France has given birth to many great fashion legends: Christian Dior (a Sciences Po graduate), Hermès, Christian Louboutin, and Yves Saint Laurent, to name a few of my personal favorites. There is one, however, who is more legendary than all others, who shaped women’s fashion for her time and for decades to come. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, born in 1883, is one of fashion’s most notorious women, and yet one of the most important, talented, and timeless.
History: “There is only one Chanel”
One of the most interesting things about researching Gabrielle Chanel’s history is the difficulty of the task itself: untangling her roots is a task many biographers have taken on, but have had to untangle lie after lie in order to seek the truth about her modest beginnings and rise to fame. Coco Chanel was constantly re-imagining her past, tailoring it as she did her gowns, making the task of piecing together her history a daunting one. However, biographers have managed to weave together the life of this legend, detangling the mysteries of fashion’s famous feminine force to reveal a woman who was truly unique, and truly gifted.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel came from humble roots: she was the daughter of a laundrywoman and a market stall-holder, and was one of 6 children. At age 12, after the loss of her mother to tuberculosis (allegedly), Gabrielle and her sisters were abandoned by her father and placed in a Catholic monastery, where she learned to sew: however, at age 18, Gabrielle left the orphanage to become a cabaret singer, where she adopted the nickname of “Coco”. Though some claim the name comes from a song she used to sing as a performer, Chanel herself asserted it was a shortened version of the word coquette, which is a way of saying “tease” or “flirt”.
In her efforts to become a cabaret singer in the town of Moulins, young Gabrielle met French textile heir Etienne Balsan: she soon became his mistress, and during the time that they lived together, she was introduced to the lavish life of the French elite. She began making hats as a hobby during their time together, but she soon left him and moved to Paris, not long after meeting Balsan’s friend Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel. Capel, with whom Chanel began an affair in 1909, was the inspiration for many of the couturier’s fashions, especially his blazers. In a recent biography by Justine Picardie, the author even suggests that the famous interlocked, double-C iconography that has come to represent the House of Chanel was a representation of their two names together: Captain Capel and Coco Chanel. Capel would be the great tragic love affair of Chanel’s life: he and Chanel spent much time together in elite vacation destinations such as Deauville (often called the 21st arrondissement of Paris because so many Parisians vacation there), but Capel was never faithful to her. In 1918, he married an aristocratic Englishwoman, but didn’t break off his affair with Chanel. In 1919, Capel was killed in an automobile accident, and it was perhaps the greatest tragedy of Chanel’s life. After Capel’s tragic death, Chanel dated many of the wealthiest and most eligible men of her time, including composer Igor Stravinsky and the Duke of Westminster. She did not marry, however, and when asked why she didn’t marry the Duke of Westminster, she famously replied: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”
Chanel’s first boutique was opened in 1910 at 31 Rue Cambon, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris, and sold mainly hats, which had become the seamstress’ specialty. In 1913, Chanel expanded to Deauville, where she began selling casual, jersey clothes more appropriate for the resort town, and a convenient and moveable fabric for the now working wartime woman. Two years later, she launched Chanel-Biarritz, a vacation destination for wealthy Spanish customers who were better off during the war, and introduced clothing made out of more quotidian materials that were better for everyday wear. By 1919 Chanel had established her couture house at 31 Rue Cambon, near her home at the Ritz and below her former apartment and workshop.
Vera Lombardi, a well-connected British model, became Chanel’s muse in 1925 and in doing so became her liaison to the British aristocracy, connections that would save her in later years. During the war, Chanel shut down her business temporarily, saying that it was “not a time for fashion”, and separating professionally from Lombardi. She was greatly criticized during the war period for having an affair with a German Nazi, and was charged with collaborating with a German spy: her British connections, however, bailed her out, and she avoided trial. In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland, and nine years later she returned to the fashion world and to her home in Paris. The rest is history: Chanel’s line, though frowned upon in her home country due to her alleged Nazi connections, was well received by the British and American clientele, and grew over the next several decades. Chanel died at the age of 87 in 1971, leaving behind one of the greatest legacies in the fashion world: the house of Chanel.
The Style: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different”
Chanel’s fashion was born out of rebellion: Gabrielle had watched women be constrained and caged by their clothing, and wanted to liberate herself and her gender. She was feisty and unapologetic about her lifestyle, and defied conventions of the day, an attitude that lives on in the designs of Karl Lagerfeld, currently the head designer for the brand. Even Chanel’s hats were no-nonsense, simple, and dual-toned, a rebellion from the overstated style of the day. Her clothes were simple, chic, wearable, and free of constraint, much like Coco herself. The style was, and remains, simple, elegant, and almost tomboyish. Even Chanel models and spokeswomen represent this image: Keira Knightley’s ads for the fragrance Coco Madamoiselle are sexy yet androgynous, and her models often have a streak of modern feistiness that has defined the Chanel brand – Freja Beha Erichsen, the current face of Chanel and one of the industry’s most sought-after models, is the perfect example of the spirit of Chanel.
Coco’s designs brought women to equality in the fashion world: they were introduced to androgynous blazers, as well as the essential black-and-white-and-neutrals color palette that Parisians are so famous for. Chanel always said that a woman in black and white will always be the most beautiful in the room, a style principle that has stuck with me (my senior year prom dress was a very simple white and black-lace A-line strapless gown that was inspired by Audrey Hepburn’s gown in Sabrina). Luxury, for Chanel, was not about extravagance – it was about everyday clothes that were wearable for the increasingly active woman. Today, Lagerfeld’s designs stay true to the original dream of Chanel: simple luxury for the elegant, tasteful, and slightly rebellious woman.
My Trip to Chanel
Personally, I don’t think I would look very good in most of Chanel’s designs – her clothes fit the tomboy model, made more for your average French woman (straight, long legs, thin) than for a curvy girl like me: picture Scarlett Johansson trying to wear the same dress as Keira Knightley. Nevertheless, I am a devout Chanel enthusiast because of her immense contribution to women’s clothing and her fearless attitude towards fashion, and towards men. I have worn Coco Madamoiselle for a few years now and remain absolutely in love with it, so I made it my birthday mission to purchase the perfume at the original store at 31 Rue Cambon.
I headed there on Monday, the day after my 21st, since shops are closed Sundays. I walked in to a sparkling, clean, sleek boutique that reflected in every way the legacy of Coco Chanel: the brand’s renowned jewelry in waist-high cases, impeccably presented and alluring in every way. The staff is at each customer’s beck-and-call, opening doors and smiling genuinely. How many dough-eyed girls have they watched walk through these doors, awaiting the magic of Chanel behind the pristine glass and under the monogrammed awnings of the shop? Countless, I imagine. Still, I was enthralled: the screens on the wall show the video presentation of the most recent Chanel collection on the runway, flawless models decorated in Lagerfeld’s timeless designs, the black-and-white color scheme dominating. Clothes hang in simple, efficient cubicles against the walls, and accessories are presented on lighted shelves. As I approached the cosmetics section, I was shocked: it is small, and hardly the shrine to Chanel’s famous fragrances that I thought it would be. It is white, and brightly lit, and the cosmetics collection is presented simply and without much fanfare.
It is an experience to make a purchase at this prestigious store: first, I must wait for the salesgirl to come and listen to my order, and then I explain to her that I’d like it gift-wrapped, since it’s my birthday. She then writes out a hand-written order summary, asking for my name, and writing the exact item that I’m purchasing. Then, she brings said summary to one of the many cashiers, hidden in discreet, geometric rooms scattered throughout the store, who sit behind a big black desk and handle the financial affairs of the clients. As I pay for the item inside the little office, I wait for my perfume to be gift wrapped and placed inside a starch-white Chanel bag, tied off with an impeccable bow out of the signature black-and-white ribbon. Magical.
I headed out with a huge smile on my face, carrying my little white Chanel bag as if it were a small child. I noticed, after further examination, that the receipt was tucked inside a tiny white folder with a texturized white camellia, one of Chanel’s signature images. I walked to Place de la Vendome, the piazza-like square (and home to Chanel Joaillerie, Guerlain, Dior, and other haute stores) after which Coco Chanel modeled her famous perfume bottles, the product that made her a fortune. It was absolutely beautiful.
My trip to Chanel will remain one of my most beloved memories of Paris: to be in the same store where Chanel debuted her collections, and sat watching from the famous mirrored staircase, where she first came to her dream to make a fortune reinventing the modern woman, and where she likely grieved over the tragic death of her unfaithful lover, the inspiration for many of her designs. The store has stayed true to the principles that make Chanel what it is, and what made it successful: luxurious simplicity, and the ever-present black-and-white that Coco Chanel was famous for. Someday, I hope to go back and make a larger purchase, but for now I am quite happy with my little bottle of Coco Madamoiselle!
For more information, read Justine Picardie’s recently released biography, “Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life” (Harper Collins Publishers, 2010).
Films: Coco Avant Chanel starring Audrey Tautou, Coco and Igor, concerning the affair between Coco Chanel and composer Igor Stravinsky.