Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was an influential French fashion designer, founder of the famous brand Chanel, whose modernist thought, practical design, and pursuit of expensive simplicity made her an important and influential figure in 20th-century fashion. She was the only fashion designer to be named on Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century.
Chanel was born to an unwed mother, Jeanne Devolle, a laundrywoman, in a facility for the indigent in Saumur, France. This was Devolle’s second daughter. The father, Albert Chanel was an itinerant street peddler who with horse and cart lived a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns, the family residing in rundown lodgings. He married Jeanne Devolle several years after Chanel was born. At birth Chanel’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel.” It is speculated that this spelling was a clerical error or an ancient spelling of the family name. The couple eventually had five other children: Julia-Berthe, (1882–1913), Antoinette (born 1887) and three brothers, Alphonse (born 1885), Lucien (born 1889) and Augustin (born and died 1891).
In 1895, when she was twelve years old, Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis. Her father sent her two brothers out as farm laborers and the three daughters to a bleak area of central France, the Corrèze, into the hands of a convent for orphans, Aubazine. It was a stark, frugal life demanding strict discipline and the rigorous indoctrination of the Catholic faith. At age eighteen, Chanel, now too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Having learned the sewing arts during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel was able to find employment as a seamstress. When not plying her trade with a needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name “Coco,” a name possibly derived from a popular song she sang, or an allusion to the French word for kept woman: cocotte. As cafe entertainer, Chanel broadcast a juvenile allure and suggestion of a mysterious androgyny, tantalizing the military habitués of the cabaret.
Later in life, she concocted an elaborate, fabricated history to couch her humble beginnings in a more compelling light. Of the various stories told about Coco Chanel, a great number were of her own invention. These legends were to be the undoing of the earliest of her biographies. These were ghosted memoirs commissioned by Chanel herself, but never published, always aborted before fruition, as she realized that the facts exposed a personage less laudatory than the mythic Chanel she had self-invented. Chanel would steadfastly claim that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune and she was sent to live with two cold-hearted spinster aunts. She even claimed to have been born in 1893 as opposed to 1883, and that her mother had died when Coco was six instead of twelve.
Personal life and early career
It was at Moulins that Chanel met a young, French, ex-cavalry officer, and wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan. At age twenty-three, Chanel became Balsan’s mistress and for the next three years lived with him in his chateau Royallieu near Compiègne, an area known for its wooded equestrian paths and the hunting life. It was a life style of self-indulgence, Balsan’s wealth and leisure allowing the cultivation of a social set who reveled in partying and the gratification of human appetites with all the implied accompanying decadence. Balsan lavished Chanel with the beauties of “the rich life”— diamonds, dresses, and pearls. It was while living with Balsan that Chanel began designing hats, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. Biographer Justine Picardie, in her 2010 study Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life (Harper Collins), suggests that the fashion designer’s nephew, André Palasse, supposedly the only child of her sister Julia- Berthe who had committed suicide, actually was Chanel’s child by Balsan.
In 1908 Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel. In later years Chanel reminisced of this time in her life: “…two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body.” Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper-class, installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris and financed Chanel’s first shops. It is said Capel’s own sartorial style influenced the conception of the Chanel look. The bottle design for Chanel No. 5 had two probable origins, both attributable to the sophisticated design sensibilities of Capel. It is believed Chanel adapted the rectangular, beveled lines of the Charvet toilery bottles he carried in his leather traveling case or it was the design of the whiskey decanter Capel used, and Chanel so admired that she wished to reproduce it in “exquisite, expensive, delicate glass.” The couple spent time together at fashionable resorts such as Deauville, but he was never faithful to Chanel. The affair lasted nine years, but even after Capel married an aristocratic English beauty in 1918, he did not completely break off with Chanel. His death in a car accident, in late 1919, was the single most devastating event in Chanel’s life. She commissioned the placement of a roadside memorial at the site of the accident, which she visited in later years to lay flowers in remembrance. Twenty-five years after the event, Chanel then residing in Switzerland, confided to her friend Paul Morand: “His death was a terrible blow to me. In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness I have to say.”
Chanel became a licensed modiste (hat maker) in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes. Chanel’s modiste career bloomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat modelled her hats in the F Noziere’s play Bel Ami in 1912 (Subsequently, Dorziat modelled her hats again in Les Modes). In 1913, she established a boutique in Deauville, where she introduced luxe casual clothes that were suitable for leisure and sport. Chanel launched her career as fashion designer when she opened her next boutique, titled Chanel-Biarritz, in 1915, catering to the wealthy Spanish clientele who holidayed in Biarritz and were less affected by the war. Fashionable like Deauville, Chanel created loose casual clothes made out of jersey, a material typically used for men’s underwear. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturiere and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon.
In 1920, she was introduced by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to Igor Stravinsky. Now a notable patron of the arts, Chanel guaranteed the production of the ballet Le Sacre du Printemps (“The Rite of Spring”) against financial loss, and provided her new home Bel Respiro, located in a Paris suburb, as a residence for composer Stravinsky and his family. In addition to turning out her couture collections, Chanel threw her prodigious energies into designing dance costumes for the cutting-edge Ballet Russe. Between the years 1923-1937, she collaborated on productions choreographed by Diaghilev and dancer Vaslav Nijinsky, notably Le Train bleu, a dance-opera, Orphée and Oedipe Roi.
In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume house Bourgeois since 1917, creating a corporate entity, “Parfums Chanel.” The Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” She proclaimed that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me.”
One of Chanel’s longest and enduring associations was with Misia Sert, a notorious member of the Parisian, bohemian elite and wife of Spanish painter José-Maria Sert. It is said that theirs was an immediate bond of like souls, and Misia was attracted to Chanel by “her genius, lethal wit, sarcasm and maniacal destructiveness, which intrigued and appalled everyone.” Both women, convent bred, maintained a friendship of shared interests, confidences and drug use. By 1935, Chanel had become a habitual drug user, injecting herself with morphine on a daily basis until the end of her life. According to Chandler Burr’s The Emperor of Scent, Luca Turin related an apocryphal story in circulation that Chanel was “called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris”
In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi, née Sarah Gertrude Arkwright, reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, afforded Chanel entré into the highest levels of British aristocracy. It was an elite group of associations revolving around such personages as Winston Churchill and royals such as The Duke of Westminster and Edward, Prince of Wales. It was in Monte Carlo in 1923, at age forty-two that Chanel was introduced by Lombardi to the vastly wealthy Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known to his intimates as “Bendor.” The Duke of Westminster lavished Chanel with extravagant jewels, costly art, and a home in Mayfair. In 1929, he gifted her with a parcel of land he had purchased near Monte Carlo where Chanel built an opulent villa, La Pausa. His affair with Chanel lasted ten years. The Duke, an outspoken anti-Semite, intensified Chanel’s inherent antipathy toward Jews and shared with him an expressed homophobia. In 1946, Chanel is quoted by her friend and confidante, Paul Morand: “Homosexuals? …I have seen young women ruined by these awful queers: drugs, divorce, scandal. They will use any means to destroy a competitor and to wreak vengeance on a woman. The queers want to be women—but they are lousy women. They are charming!” Coinciding with her introduction to the Duke, was her introduction, again through Lombardi, to Lombardi’s cousin, the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. The Prince became smitten with Chanel and pursued her in spite of her involvement with the Duke of Westminster. It is said that he visited Chanel in her apartment and requested that she call him “David,” a privilege reserved only for his closest friends and family. Years later, Diana Vreeland, editor of Vogue, would insist: “the passionate, focused and fiercely independent Chanel, a virtual tour de force,” and the Prince, “had a great romantic moment together.”
It was in 1931 while in Monte Carlo that Chanel made the acquaintance of Samuel Goldwyn. The introduction was made through a mutual friend, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, cousin to the last czar of Russia, Nicolas II. Goldwyn offered Chanel a tantalizing proposition. For the sum of a million dollars (approximately seventy-five million today), he would bring her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for MGM stars. Chanel accepted the offer. En route to California from New York traveling in a white train car, which had been luxuriously outfitted specifically for her use, she was interviewed by Colliers magazine in 1932. Chanel said she had agreed to the arrangement to “see what the pictures have to offer me and what I have to offer the pictures.” This enterprise with the film industry left Chanel with a dislike for the business of movie making and distaste for the Hollywood culture itself, which she denounced as “infantile.” Chanel’s verdict was that: “Hollywood is the capital of bad taste…and it is vulgar.” Ultimately, her design aesthetic did not translate well to film, failing to satisfy the standard of Hollywood glamour of the era. On screen her creations did not transmit enough dazzle and sexy allure. Her designs for film stars were not acclaimed and generated little comment.
Chanel was the mistress of some of the most influential men of her time, but she never married. She had affairs with the poet Pierre Reverdy, and illustrator and designer, Paul Iribe. After her romance with Reverdy ended in 1926, they still maintained a friendship which lasted some forty years. Her involvement with Iribe was a deep one until his sudden death in 1935. Iribe and Chanel shared the same reactionary politics, Chanel financing Iribe’s monthly, ultra-nationalist newsletter, Le Témoin, which fueled an irrational fear of foreigners and preached anti-Semitism.
Chanel was well aware that her lineage from peasant stock would forever prohibit her marriage into aristocratic circles. When asked why she did not marry the The Duke of Westminster, she stated: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”
As the 1930s progressed, Chanel’s place on the throne of haute couture came under threat. The boyish look and the short skirts of the 1920s flapper seemed to disappear overnight. Chanel’s designs for film stars in Hollywood had met with failure, and had not aggrandized her reputation as expected. More significantly, Chanel’s star had been eclipsed by her premier rival, the designer, Elsa Schiaparelli. Schiaparelli’s innovative design, replete with playful references to surrealism was creating much enthusiasm and excitement in the fashion world. Feeling she was losing her avant-garde edge, Chanel proceeded to collaborate with Jean Cocteau on his theatre piece, Oedipe Rex. The costumes she designed were mocked and critically lambasted: “Wrapped in bandages the actors looked like ambulant mummies or victims of some terrible accident.”
World War II
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops, maintaining her apartment situated above the couture house at 31 rue Cambon. She claimed that it was not a time for fashion. Three thousand female employees lost their jobs. The advent of war had given Chanel the opportunity to retaliate against those workers who, lobbying for fair wages and work hours, had closed down her business operation during the general labor strike in France in 1936. In closing her couture house, Chanel made a definitive statement of her political views. Her violent loathing of Jews, inculcated by her convent years and sharpened by her knowledge of her own inferiority within an otherwise high class circle, had solidified her beliefs. She shared with most of her circle the conviction that Jews were a Bolshevik threat to Europe. During the German occupation Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz, which was also noteworthy for being the preferred place of residence for upper echelon German military staff. Her romantic liaison with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German officer who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920, facilitated her arrangement to reside at the Ritz.
World War II, specifically the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property and business enterprises, provided Chanel with the opportunity to gain the full monetary fortune generated by “Parfums Chanel” and its most profitable product, Chanel No. 5. The directors of “Parfums Chanel,” the Wertheimers, were Jewish, and Chanel used her position as an “Aryan” to petition German officials to legalize her claim to sole ownership. On May 5, 1941, she wrote to the government administrator charged with ruling on the disposition of Jewish financial assets. Her grounds for proprietary ownership were based on the claim that “Parfums Chanel “is still the property of Jews”…and had been legally “abandoned” by the owners. “I have,” she wrote, “an indisputable right of priority…the profits that I have received from my creations since the foundation of this business…are disproportionate…[and] you can help to repair in part the prejudices I have suffered in the course of these seventeen years.” Chanel was not aware that the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of “Parfums Chanel” over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist, Felix Amiot.
Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Chanel came to a mutual accommodation, re-negotiating the original 1924 contract. On May 17, 1947, Chanel received wartime profits from the sale of Chanel No. 5, in an amount equivalent to some nine million dollars in twenty-first century valuation. Further, her future share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide. The financial benefit to her would be enormous. Her earnings would be in the vicinity of twenty-five million dollars a year, making her at the time one of the richest women in the world. In addition, Pierre Wertheimer agreed to an unusual stipulation proposed by Chanel herself. Wertheimer agreed to pay all of Chanel’s living expenses— from the trivial to the large— for the rest of her life.
Activity as Nazi agent
Archival documents verify that Chanel herself was a Nazi spy, committing herself to the German cause as early as 1941, when she became a paid agent of General Walter Schellenberg, chief of SS intelligence. Her clandestine identity was Abwehr Agent 7124, code name “Westminster.” At war’s end, Schellenberg was tried by the Nuremberg Military Tribunal, and sentenced to six years imprisonment for war crimes. He was released in 1951 due to incurable liver disease, and took refuge in Italy. Chanel paid for Schellenberg’s medical care and living expenses for himself, wife and family until his death in 1952.
“Operation Modellhut”In 1943, Chanel traveled to Berlin with Dinklage to meet with SS Reichsführer, Heinrich Himmler to formulate strategy. In late 1943 or early 1944, Chanel and her SS master, Schellenberg, devised a plan to press England to end hostilities with Germany. When interrogated by British intelligence at war’s end, Schellenberg maintained that Chanel was “a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him.” For this mission, named “Operation Modellhut,” (“Model Hat”) they recruited Vera Lombardi. Count Joseph von Ledebur-Wicheln, a Nazi agent, who defected to the British Secret Service in 1944, recalled a meeting he had with Dinklage in early 1943. Dinklage proposed an inducement that would tantalize Chanel. He informed von Ledebur that Chanel’s participation in the operation would be ensured if Lombardi was included: “The Abwehr had first to bring to France a young Italian woman [Lombardi] Coco Chanel was attached to because of her lesbian vices…” Unaware of the machinations of Schellenberg and her old friend Chanel, Lombardi played the part of their unwitting dupe, led to believe that the forthcoming journey to Spain would be a business trip exploring the possibilities of establishing the Chanel couture in Madrid. Lombardi’s role was to act as intermediary, delivering a letter penned by Chanel to Winston Churchill, and forwarded to him via the British embassy in Madrid. Schellenberg’s SS laison officer, Captain Walter Kutcschmann, acted as bagman, “told to deliver a large sum of money to Chanel in Madrid.” Ultimately, the mission proved a failure. British intelligence files reveal that all collapsed, as Lombardi, on arrival, proceeded to denounce Chanel and others as Nazi spies.
Protection from prosecution
In September 1944, Chanel was called in to be interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration. The committee, which had no documented evidence of her collaboration activity, was obliged to release her. According to Chanel’s grand-niece, Gabrielle Palasse Labrunie, when Chanel returned home she said, “Churchill had me freed.”
The extent of Winston Churchill’s intervention can only be speculated upon. However, Chanel’s escape from prosecution certainly speaks of layers of conspiracy, protection at the highest levels. It was feared that if Chanel were ever made to testify at trial, the pro-Nazi sympathies and activities of top-level British officials, members of the society elite and those of the royal family itself would be exposed. It is believed that Churchill instructed Duff Cooper, British ambassador to the French provisional government, to “protect Chanel.”
Finally induced to appear in Paris before investigators in 1949, Chanel left her retreat in Switzerland to confront testimony given against her at the war crime trial of Baron Louis de Vaufreland, a French traitor and highly placed German intelligence agent. Chanel denied all accusations brought against her. She offered the presiding judge, Leclercq, a character reference: “I could arrange for a declaration to come from Mr. Duff Cooper.”
Chanel’s friend and biographer Marcel Haedrich provided a telling estimation of her wartime interaction with the Nazi regime: “If one took seriously the few disclosures that Mademoiselle Chanel allowed herself to make about those black years of the occupation, one’s teeth would be set on edge.”
Post-war life and career
In 1945, she moved to Switzerland, eventually returning to Paris in 1954, the same year she returned to the fashion world. The re-establishment of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by Chanel’s old nemesis in the perfume battle, Pierre Wertheimer. Her new collection was not received well by Parisians whose memory of Chanel’s treasonous collaboration with the Nazis still resonated in the public mind. However, her return to couture was applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.
In early 1971 Chanel, then 87-years old, was tired and ailing but continued to adhere to her usual schedule, overseeing the preparation of the spring collection. She died on Sunday, January, 10th at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than thirty years. She had gone for a long drive that afternoon and, not feeling well, had retired early to bed.
Legacy as design revolutionary
As early as 1915, Harper’s Bazaar raved over Chanel’s designs: “The woman who hasn’t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion…This season the name Chanel is on the lips of every buyer.” Chanel’s ascendancy as a fashion avatar was the official deathblow to the corseted female silhouette. The frills, fuss, and constraints endured by earlier generations of women were now passé. Her genius redefined the fashionable woman for the post WW I era. The Chanel trademark was a look of youthful ease, a liberated physicality, and unencumbered sportive confidence.
The horse culture and penchant for hunting so passionately pursued by the elites, especially the British, fired Chanel’s imagination. Her own enthusiastic indulgence in the sporting life led to clothing designs informed by those activities. From her excursions on water with the yachting world, she appropriated the clothing associated with nautical pursuits: the horizontal striped shirt, bell bottom pants, crewneck sweaters, and espadrille shoes—all traditionally worn by sailors and fishermen.
Designers such as Paul Poiret and Fortuny introduced ethnic references into haute couture in the 1900s and early 1910s. Chanel continued this trend with Slav-inspired designs in the early 1920s. The beading and embroidery on her garments at this time was exclusively executed by Kitmir, an embroidery house founded by an exiled Russian aristocrat, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, the sister of her erstwhile lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.
Kitmir’s fusion of oriental stitching with stylised folk motifs was highlighted in Chanel’s early collections. One 1922 evening dress came with a matching embroidered ‘babushka’ headscarf. In addition to the headscarf, Chanel clothing from this period featured square-necked tunic tops and elbow length sleeves alluding to Russian peasant attire, with chenille cloche hats for day wear. Evening designs were often embroidered with sparkling crystal and black jet embroidery.
In an outdoor environment of turf and sea, Chanel took in the sun, making suntans not only acceptable, but a symbol denoting a life of privilege and leisure. Historically, identifiable exposure to the sun was the mark of those unfortunate laborers doomed to a life of unremitting, unsheltered toil. Chanel made “sunbathing” fashionable.
The Chanel suit
Her initial triumph was the innovative use of jersey fabric, a material traditionally relegated to the manufacture of undergarments. Her wool jersey traveling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket, and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. This ensemble, worn with low-heeled shoes— became the casual look in expensive women’s wear.
The “little black dress”
The concept of the “little black dress,” is often cited as a Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon and as an article of clothing survives to this day. Its first incarnation was executed in thin silk, crèpe de chine, and had long sleeves. Upon its conception, it was lauded as a fashion-forward look—a spare sexiness that resonated with the young, fashionable woman of the 1920s. An unadorned garment of this cut also served as the perfect foil for accessories—belts and particularly ropes of pearls, and jewelry worn in dramatic arrays. Women at the time loved this dress, because it is very beautiful and “modern”.
Ever the canny innovator, Chanel turned unenviable costume jewelry into a coveted accessory—especially when worn in excess displays, as did Chanel herself. Originally inspired by the opulent, costly jewels and pearls gifted to her by her aristocratic lovers, Chanel raided her own jewel vault and partnered with Duke Fulco di Verdura to launch a House of Chanel jewelry line. The fashionable and wealthy loved the creations and made it wildly successful. Ever the oracle for the modern, society elite, Chanel put forth her own disingenuous PR statement delivered in the inevitable dictatorial manner: “It’s disgusting to walk around with millions around the neck because one happens to be rich. I only like fake jewelry…because it’s provocative.”
The first film about Chanel was Chanel Solitaire (1981), directed by George Kaczender and starring Marie-France Pisier, Timothy Dalton, and Rutger Hauer.
The American television movie Coco Chanel debuted on 13 September 2008 on Lifetime Television, starring Shirley MacLaine as a 70-year-old Chanel. Directed by Christian Duguay, the film also starred Barbora Bobulova as the young Chanel, Olivier Sitruk as Boy Capel, and Malcolm McDowell. The movie substantially rewrote Chanel’s personal history, such as its portrayal of her status as a professional mistress as instead a series of “love stories,” and glossing over both her Nazi collaboration and her use of British Royal connections to avoid post-war trial as a collaborator.
A film starring Audrey Tautou as the young Coco, titled Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel), was released on 22 April 2009. Audrey Tautou is the new spokeswoman of Chanel S.A.
The film Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, directed by Jan Kounen and starring Anna Mouglalis and Mads Mikkelsen, concerns the purported affair between Chanel and Igor Stravinsky. The film is based on the 2002 novel Coco & Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, and was chosen to close the Cannes Film Festival of 2009. Two more projects are said to be in the works, including one directed by Daniele Thompson.
Coco & Igor is a novel, written by Chris Greenhalgh, which depicts the affair between Chanel and Igor Stravinsky and the creative achievements that this affair inspired. The novel was first published in 2003.
In 2008 a children’s book entitled Different like Coco was published. It depicted the humble childhood of Coco Chanel and chronicled how she made drastic changes to the fashion industry.
The Gospel According to Coco Chanel: Life Lessons from the World’s Most Elegant Woman is a novel written by Karen Karbo. Published in 2009, it chronicles the humble beginnings and legendary achievements of Coco Chanel while providing insight and advice on everything from embracing the moment to living life on your own terms.
The Broadway musical Coco, music by Andre Previn, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, opened 18 December 1969 and closed 3 October 1970. It is set in 1953–1954 at the time that Chanel was reestablishing her couture house. Chanel was played by Katharine Hepburn for the first eight months, and by Danielle Darrieux for the rest of its run.