Biography of Coco Chanel, Famed Fashion Designer and Executive

Portrait of Coco Chanel

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Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (August 19, 1883–January 10, 1971) opened her first millinery shop in 1910, and in the 1920s she rose to become one of the premier fashion designers in Paris. Replacing the corset with comfort and casual elegance, her fashion themes included simple suits and dresses, women's trousers, costume jewelry, perfume, and textiles.

She is particularly known for introducing the world to the iconic little black dress as well as a perfume, Chanel No. 5, in 1922. It is, to this day, one of the most famous perfumes of all time.

Fast Facts: Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel

  • Known For: Founder of the House of Chanel, creator of the Chanel suit, Chanel jacket, and bell bottoms, Chanel No. 5 perfume
  • Also Known As: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel
  • Born: August 19, 1883 in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France
  • Parents: Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, Albert Chanel
  • Died: January 10, 1971 in Paris, France
  • Awards and Honors: Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, 1957
  • Notable Quotes: "A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous." ... "Fashion fades, only style remains the same." ... "Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear."

Early Years and Career

Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel claimed to be born in 1893 at Auvergne, but she was actually born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. According to her version of her life story, her mother worked in the poorhouse where Chanel was born and died when she was only 6, leaving her father with five children whom he promptly abandoned to the care of relatives.

She adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a cafe and concert singer from 1905 to 1908. First a mistress of a wealthy military officer and then of an English industrialist, Chanel drew on the resources of these patrons in setting up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910, expanding to Deauville and Biarritz. The two men also helped her find customers among women of society, and her simple hats became popular.

The Rise of a Fashion Empire

Soon, Coco was expanding to couture and working in jersey, a first in the French fashion world. By the 1920s, her fashion house had expanded considerably, and her chemise set a fashion trend with its "little boy" look. Her relaxed fashions, short skirts, and casual look were in sharp contrast to the corset fashions popular in the previous decades. Chanel herself dressed in mannish clothes and adapted these more comfortable fashions, something that other women also found liberating.

In 1922, Chanel introduced a perfume, Chanel No. 5, which became and remained popular, and remains a profitable product of Chanel's company. Pierre Wertheimer became her partner in the perfume business in 1924, and perhaps also her lover. Wertheimer owned 70% of the company; Chanel received 10 percent and her friend, Théophile Bader, 20 percent. The Wertheimers continue to control the perfume company today.

Chanel introduced her signature cardigan jacket in 1925 and iconic little black dress in 1926. Most of her fashions had a staying power and didn't change much from year to year—or even generation to generation.

World War II Break and Comeback

Chanel briefly served as a nurse during World War II. Nazi occupation meant the fashion business in Paris was cut off for some years; Chanel's affair during World War II with a Nazi officer also resulted in some years of diminished popularity and an exile of sorts to Switzerland.

In 1954, her comeback restored her to the top ranks of haute couture. Her natural, casual clothing including the Chanel suit, once again caught the eye—and purses—of women. She introduced pea jackets and bell bottom pants for women.

In addition to her work with high fashion, Chanel also designed stage costumes for such plays as "Cocteau's Antigone" (1923) and "Oedipus Rex" (1937) and film costumes for several movies, including Renoir's "La Regle de Jeu." Katharine Hepburn starred in the 1969 Broadway musical "Coco" based on the life of Coco Chanel. A 2008 television movie "Coco Chanel" starred Shirley MacLaine portraying the famous designer around the time of her 1954 career resurrection.

Death and Legacy

Chanel worked right up to the time she died. Though she was ailing and in declining health by the early 1970s, she continued to direct her company. In January 1971, she began preparing the spring catalog for her firm. She took a long drive on the afternoon of January 9 and then went to bed early, feeling ill. She died the next day, January 10, 1971, at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where she had lived for more than three decades.

Chanel was worth a reported $15 billion when she died. And though her career had its ups and downs, her legacy in the fashion industry is assured. In addition to perfumes and the little black dress, Chanel helped popularize costume jewelry, trousers, tweed jackets, and short hair for women—all of which were considered fashion no-no's before Chanel came onto the scene. The company also created such iconic items as black bouclé jackets, two-tone ballet pumps, and an array of quilted handbags.

Designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins at Chanel in 1983 and lifted the company back to prominence. He ran Chanel right up until his death on Februry 19, 2019, as the company's creative director. Virginie Viard, Lagerfeld's right-hand woman for more than three decades, was named to succeed him. Chanel is a private company owned by the Wertheimer family and continues to thrive; it reported sales of nearly $10 billion for the 2017 fiscal year.

Sources

  • Alkayat, Zena. Library of Luminaries: Coco Chanel: An Illustrated Biography. Illustrated by Nina Cosford. 2016.
  • Garelick, Rhonda K. Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History. 2015.