How Coco Became Chanel

  • August 20, 2018

The iconic fashion designer was mistress to noble men in the 1910s, revolutionized women’s fashion in the roaring 20s, belonged to the Nazi party in the 30s, was tried for her crimes in the 40s, made an American comeback in the 50s, and lived forever soon after

A long strand of pearls and a sleek tweed suit is the first image that comes to mind when discussing the iconic couturier that is Coco Chanel. However, behind the image of the innovative fashion creator lies a curious history that includes countless lovers, Nazis, and orphanages in the countryside of France. A history, that Coco herself, would rather not talk about.

Coco Chanel in her iconic style
Coco Chanel in her iconic style
Once a cabaret performer and seamstress, Coco Chanel would eventually become a leading name in fashion
Once a cabaret performer and seamstress, Coco Chanel would eventually become a leading name in fashion

A Convent Girl Turned Cabaret Cocotte

Although the world knew her as the groundbreaking fashion designer, Coco Chanel’s childhood was far from glamorous. During her successful years in Paris during the 1920s, she would tell tall tales about her magical early years—how her father had left for America to seek his fortune, and how she learned how to sew under the tutelage of two elderly aunts. The true story could not have been more opposite. She was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel at Saumur, France on August 19, 1883, to a laundrywoman named Jeanne and a traveling merchant father called Albert Chanel. Albert ceased to exist during Gabrielle’s younger years, moving from town to town selling used clothes. She and her four other siblings were raised by their mother, living in decapitated lodgings around the French countryside.

Jeanne caught tuberculosis at the age of 32 and passed away. Chanel was only 12. Now in the care of her father, he sent his daughters to Aubazine, a convent at Corrèze that took in orphan girls. Her brothers were separated from them, sent away to work as farmers. At Aubazine, Chanel learned how to sew and showed true potential. But by the time she was 18, she was turned out for being too old, and found employment as a seamstress in the small town of Moulins. Longing for a life of glamour, Coco work nights at a local cabaret, entertaining military officers with song and dance routines. She garnered the nickname cocotte, which often referred to “a darling French women” or “tart”. It stuck, and Gabrielle decided to adapt the name officially. From that point onward, she was to be called Coco.

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Arthur Capel was the love of Coco's life
Arthur Capel was the love of Coco’s life

Success from an Old Jersey

Coco’s dreams of becoming a performer was put on a full stop due to her lack of singing ability. However, working at the cabaret found her at the right place in the right time. There she met textile heir Étienne Balsan. The two were caught in a whirlwind romance, and Coco soon became his mistress. Étienne introduced her to the finer things in life, inviting her to live in his countryside chateau and indulging her in jewelry and champagne. His most important contribution to Chanel’s life was his suggestion that she open up a millinery shop in Paris. Coco liked the idea, but soon ran off with Arthur “Boy” Capel, a wealthy English aristocrat, and one of Étienne’s close friends. Capel offered to finance his new lover’s business, allowing Coco to open up her first shop at Paris’ Rue Cambon in 1910.

The hat business was very lucrative for the 20-something Chanel. Famous stage actress Gabrielle Dorziat put her on the map when she wore one of her creations in a play in 1912. She would expand her stores to Deauville and Biarritz to much success. She soon started designing clothes, making a splash with an old jersey she fashioned into a simple dress. The fashionistas of Paris soon took notice of the sleek silhouette, with many commissioning the exact same style. Coco was surprised of its impact upon woman, who were generally wearing corsets and longs dresses at the time. She said to author Paul Morand, “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville.”

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The bottle of Chanel No. 5 is said to have been inspired by the whiskey decanter of her lover, Arthur Capel
The bottle of Chanel No. 5 is said to have been inspired by the whiskey decanter of her lover, Arthur Capel

A Lasting Impression

Although Arthur Capel was never truly faithful to Coco (he would eventually marry an English lady in 1918), she claims that he was the love of her life. Stylish and regal, scholars have stated that Capel’s sartorial choices were a big influence on Chanel’s designs. Rumor has it that the iconic bottle of Chanel No. 5 was even based on one of Capel’s whiskey decanters, which the young designer found beautiful. Because of his guidance, Coco was able to launch the perfume brand, with the backing of businessmen Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, and Théophile Bader, a department store owner. The now-iconic perfume was a major hit, and Coco’s name was slowly becoming famous in France. Today, it is still one of the most popular fragrances in the international market.

With her new found success in garments and perfume, Chanel was gaining a knack for business. She was eager to re-create the success in her Biarritz store, expanding her line to jackets, sweaters, sailor shirts, and blouses. It was 1915, and World War I had just begun. Luckily for the young entrepreneur, Biarritz was considered neutral territory. The rich and powerful flocked to the elegant seaside town to run away from the horrors of war. There, Coco waited for their business in her store, which was situated in a villa across a casino. The following year, she had made enough money to pay Capel back his entire investment.

By 1919, Chanel was opening shop at the fashionable 31 rue Cambon in Paris. This marked her first true fashion maison. Although she had a reason to celebrate her success, a major event left a lasting heartbreak and trauma within her. Capel, now married (although still seeing Coco on the side), died in a car accident. Coco would go on to say that this changed her life, and that she would be sad forever. She never married.

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Chanel invented the little black dress in the 1920s
Chanel invented the little black dress in the 1920s
Chanel revolutionized women's fashion in the 1920s, opting for comfort over corsets and big dresses
Chanel revolutionized women’s fashion in the 1920s, opting for comfort over corsets and big dresses

The Rise Before the Fall

Chanel’s success did not wane as the roaring 20s approached. In fact, these were her most fruitful years, garnering the title of a true couturier and beginning her legacy that we are all so familiar with today. During this time, it was still traditional for women to wear to dresses. The flapper revolution was only beginning, and young girls were feeling more empowered. Chanel capitalized on this movement, borrowing sartorial elements from menswear while designing her trousers, tight skirts, and collarless jackets. She emphasized comfort and quality over confining corsets and large skirts. Another major contribution she had to the fashion world at this time was her invention of the little black dress. Black was only worn during mourning, but Coco thought it chic and started incorporating the color into her evening wear. Women flocked to her, and she established herself as one of the world’s most important designers.

Ten years later, the globe was on the brink of another World War. Chanel closed her fashion house in 1939, causing 4,000 females to lose their jobs. During this time, Coco was at the center of scandal because of her associations with the Nazi party. A convent girl in her youth, it was known that she didn’t like the Jews. She was also romantically involved with a German baron named Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who set her up at the luxurious Hotel Ritz during the occupation. Rumors of Chanel pledging herself to the Nazi party circulated in 1941. Hal Vaughan, a biographer, later unearthed declassified documents that proved Chanel’s employment under General Walter Schelleberg. He was the Chief of a German Intelligence Agency, and Coco was supposedly one of his many spies. When he died in 1952 from a liver disease, it was discovered that the fashion designer had been supporting the military man and his family, while also paying for their medical bills.

When the war ended, she remained under scrutiny and interrogation for her relationships with the Nazis. She was accused of doing espionage and tasks for the Third Reich. Eventually, Chanel was not charged with any crimes. She then retreated to Switzerland, away from the spotlight.

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Marie-Helene Arnaud wearing Chanel in Vogue, 1958
Marie-Helene Arnaud wearing Chanel in Vogue, 1958
Designer Karl Lagerfeld continued Chanel's legacy after her death
Designer Karl Lagerfeld continued Chanel’s legacy after her death

Chanel Never Goes Out of Style

Names like Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy and Cristobal Balenciaga were the new fashion superstars of the 1950s. Coco Chanel, the once reigning Queen of Couture, was now 71 years old. She was like a distant memory in the minds of the people, another casualty from the brutalities of war. The elderly woman was not a fan of the new crop of designers. She felt their work too stiff and conservative, as if they had traveled back to the 1800s. She decided to come back to Paris in 1954, where she re-launched her fashion house.

The French media received Chanel’s comeback collection with much disdain, most likely still remembering her controversial associations during the war. However, Bettina Ballard of American Vogue loved what she saw. The influential editor featured model Marie-Helene Arnaud wearing Chanel clothing within the pages of the fashion magazine. Square-shouldered cardigans, V-neck dresses, patched blazers, and easy A-line skirts, felt like modern re-inventions of her classic lines from the past. America ate it up, and orders for the clothes went through the roof. Since then, Chanel never left the limelight again.

The revered designer passed away in her Ritz apartment on January 10, 1971. Mourners wore Chanel suits while praying outside the Church of the Madeleine. Karl Lagerfeld continued her legacy, heading Chanel’s creatives, ten years after her death. The Wertheimer family (who was Coco’s original investors for Chanel No. 5) continues to privately run the company. Co-owners Alain and Gerard Wertheimer are roughly worth $12 billion each.

Despite a turbulent life filled with heartbreak and scandal, it is unlikely the world will see another fashion designer as influential as Coco Chanel. The only couturier to appear in TIME Magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People of the Century in 1999, she lives on through her allure and her revolutionary designs. “Fashion fades, only style remains the same,” Coco Chanel had once said. And we believe her. 99 years after she opened her first maison in Paris, we’re still talking about her. Generations after will continue to look to her and be fascinated by her story and achievements. As people like to say, Chanel never goes out of style. We’re sure Coco never will too.