worked with real stones. She introduced semi-precious stones in massive settings and supervised all the details to her liking. Coco opened up her official accessories boutique inside the couture house in 1929.
In 1935, Chanel was at the height of her career, employing nearly 4,000 workers and selling close to 28,000 designs a year all over the world. But on June 6, 1936, her dressmakers went on strike (2). The strong-nerved fashion
designer told them that they would have to run the shop themselves because
there wasnt the capital to pay for their labor and that she would remain
there wasnt the capital to pay for their labor and that she would remain employed as an unpaid stylist. The strikers decided she needed more money and tried to get some from the Socialist treasury. They failed in this and then formally refused to take over the shop, therefore Mlle Chanel in turn refused to keep it open (2). Three weeks later they called off their strike and Chanel reopened the establishment.
For two more years, Coco continued what she did best, but in 1938, with her output reduced by more than half, she quit designing (Chanel 12). There was also new Italian competition from Schiaparelli and Balenciaga. Although she closed her couture houses, she continued her perfume business at 31 rue Cambon (Current Biography 2). But Chanel had not yet finished what she was here to do: she would still return.
In 1953, Chanel personally supervised the redecoration of her New York perfume showrooms. It was on February 5, 1954, that Chanel made her official comeback, but to an un-accepting audience (Chanel 14). She was over seventy years old. A failure would not only be a terrible disappointment, but it would threaten the remaining wealth of her empire: her perfumes.
A year later, Coco, restored to her old reputation, had reconquered the rest of her empire. Soft jackets with no interlining, wonderfully managed sleeves, silk blouses, gold chains, wrap-over skirts, quilted shoulder bags, flat
shoes, plus other original ideas adopted by the public (15). This was the
Chanel Look as it was known by the English-speaking press, was carried around the world. It was a landslide victory.
The image of the new Chanel was of an elderly woman wearing a hat with dark pencilled in eyebrows and dark hair encompassing a stern mouth with, all in all, a very upright figure. (15) This is the image of the dressmaking goddess who lived at the Ritz across from the rue Cambon since her comeback. January 10, a Sunday in 1971, Coco Chanel died (15). But her life and memory was to be carried on as the memory of a woman who rejected her past to have the life she deserved and desired.
After Gabrielle Chanels death, her fashion house, salons, and studio were left idle for a decade. By 1983, Karl Lagerfeld had taken control of the House of Chanel as the design consultant (75). He opened a second Parisian boutique at 42 avenue Montaigne and launched Chanels legacy into a new era.
In the history of the twentieth century, simplicity will undoubtedly be the last word in luxury. According to Vogue, Chanel is a tradition so strong that today she can hardly compete with the strength of her own aura (Current Biography 3). It is as though the beautiful people of today are acknowledging their debt to the everlasting elegance of Gabrielle Chanel; a woman so individual she could claim everyone was just like her.