If you open up your closet right now, there’s probably at least one item in there that pays tribute to Coco Chanel’s classic vision. The Parisian visionary created a-less-is-more mode and brought modern sophistication to the forefront in an era in which lace and floral puffy garments adorned every piece of the body. Her signature styles continue to be celebrated long after her death and have inspired designers such as Tom Ford, Prada, Helmut Lang, Derek Lam, Oscar de la Renta, and Donna Karan.
Today, the Chanel brand is the epitome of luxury, high class, and ultimate beauty, but during Coco’s upbringing extravagance was far from her reality. Here's a look back at the iconic designer, her controversial past, and her exquisite fashion sense that is perfectly timeless.
1. What’s in a Name? Coco, born in 1883 in a hospice for the poor, was not Chanel’s actual birth-name. Her given name was Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, but she acquired the sweet moniker during her appearances at a cafe that had a Moulin Rouge-flair. As a young woman Chanel performed at this venue and sang two popular tunes titled "Ko Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco,” both of which became her go-to songs. It is also believed that the nickname could have also come from the French word cocotte, which means kept woman—(at least that's the more polite sense of the word).
2. Young Fashionista. At the tender age of 12, Chanel’s father left her and her sisters in an orphanage after the passing of their mother. It was at this convent that the nuns taught Chanel how to sew. She lived there for six years and mastered her craft. Chanel was able to leave the convent at age 18, and after a couple of years, she returned to her hobby of sewing and began crafting her own hat designs.
3. Always the Designer, Never the Bride. Even though Chanel never married, she had a few prominent lovers that made a vital impression on her career—and sometimes not always for the good. The first was Etienne Balsan, a French socialite and polo player who helped her set up shop. How convenient, right? It was at his bachelor pad that he allowed Chanel to open up her first hat boutique on the first floor. And it was through Balsan that she would later meet her true financier and muse: Arthur Edward "Boy" Capel. Capel, who was also a polo player, put up the funds for Chanel’s first shops. She also became romantically involved with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer 13 years her junior. There were also rumors she had ties to Igor Stravinsky and was close to Pablo Picasso.
4. The Breakthrough. What started simply as a hat boutique flourished into a full-fledged clothing store which catapulted Chanel into a real fashion designer—and it all started with a jersey. Back in the 1920s, rich women wore ornate and expensive dresses made out of exotic fabrics. Countering that, the innovative designer created an outfit out of jersey material, which was a type of cloth that is used primarily for men’s underwear. She said she chose this material because of its low price and because it complemented a woman’s body. "I make fashion women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and look younger in," Chanel said. The rest is fashion history.
5. Not a Hollywood Kind of Lady. Chanel caught the attention of Hollywood moviemakers, specifically Samuel Goldwyn. The film producer offered Chanel a pretty substantial contract. All she had to do was fly to Hollywood twice a year and design costumes for starlets. It was then that she created looks for Gloria Swanson for the film Tonight or Never, while Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became private clients. But Chanel wasn’t all that pleased with Hollywood. She was quoted as saying that Hollywood was vulgar and “the capital of bad taste.”
6. Controversial Affair. In August of 2011 author Hal Vaughan released an explosive book titled Sleeping With the Enemy in which he disclosed that Chanel had ties to the Nazi party. In his book he details extensively her affair with Gunther von Dincklage who was in the German military intelligence service and that she was extensively involvement with the Nazi party. Soon after the book was released the House of Chanel attempted to play down the controversy by stating: “What’s certain is that she had a relationship with a German aristocrat during the War. Clearly not the best period to have a love story with a German.” The statement also mentioned that “the fashion house also disputed that the designer was anti-Semitic,” saying Chanel “would not have had Jewish friends or ties with the Rothschild family of financiers if she were.”
7. The Comeback Kid. In 1954, at the age of 71, Chanel returned to the world of fashion after her vocal distaste of the current trends, many of which were created by male designers such as Christian Dior and Cristobal Balenciaga. She was quoted as saying that their designs were “illogical” with "waist cinchers, padded bras, heavy skirts, and stiffened jackets.” Although some critics disapproved of her new looks, the Brits and Americans loved them. Some of her famous American clientele included Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Jackie Kennedy, and Grace Kelly.
8. Must-Have Chanel. There are four signature Chanel items that are on the must-have list of every fashionista:
i) The jacket: Chanel first created her famous tweed jacket suit in 1954, which replicates the simplicity of a man’s formal jacket but screams elegance and femininity. Designer Karl Lagerfeld has relaunched the Chanel jacket, which still honors the original vision but has a newfound excitement.
ii) The perfume: The House of Chanel has always had one signature scent and that is No. 5. However, Chanel No. 5 didn’t make a splash until Marilyn Monroe gave the most alluring answer for her first LIFE magazine cover. “What do you wear to bed?” the magazine asked her. “Just a few drops of Chanel No. 5," she responded.
iii) The little black dress: In the Lifetime movie Coco Chanel, Shirley MacLaine portrays the designer as a septuagenarian during her comeback in the 1950s. In the movie MacLaine is seen making adjustments to a woman’s black dress. She then rips off the sleeves entirely, removes the puffy layers from the bottom of the dress and voila! The little black dress is born.
iv) The handbag: The famous Chanel purse has come a long way since its inception in 1929. It was then that Chanel, after tired of carrying handbags, added thin straps to the purse after being inspired by the straps found on soldiers’ bags. The purse was then revised in 1955, but it wasn’t until Lagerfeld revamped the purse in the 1980s that the accessory received more marketing appeal.
From the Bio Archives: This article was originally published on August 19, 2013.