Fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1971).
What did she do?
Coco Chanel was a French fashion designer, whose modern approach to clothes made her an icon.
After her mother died when Coco was 12 years old, she and her two sisters were sent to live in a convent. Whilst here, Coco learnt how to sew. At the age of 18, she began work as a seamstress.
A few years later, she became the mistress of wealthy textile heir Etienne Balsan, who plied her
with the kind of luxuries she had only ever been able to dream of before – jewels, beautiful clothes and a very comfortable lifestyle. During this time, Coco began designing hats, and in 1910, she became a licensed hat maker and opened a boutique in Paris. After popular French actress Gabrielle Doriatz modelled some of her designs, Coco’s star began to rise.
In 1913, she opened a clothing boutique in Deauville, which was followed by another in Biarritz in 1915. By 1919, she was an established – and successful – couturiere.
In the 1920s, Coco branched out into perfume-making, too. Her eponymous scent Chanel No.5 – which is still massively popular today – was released in December 1921, and Coco described it as: “A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman.”
In 1931, she met Hollywood movie producer Samuel Goldwyn, who asked her to design the costumes for his film stars. She accepted and was initially a hit – although as the 1930s progressed and the flapper-ish spirit that Coco epitomised began to fade, she fell out of favour.
Having closed her fashion houses at the outbreak of WW2 – where she courted mass controversy for her support of the Nazi party – she decided to start designing again in 1954. Her new pieces were not well-received by her fellow Parisians (many of whom felt she had been irreparably tarnished by her wartime associations), but were adored by her British and American fans.
Coco died in 1971 at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where she had lived for over 30 years.
What inspired her designs?
In stark opposition to the stuffy, corseted designs that had been in favour in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Coco’s designs were a breath of fresh air. Gone were uncomfortably structured silhouettes and itchy skirts – in their place, were flowing materials, loose outlines and a return to comfort, often with a sporty twist.
What is her best known piece of work?
Equally, her little black dress designs were globally admired, with American Vogue writing in 1926 that they would ‘become sort of a uniform for all women of taste’. Her glitzy evening dresses became essentials in the wardrobes of the well-dressed elite.
Curiously enough, she also made the suntan fashionable. Prior to Coco, the rich believed that a tan was a sign of labouring outside, and considered milky-white skin to be far more desirable. However, Coco – with her love of sailing and all things outdoors-y – made them a style statement.
Why should I care about her?
Married to her art, Chanel’s designs are still as iconic and important today as they were when she first produced them.
Her personal life is still a source of fascination, and she has been the subject of numerous books, plays and films. And who’d have thought the girl born into an impoverished family would grow up to become the toast of French society?
On why she never married the Duke of Westminster: “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”
Classic Creatives: Taking a step back in time to revisit the works of some truly inspirational people. See our previous Classic Creatives feature – on textile designer, artist and writer William Morris – here.