The Fashion Chronicles: Coco Chanel

Fashion fades, only style remains the same.

Coco Chanel
Gabrielle, also called Coco, Chanel (1883-1971)
Source: Pinterest

Join me as I delve into the life of Coco Chanel, the most revolutionary stylist of the 20th century. The fashion designer is famous for her innovative designs, especially the Chanel suit, the Little Black Dress (LBD), and her signature perfume, N°5.

She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th Century. Coco was one of the few that went against societal standards at that time. She introduced pants as fashion for women when she first wore it in Venice. This was one of the first things that made her famous. Ironically, she didn’t do it to catch public’s eye. She just thought that there was no comfortable way to ride a horse in a long skirt.

The Crinoline: Women’s Main Costume during the Victorian Era.
Source: Pinterest

Going against the flow, she revolutionized the constricting corset style at that time, offering comfortability and flexibility to women’s fashion by changing the concept of dressing the female body. As she herself once said: “In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different”. 

Chanel’s Early Life

Coco Chanel, the byname of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, was born in 1883 at Saumur in the Loire Valley. She gave herself the eponymous name of Coco  because of her signature songs, “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro?” when she worked as a cabaret singer. In an interview by The Atlantic, Chanel explained that Coco was also a shortened version of “cocotte“, the French word for kept women.

Coco Chanel in a 1909 portrait.
Source: TIME

Chanel’s childhood was melancholic. Her mother passed away from tuberculosis when she was 12. Upon her death, Chanel’s father abandoned the family. Following the loss of her parents, Chanel and her sisters were sent to a convent-run orphanage, the Sisters of the Sacred Heart. It was there that Gabrielle learnt the art of sewing and embroidering – a skill that would lead to her life’s work. 

Establishing Couturière

In 1910, Chanel established her millinery at rue Cambon, one of the most fashionable districts in Paris. This act was inspired by Arthur Boy Capel, Chanel’s best-known lover. With her exceptional talent of creating hats, her designs attracted Parisian socialites. Thus, she solidly established her reputation was established. She later added boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes as well. 

The Chanel Boutique at 31 rue Cambon .
Source: Chanel

In 1913, she invented genre pauvre, the “poor girl” look. The simple yet sophisticated style of her fashion always followed her maxim that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury. Her clothes attracted more influential, wealthy women who, again, sought relief from the confines of the Victorian age. Chanel’s pieces set them free from the old-fashioned cage of the Victorian era.

First Designer Fragrance – Chanel N°5

A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future

Coco Chanel
Chanel N°5 .
Source: Chanel

Globally, one Chanel No. 5 is sold every 30 seconds. In summer 1921, Boy Capel inspired her again. This time, to launch a signature perfume with a feminine fragrance. In her quest to launch a perfect debut fragrance, she approached master perfumer, Ernest Beaux. The perfumer presented Coco Chanel with 10 small glass vials of scents to choose from. She chose the sample composition contained in the fifth vial. Chanel considered the number five lucky and was a successful factor in many of her major business decisions. This time would be no different. 

Marilyn Monroe in Chanel N°5 .
Source: Harpers’ Bazaar

The launch of Chanel No. 5 undoubtedly took her thriving business to new heights. Like her fashion, the timeless fragrance was an instant success. Even Marilyn Monroe was a huge fan. In an interview, she claimed that she wore nothing except five drops of Chanel No. 5 to bed.

After learning this, aren’t you eager to be the next Chanel No.5 customer? Quick, you only have 30 seconds! 

The Nazi Collaboration

Chanel’s life wasn’t just perfumes and pants. Declassified archival documents of the French Secret Service revealed her covert work for the Nazi as a member of Abwher, the German military intelligence spy network, during World War II.

After the Nazis took over Paris in 1940, Chanel got involved with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German military officer. Their romance allowed her to have special permission to comfortably stay in her apartment at Hotel Ritz, which also operated as German military headquarters.

In 1941, her involvement with Nazis grew deeper after learning that her nephew was imprisoned in a German stalag. Helpless, she sought von Dincklage for advice. Thus, she was introduced to prominent Abwher Agent, Baron Louis de Vaufreland, who allegedly promised to release her nephew. In return, Chanel had to register as Abwher Agent F-7124 as a spy, with the code name of “Westminster” and offer her service to Berlin.

French Archives containing Nazi and Resistance War files on Celebrities 
Source: The Guardian

The Chanel Legacy

May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life!

Coco Chanel

In her twilight years, Chanel lived a solitary life, residing at her longtime home, the Paris Ritz. She passed away by a heart attack in her suite in 1971. Family-wise, she never married – having said “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” 

Coco Chanel.
Source: ELLE

After her death, her assistants, Gaston Berthelot and Ramon Esparza carried the fashion house. In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld took over the reins at her namesake company to continue the Chanel legacy. He strived to never betray Chanel’s vision. Today, the Chanel fashion house is privately held by the Wertheimer family and continues to thrive with the creative director Virginie Viard.

By: Yee Jie Si (Jesse) 


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