The Woman Behind the Label: Coco Chanel

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When it comes to coveted high end brands, Chanel is definitely at the top. They have done it all – Chanel dresses on the red carpet, alluring fragrances in every bedroom, and the perfect accessories for every glamorous occasion. It is for this reason that the Chanel brand has become one of the most popular and successful luxury brands the fashion world has to offer. Of course, the success of this brand all comes down to one person, the woman who started the label and made it what it is today – Coco Chanel.

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Many aspects of the famed designer’s life still remain to be ravelled with mystery, mostly due Chanel eluding already known facts about her early life, which was far from glamorous. For instance, it was widely acknowledged that Coco, born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, was born in 1883 in Saumur, France, however she later rejected this and claimed she was instead born in 1893 in Auvergne.

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As a child, Chanel lost her mother to tuberculosis, leaving her and her siblings under the care of her father. He was a travelling salesman, lacking any kid of paternal instincts and shipped his children off to various relatives. Chanel and her sisters were eventually sent to out live the rest of their childhood years at an orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, which was hidden away high up in the hills of the Corrèze. Raised by the nuns of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary who worked at the remote 12th-century Cistercian abbey, Chanel learnt the trade of a seamstress.

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This was the beginning of what would become a very successful and iconic career for young Gabrielle. When she was 18, she left the orphanage and ended up working as a shop assistant and seamstress in a draper’s store on the rue de l’Horloge. She also spent some time performing in rowdy clubs, and whilst her singing career was only brief, it did lead to her being nicknamed Coco, the name that led to her own reinvention. The name came from a song about a girl who lost her dog that she would sing regularly, and soon the local soldiers who would come to watch her began to call her Coco.

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Coco moved to the resort town of Deauvile, and at 23 she moved into the chateau of Etienne Balsan, a rich ex-military officer who was also a textile heir, as his mistress. This was in 1908. It was here that Balsan taught Chanel the skills and talents of the wealthy, such as horse riding, while introducing her to the decadence of prosperous living. During this time, Chanel started designing and creating hats, and then using the financial prospects of Balsan and her next romantic connection, Balsan’s friend Arthur “Boy” Capel, to open up a millinery shop in Paris in 1910.

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In the 1920s Coco’s business began to expand, offering many original and new concepts to the world of fashion. Her casual and comfortable fashion inspired by men’s clothing fabrics liberated women from the usual stiff corsets of the time, and soon her little black dresses became a Chanel trademark that has lasted all these years. It became cutting edge modern fashion, making previous Paris style seem old fashioned and lacking practicality. One classic icon was the coveted Chanel No.5 fragrance, which remains to be one of the best selling perfumes even now. This was launched in 1922. 1925 saw the launch of another iconic piece of clothing, the collarless cardigan jacket, which is still seen as a fashion icon of the Chanel brand. Her signature little black dress followed the next year.

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There is a lot of controversy surrounding Chanel in the World War II. She lost a great deal of popularity after news of her affair with a German Nazi officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, but there have also been several rumours circulating that Chanel herself worked with the Nazis. She moved herself to Switzerland to escape the controversy, and didn’t resurface into the eye of the public for almost 15 years. But in 1954, the designer returned to Paris and reopened her business. After reemerging post-war, her designs became exceedingly popular in the world, especially America and Britain.

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Chanel’s line has branched out to include makeup, skincare, jewellery and watches as well as fragrances and fashion. It is now one of the most coveted luxury brands in the global high end fashion world.

Chanel continued working for her clothing line until she died in 1971. At about 87 years old, she died in her opulent apartment at the Ritz Hotel. Famed designer Karl Lagerfeld took over as chief designer in 1983, and still remains in the position today. Coco Chanel left behind a glimmering legacy of iconic fashion pieces, and Lagerfeld has continued this legacy with more show-stopping pieces that perfectly fit into the Chanel brand.

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Chanel designs still frequent the red carpet, and their couture collections are still glamorous and iconic. The success of the brand is immeasurable, and would not be so without the rich enigma of Coco Chanel.

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To read more about Coco Chanel, check out Fashion Industry Broadcast’s Masters of Fashion Vol 37 Paris.

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