Spy, visionary, and icon: The complicated legacy of Coco Chanel
What are you willing to sacrifice in order to achieve ultimate success? Most importantly, when confronted with the greatest challenge in your career, would you be willing to risk it all? War, poverty, and social ruin, Coco Chanel survived thanks to her ambitions, persuasion, and instinct. Her classic rags-to-riches epic resulted in an empire that shattered an industry dominated by men. We know her designs and her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume, but who was the woman behind the timeless style? Life wasn’t always $4,000 patent leather handbags and drapey pearl necklaces.
The making of Coco Chanel: Fashion industry icon
Before she was Coco Chanel, the high-fashion mogul was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883 to a peddler father and impoverished mother. She was abandoned at the tender age of twelve, and as a result, she and her sister were sent to an orphanage run by the holiest of the holy — nuns.
The nuns were strict when it came to Chanel’s upbringing and it was in the nunnery that she first learned how to sew. However, before you thank our Ladies of Perpetual Fashion, Coco’s interest in sewing started actually outside the orphanage walls, in her safe haven.
Threading the needle
Relief came in the form of the holidays when Chanel was free to visit her aunts, Louise and Adrienne. Her aunts welcomed Chanel into their home. It was her aunts who taught her how to sew frills, ribbons, ruffles, and other embellishments into her garment and accessories such as hats and bonnets.
It was Chanel’s way to cope with a world where love was limited. It was in these sessions that the sting of her father’s abandonment temporarily subsided. With loving hands, her aunts taught her the beauty and practicalities of stitch-work. However, nothing was ever permanent in Chanel’s life.
A fork in the road
At eighteen, the nuns — dressed in their somber uniform of black robes and white veils — sat Chanel down for a little chat. No longer a child, and no longer the nun’s obligation, they presented her with two choices: become a nun or leave. Chanel chose her destiny, away from a life of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.
Hightailing it out of the sisterhood, Chanel’s next moves was to establish herself in a world that respected class and modesty. She wanted to live a life without suffering. Chanel wanted to be somebody. She looked up to the ladies of high society and decided to enroll into the Notre Dame finishing school for girls. From there, her drive and ambitions grew.
Through the looking glass
Every day during those two years, Chanel was influenced and inspired by the women of high society. It was in finishing school that Chanel came to realize that if she ever wanted to be somebody, she needed money and she needed to find a way to be a part of the world of luxury.
She wasn’t into the idea of becoming a housewife nor particularly drawn to the duties of motherhood — no, Chanel wanted a profession, she wanted a career, a business of her own. After a tumultuous childhood, she was determined to never depend on anyone else. In what? She had no clue. But that was all about to change.
A stitch in time
In 1903 Chanel took her first step into the world of fashion. Don’t get too excited, it wasn’t like she was hired by a famous Edwardian designer or became a dressmaker’s apprentice. No, at age twenty, thanks to her time in finishing school, Chanel landed a job as a seamstress in a small garrison town called Moulins.
Tailoring, mending, and sewing, Chanel was hired because of her impeccable skill with a needle and thread. This was a humble profession for a woman in her class, but Chanel knew it wasn’t enough for her. She would soon have a date with destiny.
Finding a way in
Moulins was periodically swarmed with off-duty soldiers. Many would waltz into Chanel’s place of work to have their uniforms mended. As a dark-haired beauty, she caught the attention of many soldiers. Soon she was invited to an evening of live entertainment.
She was hesitant at first, but Chanel quickly became enthralled and enchanted by the performances of local music halls where she rubbed elbows with those she had watched from afar for so long. When she realized amateurs were welcomed on the stage, Chanel went from being a member of the audience to a stage performer. If America’s Got Talent was in Edwardian Era France, Chanel was aiming for a golden buzzer ticket to Paris. A star was beginning to be formed.
Life in the limelight
Chanel saw a much more glamorous future on the stage and thought she could make it as a singer. Her repertoire limited, Chanel only performed two songs: Ko Ko Ri Ko and Kike Roo Coco, which earned her the stage name Le Petite Coco. Her stage name stuck, and she was no longer Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, but simply Coco.
Her onstage presence started to amass much attention from the watchful soldiers of Moulins. One of them was a playboy, polo-playing millionaire named Etienne Balsan. Enchanted by her wit and charm, his relationship with Chanel would change the trajectory of her life.
Chanel was only twenty-one when she began her intimate relationship with Balsan, but the relationship wasn’t serious. Balsan had no interest in settling down. In fact, he already had a live-in mistress at his estate. Chanel was amused that Balsan would think she wanted him for a husband.
Like Balsan, Chanel also had no interest in getting married. She saw something else in the philandering millionaire — opportunity. Chanel saw him as her ticket out of poverty and as a liaison into the world of the elite. After a year of being one of his many mistress, Chanel made her next move.
A new style
In the early 1900s, “fashion was just about sexual politics as it was about clothes.” While Chanel lived in Balsan’s chateau Royallieu, she busied herself making elaborate hats. It was her keen attention to detail that lead her to observe the fashion of her age and put her own twist on it.
At the time, all fashion was designed by men. Their designs were often solely decorative and highly impractical. The gowns of the time were ridiculous to Chanel. Dresses were breathlessly constrained at the waist, tightened stiffly by a corset, and the skirts were billowy, long, and made women helpless in performing the simplest task without fainting.
To Chanel, the women’s fashion implied that women were only meant for decorative purposes. Didn’t they know there were women under those gowns? Apparently, not. Women’s comfort was not a consideration to the male designers of the day — and Chanel saw an opportunity.
She refused to be a slave to the common practices of fashion. She came to the conclusion when Balsan gifted her with fine clothing and jewelry appropriate for a woman of the time, but one look at the curtain drapes that society called a gown enabled Chanel to refuse contemporary fashion. What she did next left the modern Edwardian woman gasping in both horror and intrigue.
A grand arrival
It was the summer of 1909 when Chanel discovered her true self and understood her calling. At age twenty-six, she attended a horse race with Balsan, and her arrival stirred a flurry of whispers and raised brows. Chanel had done something really out of the box.
She wore one of Balsan’s ties, donned an abandoned coat belonging to one of Balsan’s friends, and topped it off with one of the boater hats she had designed — all men’s cloths. It was a fitting look for Chanel, one that would be echoed in her designs for decades. She knew she was doing something unique, and it got the attention she wanted.
More than a hobby
Amused and intrigued by her bold style, Balsan decided to gift her a small room in his chateau to encourage her hat-making hobby. Chanel didn’t see her creations as a hobby. It was her life’s calling. She wanted to start her own business and finally become the “somebody” she always knew she was meant to be. However, it was a dream she couldn’t accomplish alone.
With no money of her own, she needed an investor. Luckily for Chanel, she happened to know a very wealthy aristocrat who could help her with just that. It was during this opportunistic moment of her life that Chanel met someone who didn’t just change her life, but also won her heart.
Drunk in love
When Chanel finally realized her true calling, she bumped into one of Balsan’s closest friends. His name was Captain Arthur “Boy” Capel, a wealthy English aristocrat who soon became the love of Chanel’s life. It was unclear how they met or fell in love, but rumor had it it happened while strolling through a meadow under the snow-capped Pyrenees peaks.
Soon after they began their affair, Chanel left Balsan for Capel. The couple left for Paris during the city’s Belle Epoque. Balsan, though saddened, was at ease with Chanel running off with Capel. In fact, it was Balsan and Capel who created a partnership and financed her first business.
House of Chanel
If you’re thinking this is the part where Coco Chanel opens her first boutique, made her millions and lived happily ever after, you would be wrong. Though Capel and Balsan did invest in Chanel’s first venture into the fashion industry, what they invested in was a hat shop. Chanel managed her millinery store under the name Chanel Modes, located on 21 rue Cambon in Paris.
Her hats were simple, yet elegant — a different look compared to the time’s fruit-bowl-styled hats with feathers, over-sized visors, and an abundance of fabric. She prioritized function over decoration. Causing a citywide sensation, her hats were worn by the most famous French actresses of her generation. Her reputation grew and helped propel the new business owner into the next phase of her life.
The life of the rich and famous
When we think about the places where the filthy rich and famous roam, we often think of a California scene like Los Angeles and Orange County. Just the mention of the word California makes Instagram start populating pictures of avocado toast and trust-fund babies in designer crop tops. For Coco Chanel, that was Deauville. There, the “crème de la crème” spent their vacations on beaches.
It was on a romantic getaway with Capel that Chanel decided to open her first boutique at the epicenter of France’s finest. The doors to her first-ever boutique opened in 1913 and introduced a collection of sportswear. Her premier line was mostly made from jersey — a soft and stretchy material used in men’s underwear. Chanel’s jersey garments caught on quick. They changed everything in women’s fashion.
Chanel’s first couture collection was designed solely by women and didn’t feature ruffles or ribbons. Her collection was simple, stylish, and best of all, her designs were functional. “I want to give women the possibility to laugh and eat without necessarily having to faint,” she said soon after opening her boutique.
Chanel was able to bask in celebrity, a spotlight she had craved all her life, but soon, her progress came to a startling halt. The world was changing, and the events that followed soon challenged Chanel to make drastic changes in her designs. Tensions had been rising in Europe; war loomed on the horizon.
Wartime business opportunity
World War I erupted in the summer of 1914. Chanel realized that people were entering a time that resources were becoming increasingly scarce and having the latest pieces from a high fashion designer would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. She had to think quickly, but carefully. As Europe’s men left to fight a violent war, women stepped into the labor force to help bridge the void.
Working in a factory wasn’t easy — on the contrary, most of the time, it was quite dangerous. Women’s traditional wardrobes of dresses were not only useless, but impractical to wear in factories with all their extra fabric and embellishments. Using her signature jersey fabric, Chanel came up with a breakthrough design.
Building a brand
Chanel created a small collection of jersey day-wear for women, and like all her trademark designs, they were functional and practical for a woman in the workforce. The dress was shorter than average skirts of the day, reaching just below the knees. They were tailored for a slim fit, didn’t require a corset, and was easy to move in.
The jersey dress was a hit. Chanel had turned wartime scarcity into profit and found her niche. The designer once quipped: “The world was dying while another was being born. I was there. An opportunity came forward and I took it.” Her jersey dresses sparked a revolution in women’s fashion. By the 1920s, Chanel was a household name. Life was going well — but trouble was brewing in the soon-to-be icon’s personal life.
Master of her destiny
After her initial success, Chanel felt like she could conquer the world. “I was my own master and I depended on myself alone. Boy Capel was well aware he didn’t control me. ‘I thought I’d given you a plaything, I gave you freedom,’ he once said to me in a melancholy voice,” Chanel once said when reflecting upon her initial success.
But with that success came a shift in the relationship between the two. They grew apart, and the warm love between faded and was replaced with platitudes and routine. In 1918 — the same year the war ended — Boy Capel would betray Chanel.
A woman scorned
Chanel was fully devoted to Capel. But in the fall of 1918, Capel announced his intention to marry an aristocratic English beauty — daughter of a lord. Chanel was distraught. “We were made for each other, that he was there and that he loved me and that he knew that I loved him with all that mattered.”
By this time, Chanel’s name was worth its weight in gold. But she was still second best to the thing that mattered most to her. Though he got married, their relationship continued. But Chanel was no longer his partner. Both professionally and romantically, she was his mistress. Just a year later, Chanel’s life crumbled before her feet.
‘Til death do us part
On December 21, 1919, Boy Capel was killed in a car accident. If news of his marriage shattered her, the news of his death killed her. “I lost everything when I lost Capel,” she admitted. Now she was alone, and in her loneliness, anger grew. She blamed society’s elite for Capel’s death and she wanted, more than anything, justice and revenge.
Chanel was going to show the world just how merciless she could be. She had a plan. She was going to find a way to join high society and become their goddess. Her hubris began to grow. An interesting course of action, but okay, to each their own.
As the years passed, Chanel knocked down every standard in women’s fashion. Her styles spread like a wildfire in the fashion industry and before long, she was dominating it. She is credited with the advent of the little black dress. Her sensational Chanel No.5 was the first to put women in sleek and stylish trousers.
She also created the first line of makeup comprised of red lipstick, nail polish, and suntan oil. Chanel coined the term and concept “fashion statement.” Because of her innovation, by the end of the 1920s, the corset became obsolete. Chanel was a living legend, and the House of Chanel was her temple. She was practically royalty.
A royal romance
If being a fashion icon wasn’t enough, Chanel dated the Duke of Westminster, His Majesty Hugh “Bendor” Grosvenor. Enchanted by her confidence and character, the duke sent her love letters, fruit, and flowers. It was through their courtship that she socialized with the friends of royalty and met Winston Churchill.
There was talk of marriage. However, it wasn’t meant to be. “He wasn’t free, nor was I. I didn’t want to leave the House of Chanel, which I had built all by myself and continuously reshaped.” Though her statement was strong and noble, the simple truth was this: She was a commoner, and he could never marry her. Their royal romance ended, and soon, war would sweep Europe once more.
A world at war
World War II broke out in 1939. Germany invaded Poland, and shortly after, France and England declared war on Germany. France’s government had not immediately fallen under direct attack and begged Chanel to keep her shops open to keep the spirits of the citizens of France up.
It all went downhill when the Germans advanced in France. They swiftly marched into Paris, and rather than destroying the City of Love, took it over ans occupied it. They used the Hotel Ritz as their headquarters — the same hotel Chanel had put up her residency. She was sleeping next to the enemy, figuratively and literally.
Chanel eau de parfume
It was during the war that Chanel saw another business opportunity. There is some speculation that Chanel wanted to destroy her competitors by using Germany’s Aryan laws. The investors of her famous perfume, a private company owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, profited 80% on her perfume sales, while Chanel only pocketed 10%.
It was also rumored that she leveraged her German connections to void their contract. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was risking it all. If shady business prospects weren’t enough, Chanel found romance under German rule. She began an affair with German cavalry officer and spy, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was thirteen years her junior. It was during their affair that von Dincklage offered her a daring proposition.
The Axis Powers knew Chanel had connections with the English parliament, namely Winston Churchill. They planned to use Chanel as bait to lure Churchill to France to negotiate a surrender with Germany having the upper-hand. She agreed to try. But she overestimated her influence with the British powers and failed to bring Churchill to France.
Big mistake. Chanel was now known as a German collaborator. When the war ended and France was liberated, the public initiated a witch hunt for all those who aided Germany and their regime. Women who slept with German soldiers were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved and were paraded down the streets. It was only a matter of time before authorities came knocking on Chanel’s door.
It was well known that Chanel collaborated with the Germans and had even profited off of the war. Her German lover gone (he fled to Switzerland), Chanel stayed behind to face the consequences of her actions. Officers arrested Chanel and labeled her not just a collaborator, but a spy.
The House of Chanel was tarnished and ruined. Like Rome, her fashion empire had been destroyed — and she bore some of the blame for her own decline. However, though she was devastated, Chanel was able to avoid war-crime charges. Hours after her capture, Chanel was released. What happened next stunned the city of Paris.
The public was surprised that Chanel was cleared of all charges. Some whispered that it was because she blackmailed her way out of prison, others said that Winston Churchill used his influence to help her. Regardless, Chanel’s reputation was tattered. France hated her and her brand, so much so that it was unsafe for her to stay in France. She left for Switzerland, where her German lover awaited.
When she left France, she wasn’t leaving just her home, but her legacy too. She lost the two things that mattered most to her: Her business and her reputation. The House of Chanel was no more. She remained in hiding for nearly ten years. Then, something in the fashion world caught her attention.
Bitter and full of regret, Chanel watched the world of fashion from the sidelines. She hated what she saw. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced a new look that incorporated a cinched waist, lengthy and full skirts, and yards of fabric. It looked stiff, ornamental, and stood against everything that Chanel had set out to accomplish in her own fashion lines.
She was convinced that women would soon be eager for something more modern. Convinced the fashion world needed her once again, Chanel re-entered the fashion scene. However, in light of the whole you-betrayed-our-country thing, not everyone was happy to see her back on the scene.
Out of hiding
Chanel was in her 70s when she returned to Paris. In February of 1954, Chanel began working on the most important collection of her life. She was going to launch her first post-war fashion line. Every model was subjugated to Chanel’s need for perfection. The stakes were high. She would either come back slaying dragons or face defeat for good.
When she debuted her new line, the French press was furious. She had not been forgiven for collaborating with German soldiers during the war. They ridiculed her and called her new line a fiasco. Despite the bad publicity, not everyone hated the new line. The star-spangled banner waved to her across the Atlantic.
The icon’s legacy
American’s fell in love with Chanel and her designs. They were simple, elegant, and perfect for the working woman. Chanel arrived and was ready to dress the American people. She was revered by celebrities and the public alike. She had once again become a fashion icon, only this time, she was twice as successful as she was in her heyday in Paris.
The House of Chanel was worth millions and had once again had risen to the top of a male-dominated industry. Even up until her timely death in 1971, her brand continued to influence major fashion designers around the world. Today, the Chanel brand is associated with the finest, most elegant, and beautiful fashion in the world, with price tags that only the world’s most elite can afford.
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