Coco Chanel, founder of the House of Chanel, began her fashion
career in 1910. She heralded new designs and revolutionized the
fashion industry by going “back to basics,” incorporating
elegance, class, and originality. Under her tight reign from 1910-1971,
Coco Chanel held the title as ‘Chief Designer’ until
her death on January 10, 1971.
Certainly her life was unpredictable. Even her death — in
1971, at the age of 87 in her private quarters at the Ritz Hotel
– still in harness, still designing, still
Chanel spent time as a ward of the state after her mother died
and her father ran off. She was looked after by the nuns in the
She was taken in by the sisters of the convent in Moulins, when
she was 17. No doubt their eyebrows raised when the young woman
left the seamstress job they had helped her get to try for a career
as a cabaret singer. This stint as a performer led her to take up
with the local swells and become the backup mistress of Etienne
Balsan, a playboy who would finance her move to Paris and the opening
of her first hat business. That arrangement gave way to a bigger
and better deal when she moved on to his friend, Arthur (“Boy”)
Capel, who is said to have been the love of her life and who backed
her expansion from hats to clothes and from Paris to the coastal
resorts of Deauville and Biarritz.
One of her first successes was the loose-fitting sweater, which
she belted and teamed with a skirt. These early victories were similar
to the clothes she had been making for herself — women’s clothes
made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated
with men’s undergarments.
By the early ’30s she had almost married one of the richest men
in Europe, the Duke of Westminster; when she didn’t, her explanation
was, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There
is only one Chanel.” Probably the single element that most
ensured Chanel’s being remembered, even when it would have been
easier to write her off, is not a piece of clothing but a form of
liquid gold — Chanel No. 5, in its Art Deco bottle, which
was launched in 1923. It was the first perfume to bear a designer’s
name. A perfect piece of Coco Chanel History in a bottle.
Depending on the source, Chanel’s return to the fashion world has
been variously attributed to falling perfume sales, disgust at what
she was seeing in the fashion of the day or simple boredom. All
these explanations seem plausible, and so does Karl Lagerfeld’s
theory of why, this time around, the Chanel suit met such phenomenal
success. Lagerfeld — who designs Chanel today and who has
turned the company into an even bigger, more tuned-in business than
it was before — points out, “By the ’50s she had the
benefit of distance, and so could truly distill the Chanel look.
Time and culture had caught up with her.” In Europe, her return
to fashion was deemed an utter flop at first, but Americans couldn’t
buy her suits fast enough. Yet again Chanel had put herself into
the yolk of the zeitgeist. By the time Katharine Hepburn played
her on Broadway in 1969, Chanel had achieved first-name recognition
and was simply Coco.
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