Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, Coco Chanel was a French woman known as one of the greatest fashion designers of all time. Considered one of the hundred most important people in the history of the twentieth century by Time magazine, Coco was a pioneer in the fashion industry. Valuing comfort, she created and introduced to the world women’s trousers, which were worn by the most famous Hollywood actresses of her time. Today, her brand Chanel, bearing the name of her family, is still one of the largest and most respected brands on the market.
A daughter of a laundry woman and a peddler, Coco had a poor and tragic childhood. When she was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis at the age of 32, and her father sent Gabrielle and her two sisters to an orphanage, where she learned the art of sewing. At age 18, she moved to a women-only boarding house and began to further improve her sewing skills. At the boarding house, she met her aunt Adrienne, with whom she shared age and the goal of rising in life and getting out of poverty. In 1903, the two young women found employment as seamstresses.
About the same time, Chanel made her stage debut singing at a café-concert in a Moulins pavilion, La Rotonde, an entertainment venue popular among cavalry officers. It was at this time that she acquired the nickname Coco, prompted by the officers, possibly based on two songs she performed, “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro”. At the cafe she met Étienne Balsan (1880-1953), a young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir, whose family owned a factory providing the army with uniforms. Balsan introduced her to the upper class circle, where around 1909 she met millionaire Arthur Capel, who would become the love of her life.
It was Capel who helped her open her first hat shop in 1910, which brought Chanel success and publications in the most famous fashion magazines in Paris. In 1913 Coco opened a boutique in Deauville, where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport, including the first pair of women’s trousers.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Chanel met many prominent artists, such as Pablo Picasso, Luchino Visconti, and Greta Garbo, and made connections that eventually led her to dressing the greatest Hollywood actresses of the era and taking her style to dictate trends all over the world. The famous Chanel tweed suit remains one of the most popular, and most copied, fashion staples. In addition to her clothing, Coco created perfumes, including the iconic Chanel No. 5, that today is considered a synonym of sophistication and refinement.
In the beginning of World War II, the designer closed her shops, but remained in her country. During the period of German occupation (1940-1944), she got romantically involved with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German diplomat in Paris and former Prussian Army officer and Attorney General who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920. She reopened her sewing shop in 1954, at the end of the war, but the French condemned her love story with a German and stopped buying her creations. Facing financial difficulties, she began selling her designs across the Atlantic to keep her business going. This strategy was effective, and her clothing gained popularity in the United States, having sought admiration of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy, which made Chanel’s name return to the pages of fashion magazines.
Thanks to her ability to combine elegance with simplicity, Coco Chanel has become a fashion icon and an example of success. Despite all the controversy and challenges following the designer throughout her life and career, Chanel held tight to her dreams and ideals. One of the most famous phrases she is credited with, sums up Coco’s personality and perception of life: “A woman needs to be two things: who and what she wants”. At the time when there was not much room for women in the business world, Coco engraved her name in history by having built a career and created a brand that remains one of the most profitable in today’s fashion industry, which makes her an inspiration to all women, and a representation of strength and beauty of the women of the last century.