On this week's Fashion Fridays with Joanna, I would like to introduce none other than the iconic and legendary Gabrielle Bonheur, famously known as Coco Chanel.
Gabrielle Bonheur or "Coco" Chanel was a French fashion designer and a businesswoman who was the founder and namesake of the iconic Chanel brand. Her influence in fashion continues to stay strong even to this day as her house remains one of the biggest names in fashion.
Coco Chanel book cover by Charles-Roux Edmonde
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France. Her early years were anything but glamorous. She lived in a very low-poverty area in the countryside of France. She had two brothers and two sisters. Her parents were hard workers; her mother Eugénie Jeanne Devolle worked as a laundry woman in the charity hospital and her father Albert Chanel was a street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments. When Gabrielle was 11-years-old, her mother died at the age of 32. Her father, shortly after, made the decision to send his two sons to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to an orphanage. Chanel was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew, a skill that would lead to her life’s work. At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls. Chanel found employment as a seamstress. When not sewing, she sang in a cabaret where she gained her stage name Coco. Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for 'kept woman.'
Beginnings of a Fashion Empire
When Coco was in her early 20s, She became involved with a wealthy man named Etienne Balsan, who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She soon left him for one of his wealthier friends, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Both men were instrumental in Chanel’s first fashion venture. It's alleged that she was his mistress. Arthur Edward Capel and Chanel flourished into an affair of their own. Capel was also a very wealthy man. He financed her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910 where she began selling hats. She later added stores in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes. Coco became a popular figure in the Parisian literary and artistic worlds. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée.
In the 1920s, Chanel took her prosperous business to new heights. She launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. Chanel once explained Perfume:
“Is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. That heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure.”
The fragrance was soon backed by department store owner Théophile Bader and businessmen Pierre and Paul Wertheimer. A deal was ultimately negotiated where the Wertheimer business would take in 70% of Chanel No. 5 profits for producing the perfume at their factories; with Bader receiving 20% and Chanel herself only receiving 10%.
In 1925, Chanel introduced one of her legendary pieces, a Chanel suit with a collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. She brought a new look into women’s fashion by borrowing elements of menswear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of the-popular fashions. This was a huge step for women’s fashion; she helped women say goodbye to the days of corsets and other confining garments. Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for evening wear. The Chanel bag was introduced in 1929; it was inspired by the soldiers’ bags. The international economic depression of the 1930s had a negative impact on Chanel's company. When asked why she closed down shop, she stated that it was not a time for fashion.
At the age of 70, in the early 1950s, Chanel made a triumphant return to the fashion world. Chanel presented her new collection on February 5, 1954. Chanel’s collection was criticized harshly by French critics mostly because, during the time of World War II, she was criticized for being too close to the German occupiers to boost her professional career. Her designs did eventually win the hearts of the public. People of all different ages were buying from her collection which was a big win for Chanel. Even First Lady Jackie Kennedy was frequently seen in these designs.
The Death of an Icon
On January 10, 1971, Chanel died in her suite at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris where she had resided for more than 30 years. Gabrielle lived her life to the fullest and will forever go down in history for the changes that she brought to the fashion world. A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins at her company to continue the Chanel legacy, until his death in 2018.
At birth, Chanel's name was entered into the official registry as "Chasnel".
Chanel took in the sun a lot, making suntans not only acceptable, but a symbol denoting a life of privilege and leisure.
See you next week with another post. Happy Women's History Month!