“The woman who hasn’t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion,” Harper’s Bazaar.
I’ve decided to do a routine post on some of the most famous or personal favorite designers. In this case it is both. Because who else than Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel would start off my list?
Chanel is today an empire, dominating all aspects of haute couture. To say Chanel is to say, class, elegance, effortless beauty. To own something from the iconic fashion house makes you feel important like you belong to a fashion club. We all know the basics about the designer who founded said label. We know she was French, she never married, she existed somewhere between La belle époque and World War II. We know that she was strong, independent, classy and didn’t care for people’s opinions of who she was.
That said few people know exactly how she started, her love affairs and how they shaped her business and her struggles maintaining the infamous fashion house.
Chanel was born around 1887 though she would later claim that it was in 1897 … but she would not be a beauty obsessed designer is she didn’t try to be younger right? She was born in poverty and when her mother died at the age of 12 she was sent to a convent. Amidst the tragedy and the grieve that we can only imagine she felt, going to that convent was perhaps a strike of luck. Perhaps everything happens for a reason, it was there that she learned to sew and make choices that would shape her life. After she could not longer stay at the convent, Gabrielle would find employment as a seamstress and sing at a local hall. It was there that she met the man who would take her a mistress. Etienne Balsan a textile heir and ex-calvary officer. Coincidence or fate?
While with him Chanel learned refinement, class, elegance and the working of high society. While with him she met Arthur Edward Capel, whom would not only finance her first design projects but whom she would hold a relationship for nine years until his death. It is often said that perhaps he was the great love of her life, and she said in later years that “when she lost him, in a sense she lost everything.”
By 1915 she had established herself as a couturier and had moved on from designed hats women could wear to Longchamp races to designing gowns that would dominate the fashion industry for the next decade. The flapper dress, the boyish pants, free of corsets would become her signature design. Her humble beginnings flourished into a lucrative fashion house. Maison Chanel bought buildings, employees over 4,ooo people, and became a favorite of the moneyed, dressing even the aristocracy. She was given way into the British aristocracy, the Russian family and even in the 1930’s came to Hollywood to dress the stars. Though her sting in Hollywood was not to her liking, saying that, “Hollywood was the capital of bad taste … and vulgar,” she did end up working and designing for French films during the same era. Critics believe the clash between ‘real couture’ and costumes for Hollywood movies where vastly different. “Chanel made a lady look like a lady while Hollywood wanted a lady to look like two.”
Up to that point Chanel had been a success. Then the war came and she closed all her design studios, her fashion house and retrieved to her hotel suite at the Ritz in Paris. This is perhaps one of the pieces of her story that any Chanel’s aficionado would know. She was famous for her suite atop the glamorous Ritz and her liaison with a German elite during the Nazi occupation of Paris. The less know fact is that she used the war saying, “it was not a time for fashion,” to close the shops where employees had started to ask for higher wages and better working conditions. For the next 15 years her house would remain closed. The name Chanel, though we can’t phantom it now, began to fade. There was many reasons for it, her affair with the German officer, her suspected activities in German intelligence and her actions to try and take Parfums Chanel from the Wertheimers who were Jewish. Another little known fact about the fashion house is that she did not design or own Chanel no. 5 until after the war. The Wertheimers came to her to brand their perfume, she picked the fifth sample so Chanel no. 5 was born. In the beginning of the agreement she only had 10% of profits and once she saw that is was booming with the coming of the was she tried to seize the rights claiming that she was ‘aryan’ and they were not. She did not succeed and it wasn’t until years later when the owners came to an agreement with the designer.
Perhaps it was all of these things together or the fact that the times had changed, that let Maison Chanel to lay dormant for so many years. It wasn’t until 1954 at over 70 years that with the money she had gotten from the perfume settlement she financed her comeback to fashion. This is the birth of the iconic Chanel suite (my favorite), the icon leather purse and the little black dress.
She received nothing but bad reviews from the French press. It would appear the fashion world in ‘Old Paris’ was not ready to forgive yet. However, American Vogue did a spread in March 1954 and the American public was ready for Chanel. The irony was probably not lost in her, that ‘vulgar’ Hollywood was coming to her rescue. Chanel re-established herself as one of the most influential designers of her time, she showed the world again that she was not obsolete, that style and class is never obsolete. She died at the age of 87 as we would suspect in her suite at the Ritz.
Today her legacy carries in everything the fashion house does. Today Chanel is synonymous with luxury, with France, with timeless style. If she were alive today we can only guess she would be proud.
Should her controversial life still be considered an example for modern girls? Little is often said about how her design houses were financed by the lovers she had, how her involvement with Nazi officers kept her posh and safe while millions died below her Ritz hotel room, how she unscrupulously tried to take away profits from the perfume house. Is it fair to say she was ‘self made’? I think so. She came from nothing, dirt poor, she managed to become one of the icons that define a country. If you visit France chances are your visit will be defined by three grand ladies, Edit Piaf, Coco Chanel and the Eiffel Tower.
My favorite Chanel design: the Chanel suit.
My favorite Chanel accessory: the timeless leather monogramed bag.
My favorite fragrance: Chanel no. 5
My favorite movie about her life: Coco avant Chanel (in French), Coco Chanel with Shirley McClain.
Ces’t tout … Until next Designer Story 🙂