leadGabrielle Chanel’s life is representative of women’s emancipation in the 20th century, not only in mirroring those radical societal changes, but by precipitating them with her liberating creations. Her tumultuous love life and instinct as a businesswoman made her a truly modern woman ahead of her time. Lucie Goulet looks back at a life lived with passion and determination. Chanel’s formative years are still surrounded by an aura of mystery. Her modest upbringing did not match the image she wished to convey in later life and she made a point to either be fuzzy on the details or to make them up, taking ten years off her birth date.

Chanel was born in August 1883 to a peddler father and maid mother. Her mother died when she was 14 and Chanel was sent with her sister to an orphanage in Aubazines in central France.

After leaving school Chanel spent three years performing at a café concert, seeing it as an escape route from her modest life. Two of her favourite songs were ‘Kokorico’ and ‘Qui a vu Coco?’ (Has anyone see Coco?). Gabrielle became “Coco”, a nickname she appropriated for the rest of her life.

From very early on, Chanel worked in fashion and dressmaking, becoming an assistant in a dressmaking shop as soon as her schooling was over. When she met Etienne Balsan, a rich former soldier with a passion for horses, she left her job and installed herself in his house. There, she singled herself out by her love of simple lines and non-fussy clothes, which sharply contrasted with the overly embellished Belle Epoque style then in vogue.

Creating hats for Balsan’s friends, she used his Paris apartment to set up her first millinery shop, the unique style of her designs distinguishing her from other designers. Disregarding their social background, Chanel treated all clients in the same manner. Both of these factors certainly contributed to her success. Despite a decade-long affair with Balsan, they never married because of Chanel’s poor background.

coco-chanel-1Balsan was succeeded by British aristocrat Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel as Chanel’s lover, often credited by her biographers as the love of her life. He eventually married the daughter of an English baron, continuing his extramarital affair with Chanel until his untimely death in a car accident in 1919. Thanks to Capel’s financial backing, Chanel was able to open a larger shop on the now mythical Rue Cambon in Paris. Many of her clients were influential women and Chanel’s name soon appeared in fashion magazines.

The First World War proved lucky for Chanel, the time calling for more practical dresses. Chanel had opened a shop in Deauville, Normandy in 1912, and during the war Paris society fled the capital for the seaside. Many women needed new wardrobes more appropriate to the situation and Chanel’s simple designs were perfectly suited to this need.
After Normandy, and still with the help of Capel’s funds, Chanel set up a shop in Biarritz, the proximity to Spain bringing her an international clientele. By 1915 Chanel was able to repay Capel. Through her hard work and determination she had gained her independence.

The war over, Chanel returned to Paris where she remained a firm society favourite. In the Twenties, understanding better than anyone the expectations of the female consumer, Chanel launched her famous No. 5 perfume. In the mid-Twenties she conceptualised her little black dress, immediately dubbed by US Vogue “a Ford signed Chanel”. Using black for day-to-day wear was again a strong break with fashion custom, which allowed black only for mourning. Black, white, beige and navy became signature tones.

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