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Gabrielle Chanel: Timeless Fashion Icon

Gabrielle Chanel, also known as Coco Chanel, stands proudly in front of her boutique. The famous designer, who revolutionized fashion, embodies elegance and innovation. One can imagine that the boutique contains iconic items such as the Chanel handbag for women, Chanel ballet flats, and Chanel earrings, as well as references to her famous perfumes like Coco Chanel perfume and Gabrielle Chanel perfume. Gabrielle Chanel has left an indelible legacy; her influence is visible in every detail, from Chanel brooches to Chanel sneakers and even Chanel soaps. Her boutique is a sanctuary of style where the essence of Gabrielle Chanel and products like Chanel Preston and Chanel perfume for men are celebrated. Gabrielle Chanel, or Coco Chanel, remains an iconic figure in fashion, symbolizing elegance, style, and modernity

Gabrielle Chanel revolutionized fashion, creating standards of freedom and style that endure. From her childhood in the Aubazine orphanage to founding her iconic couture house on rue Cambon, Chanel championed liberating fashion, transforming the little black dress into a symbol of female emancipation. Her legacy, embodied by the famous Chanel N°5 perfume and her timeless creations, continues to influence fashion. Gabrielle Chanel didn’t just create clothes; she redefined the modern woman with elegance. Portrait of a visionary who forever changed the face of Haute Couture.

A Difficult Childhood

Gabrielle Chasnel was born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, in a maternity hospital run by Catholic nuns. Coming from a family of merchants, her father was a peddler from Gard and her mother, Jeanne, was a seamstress. They had five other children: Julia-Berthe, Alphonse, Antoinette, Lucien, and Augustin.

Few details are known about the designer’s childhood; she herself was rather discreet about this period. Nevertheless, Gabrielle was a calm, solitary child deeply attached to her father. A man described as morose and frequently absent, but whom she idolized without reservation.

Jeanne, Gabrielle Chanel’s mother, succumbed at only 31 years old in 1895. Tuberculosis, complicated pregnancies, and exhaustion from work took her life. Gabrielle, aged twelve, was almost orphaned, abandoned by her father at the orphanage of the Cistercian abbey of Aubazine in Corrèze.

This new life marked a turning point for Gabrielle. She began to reinvent her past, transforming her father into a hero in the stories she told. She depicted him as an adventurer and a negotiator.

During her stay at the orphanage, she developed a talent for sewing and became passionate about fashion. She drew inspiration from the austerity of her new environment. The clean lines and neutral colors, characteristic of the nuns’ attire, laid the foundation for her style.

At the age of 18, eager to escape an arranged marriage, Gabrielle found refuge with her paternal aunt in Moulins. She then enrolled with the canonesses of the Notre-Dame Institute. There, she ardently cultivated her passion for sewing. Faced with limited means, she couldn’t afford the tuition fees and obtained the status of a ward. From then on, she only wished to rise above her social condition.

At the beginning of the 20th century, her skill with needle and thread was such that she joined the Grampayre house, a workshop specializing in layettes [clothes for newborns, ed.].

However, the episodes in Moulins and Aubazine remain chapters that the designer rarely mentioned, describing them as "traumatic, despite everything." A veil of mystery persists around her youth, revealing a complex and resilient personality.

When Gabrielle Becomes Coco

In 1900, the term "cousette" was not highly valued, evoking textile workers considered frivolous. Gabrielle, opposing this label, aspired to transcend her condition.

She frequented the Grand Café de Moulins, a meeting place for the elegant. It was there that she encountered officers of the 10th regiment of cavalry. There, she sang for an audience of officers and dreamed of a career in the music hall.

At 24, she began performing regularly in a local bar. It was there that she quickly acquired the nickname "Coco." This nickname was given to her in reference to the song Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro?, a piece she frequently performed during her stage performances.

Coco attracted the attention of wealthy young men and enjoyed mingling with high society. She then met Étienne Balsan, an officer raising horses, who introduced her to the equestrian world. Skilled with her hands, she created equestrian outfits, wearing ties and headbands, which she wore herself on horseback. Their relationship lasted about a year.

Through Balsan, she met Arthur Capel, nicknamed "Boy." She became his mistress in a passionate relationship that, however, would never lead to marriage. Boy preferred a union more in line with his family’s expectations with a young Englishwoman from his social circle.

During these years, Coco gained confidence and stylistic audacity: she designed, created, and produced. Her skills acquired in Moulins allowed her to make small original hats, which she wore low on her forehead.

For horse races or social dinners, she abandoned designer dresses for her own creations. She made an impression with the sober colors of her outfits, mainly black and white. Her androgynous style also attracted attention. She did not hesitate to wear pants or cardigans. Her creations, elegant and bold, stood in stark contrast to the norms of the time.

Portrait of Coco Chanel, 1909
Portrait of Coco Chanel, 1909

In 1909, she set up her workshop on boulevard Malesherbes in Paris. There, she sold the small hats that had already won over her friends and acquaintances in Compiègne. Without specific training, she found pieces in department stores, customized them, and resold them. Faced with growing demand, she recruited her sister and cousin to help her. Her hat, both sophisticated and simple, met with great success.

Living with her lover Boy Capel, Coco benefited entirely from his financial support. In 1910, she bought a license and opened a millinery salon at 21 rue Cambon, under the name Chanel Modes.

Three years later, she opened a boutique in Deauville. She started by selling hats, then expanded her offerings to jackets, dresses, Chanel-branded sneakers… The store, bearing her full name Gabrielle Chanel, was a great success.

In 1915, a third boutique opened in Biarritz. Her reputation was made… Coco Chanel continued to innovate: she distanced herself from the corset, liberated legs with short skirts, and popularized jersey, Crêpe de Chine, and embroidery.

Her boutiques, located in popular seaside resorts, attracted a high-end clientele.

The Birth of a New Style

From 1915, Gabrielle Chanel revolutionized the fashion world by making sports dresses from jersey. This fabric was then used for stable boys’ shirts. She aimed for a new silhouette, freeing the body from traditional constraints. Women of the time, captivated, adopted her short hair and coveted her slimness. The young designer skillfully played with masculine and feminine codes. Her creations, simple and comfortable, stood in stark contrast to the rigid corsets worn by Western aristocrats and wealthy women.

World War I caused a shortage of fabrics, but jersey remained widely available: Chanel turned this constraint into an opportunity. By 1918, she was running one of the most prestigious couture houses of her time. She then repaid Boy Capel, asserting her financial independence and rejecting the image of a kept woman.

However, when Capel married an Englishwoman, Gabrielle felt deeply humiliated. Her suffering was compounded when Boy died in a car accident in 1919. Devastated, Gabrielle would later confide that losing Capel meant losing everything. Desperately clinging to her work, she continued to achieve growing success. This motivated her to further develop her couture house.

The Boy bag by Chanel, created many years later by Karl Lagerfeld, pays homage to Arthur Capel. For the first advertising campaign for this bag, a model posed in a stable, evoking the equestrian escapades cherished by Gabrielle Chanel and Capel.

Continued Success

From 1918, Chanel established herself at 27, 29, and 31 rue Cambon, becoming the brand’s historic address, still active today. Her inspirations often came from her numerous romantic liaisons with the most prominent figures in Europe. These were clearly reflected in her creations. During her relationship with Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch of Russia, for example, she designed dresses with Slavic motifs and drew inspiration from a vodka flask for the design of her famous Number 5 perfume bottle.

Coco Chanel and Dimitri Pavlovich of Russia, 1920
Coco Chanel and Dimitri Pavlovich of Russia, 1920

In 1924, when she became the mistress of Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster and one of the richest men in England, she borrowed elements from the male wardrobe such as the beret and tweed jacket, which she adapted for the dynamic and modern women she envisioned.

Gabrielle Chanel advocated for a feminine freedom that was the opposite of the image of "escaped slaves," as she herself put it. She constantly innovated, offering pajamas to be worn both on the beach and in the evening, tweed cardigans, or short skirts – below the knees – embodying the quintessence of sophistication.

In 1926, she created the little black dress, revolutionizing the use of this color once reserved for mourning. The dress, straight, collarless, and with three-quarter sleeves, perfectly matched the garçonne aesthetic of the Roaring Twenties.

Her style, often described as "poor" due to its great simplicity, contrasted with the trends of the time. However, Chanel sought to stand out. Although her creations were minimalist, she also created accessories: small hats, adorned stones, earrings, brooches…

In 1927, Gabrielle built her residence in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, named La Pausa. For this project, she drew inspiration from her memories of the Aubazine orphanage. The house hosted many celebrities, such as Jean Cocteau, Salvador Dali, and Luchino Visconti… This included her in a certain artistic elite.

The Chanel Empire and Iconic Fragrances

Gabrielle Chanel, an inexhaustible innovator, distinguished herself by becoming one of the first designers to launch her own line of perfumes.

In 1921, she created Number 5 in close collaboration with Ernest Beaux. The perfume quickly gained worldwide fame. Other fragrances followed, such as Number 22, Gardenia, Bois des Îles, and Cuir de Russie.

To internationalize her perfumes, she partnered in 1924 with the Wertheimer brothers, who then held 70% of Chanel perfumes. Today, their descendants own the entire House.

Passionate about jewelry, she also opened a costume jewelry workshop in 1924. She thus affirmed her preference for accessories that enhance outfits.

Floral-inspired jewelry by Coco Chanel exhibited at the Galliera Museum in Paris in 2023
Floral-inspired jewelry by Coco Chanel exhibited at the Galliera Museum in Paris in 2023

In 1932, Chanel made a bold foray into the world of Haute Joaillerie with her Bijoux de Diamants collection. The pieces, mainly set in platinum, caused a sensation. However, this initiative drew criticism from Parisian jewelers who doubted her legitimacy. Additionally, the collection sparked controversy as it was launched during an economically difficult period, marked by the aftermath of the stock market crash.

On the eve of World War II, Mademoiselle Chanel presided over a thriving business. She employed 4,000 workers, capable of fulfilling up to 28,000 orders annually. A true empire.

The German Occupation

In 1939, Gabrielle Chanel suddenly closed her couture house. In a Europe undergoing significant changes, she made the radical decision to lay off her staff. Thus, her 4,000 workers, who were demanding better working conditions, were dismissed. Chanel, insensitive to their demands, granted them absolutely nothing.

During this period, she focused exclusively on her perfume business. Wanting to take advantage of the anti-Semitic laws enacted by the Vichy regime, she tried to regain control of the Number 5 perfume brand, mostly owned by the Wertheimer brothers, of Jewish origin. In a letter to Jean-Pierre Madoux, the provisional administrator in charge of liquidating Jewish property, dated May 5, 1941, she wrote: "I am acquiring all the shares of Parfums Chanel which […] are still owned by Jews and which you are tasked with selling or having sold to Aryan subjects." However, her vile attempts were in vain as the brothers had already found refuge in the United States. The novelist Françoise Sagan, who knew her, confirmed her anti-Semitism.

During the war, Coco Chanel had an intimate relationship with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a former German embassy attaché, a relationship that continued after the war. Some historians believe that as early as 1943, von Dincklage recruited the famous designer as a spy for Nazi Germany.

Coco Chanel had an affair with the Duke of Westminster, a close friend of Churchill. She was allegedly tasked with facilitating negotiations for a separate peace between Germany and the United Kingdom. This operation, named Modellhut — couture hat in German, failed after Chanel and other Nazi collaborators were denounced. However, this version of events remains controversial.

The Post-War Period

At the Liberation, Chanel was briefly interrogated by the authorities and then released: an intervention attributed to Winston Churchill following a request from the Duke of Westminster, according to some sources.

Shortly after the war, Gabrielle Chanel chose to settle in Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. She spent a decade there. But trips to Paris were a necessity for the formidable businesswoman she remained.

During this time, Christian Dior‘s New Look captivated international attention. Cinched waist, pointed breasts, and corsets; an aesthetic radically opposed to that of the designer.

Dior’s style, in full swing, contrasted sharply with the principles of bodily freedom advocated by Chanel. France fell under the spell of the new Franco-Swedish designer, decidedly more feminine than Chanel, who would say of him: "Dior doesn’t dress women, he pads them." He would succumb to a heart attack in 1957.

The Long-Awaited Return to Paris

Despite the denunciation of the designer during the war, the Wertheimer brothers persuaded Chanel to return to Paris to relaunch her couture house.

In 1954, at the age of 71, Chanel made her grand return to the French capital. She resumed her creative activities, but her first collection was coldly received: radically different from those of Christian Dior.

However, determined to impose her vision, Coco persisted and introduced an androgynous silhouette. The tweed suit, the white silk blouse, the two-tone ballet flats, and the quilted bag entered the legend. This revival placed Chanel at the peak of her career.

Her creations were adopted by the stars of the time, such as Romy Schneider or Jeanne Moreau in Les Amants. Jackie Kennedy wore a pink Chanel suit during the assassination of her husband JFK in November 1963 in Dallas… Moreover, Marilyn Monroe declared that she only slept with a few drops of the famous Number 5… In 1957, Chanel was awarded a fashion Oscar: a more than successful comeback!

Coco Chanel and Jeanne Moreau, 1957
Coco Chanel and Jeanne Moreau, 1957

But there was no respite, Coco enriched her range of perfumes with creations such as Pour Monsieur, Number 19, or Cristalle.

The 1960s saw the rise of the miniskirt, popularized by Mary Quant. Chanel categorically opposed it, considering that knees, like elbows, were ugly and should not be exposed. She maintained the traditional length of her skirts, remaining indifferent to Anglo-Saxon trends.

However, this opposition revealed that Chanel no longer truly understood her time, as the miniskirt would endure into the 21st century. Similarly, she would call Paco Rabanne a "metallurgist" regarding his metal dresses.

The story of the little orphan who became "the Great Lady" is inseparable from the women who marked her journey. From the nuns of the Aubazine convent to her own sister, to her cousin Adrienne, Romy Schneider, and Colette, it was these women, whether family or not, who helped Gabrielle achieve success by wearing and promoting her outfits and accessories.

The End of Her Life

Gabrielle Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at the age of 87, and many people still wonder what Coco Chanel died of.

Returning from a walk, Chanel was confronted by the concierge of the Ritz in Paris, where she resided year-round. When he inquired about her health, she responded with chilling prescience: "In an hour or two, I will be dead."

Shortly after, she lay down on her bed, suffering from chest pain. Then, she confided to her maid, "I’m suffocating, Jeanne" before murmuring, "This is how one dies."

Coco had prepared for her final journey with the same care she dedicated to her life: coiffed, made-up, and elegantly dressed, emphasizing the importance of style until the end.

The Great Lady passed away alone, without direct descendants; her loves and friends often having preceded her in death. Towards the end of her life, she had become increasingly solitary. However, celebrities like Salvador Dali, Yves Saint-Laurent, and Jacques Chazot attended her funeral.

She rests in Switzerland, in a tomb of her own design. This was created by the husband of her grand-niece, her only direct heir. Her fortune was bequeathed to the Coga foundation, a contraction of Coco and Gabrielle, managed by her grand-niece. But part of her fortune was also bequeathed to her nephew: André Palasse, the main legatee of her inheritance. Swiss lawyers also ensured the distribution of annuities to her relatives, employees, and artists.

Today, at 31 rue Cambon in Paris, a staircase leads to her three-room apartment on the second floor: a mythical place. The apartment, accessible to good clients and journalists, retains the original decoration chosen by Chanel. The walls are draped in silk and gold, adorned with rock crystal chandeliers. The space is also dotted with numerous trinkets, silent witnesses to a life filled with creativity and passions.

Coco Chanel in her apartment, rue Cambon, 1960
Coco Chanel in her apartment, rue Cambon, 1960

We could have known more about Coco’s life. Indeed, as early as the 1950s, she had the idea of having her memoirs written by Louise de Vilmorin. However, due to Chanel’s embellished stories, the project never came to fruition. And for good reason, Louise de Vilmorin, a famous woman of letters and companion of André Malraux, had the greatest difficulty in taking up the pen, declaring that Chanel only told "tall tales"…

The Successors of Chanel: Karl Lagerfeld and Virginie Viard

After Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, Karl Lagerfeld took the reins of the brand. He kept it at the pinnacle of the fashion industry until his own passing in 2019. Under his direction, Chanel remained synonymous with luxury, innovation, and quality, a reference worldwide. The Bleu de Chanel men’s fragrance was created during this period.

Since February 2019, the artistic direction of Chanel has been led by the French stylist Virginie Viard. Her career began as an assistant to costume designer Dominique Borg on the film Camille Claudel. Viard also distinguished herself in the cinema world by collaborating on other projects, such as the Three Colors trilogy by Krzysztof Kieslowski, managing costumes for Juliette Binoche and Isabelle Adjani. In 1987, she joined Chanel, initially in charge of embroidery. She then followed Karl Lagerfeld to Chloé in 1992, before returning to Chanel five years later, where she was appointed director of the fashion creation studio in 2000.

Described by the eccentric Karl as "his right and left hand at the same time," Virginie Viard formed a creative duo with him for over 30 years, until their last joint appearance at the end of a Chanel show in October 2018.

The retrospective exhibition Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, at the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of Paris
The retrospective exhibition Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto, at the Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of Paris

Following Lagerfeld’s death in 2019, Virginie Viard was appointed artistic director of Chanel. She is known for her discretion, in contrast to the very public Lagerfeld. Her appointment raised questions about her ability to lead such an iconic house. Nevertheless, in May 2019, she presented her first show as artistic director at the Grand Palais in Paris.

This event paid homage to the codes established by Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld. The show highlighted characteristic elements such as two-tone ballet flats and floral chiffons. Virginie Viard told French media that Coco Chanel and Karl Lagerfeld are her two main influences: "We are attached to two people, to Karl and to Gabrielle Chanel. It’s as if she wasn’t dead. In any case, that’s how I work."

Chanel: More than a Brand, a History

Today, Chanel is one of the most iconic brands in the fashion industry. Its rich history and profound impact continue to fascinate the world. Chanel also enjoys success on our screens. The film Coco Before Chanel, starring Audrey Tautou and released in 2009, was a real success. This role earned her a nomination for the César Awards.

Moreover, there are still many Chanel commercials on various channels. And many have wondered who sings in the Bleu de Chanel commercial. It is Amanda Lear, a famous model from the 1960s, performing the song Follow Me. This commercial led to a boom in searches about Lear, particularly in South Korea.

From left to right: Audrey Tautou as Gabrielle Chanel in the film Coco Before Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as Gabrielle Chanel in the TV movie Coco Chanel
From left to right: Audrey Tautou as Gabrielle Chanel in the film Coco Before Chanel and Shirley MacLaine as Gabrielle Chanel in the TV movie Coco Chanel

The house of Chanel manages three couture workshops. Two are soft workshops, specializing in light pieces like tulle and lace, employing around 25 craftsmen. The third, the tailoring workshop, is dedicated to tweed suits. The workshop creates between 50 and 70 models per collection.

The making of a classic suit requires about a hundred hours of work. A wedding dress can require up to ten times more effort.

Chanel Ultimately

If you had to remember only seven creations from Chanel’s legacy, they would be:

  1. The sailor shirt: inspired by the outfit of Norman fishermen and introduced in the 1910s, this piece has become a timeless classic.
  2. Chanel No. 5: born in 1921, this mythical perfume is a revolutionary blend of 80 ingredients, still the number one in global sales.
  3. The men’s suit: in the 1920s, Chanel introduced pants and the men’s suit for women.
  4. The little black dress: introduced in 1926, it surprises with its simplicity and becomes a staple of elegance.
  5. The tweed suit: introduced in 1954, it embodies elegance and comfort and marks its return to fashion.
  6. The 2.55 bag: created in February 1955, this quilted bag with a golden chain is a fashion icon, constantly reinvented.
  7. The two-tone ballet flats: launched in 1957, these beige and black shoes elongate the leg and shorten the foot.

By combining simplicity and elegance, Chanel created a timeless and unparalleled style.

Coco Chanel wearing her own creations: tailored jacket, jewelry, and hat
Coco Chanel wearing her own creations: tailored jacket, jewelry, and hat

Chanel’s Website and Social Media