Born as Gabrielle Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France, she was placed into an orphanage by her peddler father when her mother died.
Luckily she was then raised by nuns who taught her the skill of sewing. That would lead to her fabulous career as one of Paris’ premier fashion designers. She set the tone as a style icon for what women wore starting in the 1920s.
She began using the name “Coco” when she became a cafe and concert singer from 1905 to 1908. Some say the name came from a song she sang. She herself said that it was a shortened version of the French word for ‘kept woman’, which was cocotte.
Her patrons at that time were a wealthy military officer and then an English industrialist. Their patronage sponsored her in a millinery shop in Paris, which was started in 1910 and later expanded to Biarritz and Deauville. Those shops helped her acquire customers among society women who made simple hats, her first offerings, popular.
She later added clothing including women’s trousers, a “little boy” chemise, costume jewelry, and even bell bottom pants for women. In 1922 she introduced her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which is still a popular product of Chanel’s company.
In 1925 she did the unthinkable by helping women say good-bye to corsets and other such constraining garments by introducing her legendary Chanel suit with its well-fitted skirt and collarless jacket. Her signature cardigan jacket was also introduced in 1925. She stressed comfort and elegance along with sophistication and simplicity.
Her ever-enduring “little black dress” goes back to 1926 when she took a color associated with mourning and displayed how chic it was when worn in the evenings and shown off by great accessories. Those included gold chains, multiple strands of pearls, quilted handbags, and sling-back pumps. It is amazing when you consider the timeless staying power of her fashions and perfume.
She once said quite aptly, “Chanel, above all else, is a style. Fashion, you see, goes out of fashion. Style never.” She had changed the way women dressed forever.
Not only did she reign with her high fashion, but she also designed stage and film costumes.
Chanel closed her salon right after World War II was declared because she felt it was no time for high fashion. After being arrested in 1944 as a result of rumors of her involvement with a German officer, she moved to Switzerland for almost ten years.
On February 5, 1954, at the age of almost 71, she reopened her salon to a blaze of criticism that took three years to overcome.
She managed to make her way back up to great successes, and she was still working in 1971 when she died at the age of 88 in her Paris apartment. Ready-to-wear fashions didn’t come into being until 1978, long after her death.
Pierre Wertheimer became her 70% partner in 1924, and the Wertheimers continue in control of the perfume company and the Chanel group to this day.
With billions of dollars in sales and approximately 100 boutiques and over 400 selected retailers worldwide, Chanel also owns Eres, a French lingerie and beachwear label.