Chanel was born on August 19, 1883. She was the second daughter of traveling salesman Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle in the small city of Saumur, Maine-et-Loire. Coco was born in a poorhouse. Her birth was recorded the following day. Two employees of the hospice went to city hall and declared the child female. The hospice employees were illiterate, so when the mayor François Poitu wrote down the birth, no one knew how to spell Chanel so the mayor improvised and recorded it with an “s,” making it Chasnel. This misspelling made the tracing of her roots almost impossible for biographers when Chanel later rose to prominence.
Her parents married in 1883. She had five siblings: two sisters, Julian(1882-1913) and Antoinette (born 1887) and three brothers, Alphonse (born 1885), Lucien (born 1889) and Peter (born and died 1891). In 1895, when she was 12 years old, Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis and her father left the family a short time later because he needed to work to raise his children. Because of his work, the young Chanel spent seven years in the orphanage of the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress. School vacations were spent with relatives in the provincial capital, where female relatives taught Coco to sew with more flourish than the nuns at the monastery were able to demonstrate. When Coco turned eighteen, she left the orphanage, and took up work for a local tailor.
While working at a tailoring shop she met and soon began an affair with the French playboy and millionaire Étienne Balsan who lavished on her the beauties of “the rich life:” diamonds, dresses and pearls While living with Balsan, Chanel began designing hats as a hobby, which soon became a deeper interest of hers. After opening her eyes, as she would say, Coco left Balsan and took over his apartment in Paris. In 1913, she opened up her very first shop which sold a range of fashionable raincoats and jackets. Situated in the heart of Paris it wasn’t long before the shop went out of business and Chanel was asked to surrender her properties.
This did not discourage her; it only made her more determined. During the pre-war era, Chanel met up with an estranged and former best friend of Étienne Balsan, Arthur “Boy” Capel, with whom she soon fell in love. With his assistance, Chanel was able to acquire the property and financial backing to open her second millinery shop in Brittany. Her hats were worn by celebrated French actresses, which helped to establish her reputation. In 1913, Chanel introduced women’s sportswear at her new boutique in Deauville, in the Rue Gounaut-Biron; Marthe, Countess de Gounaut-Biron (daughter of American diplomat John George Alexander Leishman), was Chanel’s first aristocratic client. Her third shop and successor to her biggest store in France was located in Deauville, where more women during the World War I era came to accept her view that women were supposed to dress for themselves and not their men.
Later in life, she concocted an elaborate false history for her humble beginnings. Chanel would steadfastly claim that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to get rich and she was sent to live with two cold-hearted spinster aunts. She even claimed to have been born in 1893 as opposed to 1883, and that her mother had died when Coco was two instead of six. All this was done to diminish the stigma that poverty, orphanhood, and illegitimacy bestowed upon unfortunates in nineteenth-century France.
In 1920, she was introduced by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to world famous composer Igor Stravinsky (The Rite of Spring), to whom she extended an offer for him and his family to reside with her. During this temporary sojourn it was rumoured that they had an affair.
In 1923 Coco Chanel told Harper’s Bazaar ‘simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance’. Coco Chanel always kept the clothing she designed simple, comfortable, and revealing. Unlike most designers in Europe, she kept the woman inside the clothes at the center of her creations. “I gave women a sense of freedom; I gave them back their bodies: bodies that were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.” She took what were considered poor fabrics like jersey and upgraded them. Chanel’s style is popularly associated with the image of the 1920s flapper, a “new breed” of self-confident young women that challenged the established concept of socially acceptable behavior. The flappers demonstrated their independence through new looks and attitude, such as short skirts and haircuts, openly using cosmetics, and being seen to smoke and drink cocktails. Compared to previous generations of women the flappers also showed an increased level of activity, pursuing athletic sports, driving their own automobiles, and going out to nightclubs where they could listen to jazz music and do energetic dances such as the Charleston.
The iconic Chanel jacket is a symbol of this design philosophy. A Chanel couture jacket has numerous design and construction details that distinguish it from a tailored jacket as traditionally constructed. For example, these jackets lack the complex inner structure of interfacings, pad stitching, and facings commonly used in bespoke tailoring. Rather, the silk lining is machine quilted directly to the fashion fabric, the long exterior seams of the fashion fabric are machine sewn, then the shoulder fashion fabric seams are hand sewn. The interior lining seams and the outside edges of the lining are turned under and hand stitched to the edge of the jacket. The three piece sleeve (another distinctive Chanel feature) is constructed in a similar manner, then hand sewn to the body of the jacket. The heavy trims, cast metal buttons and the curbed chain sewn to the hem serve a functional purpose by adding weight to a garment that is really nothing more than fashion fabric and lining. The end result is a supremely comfortable garment, more like a sweater than a traditional jacket. Most of her fashions had a staying power, and didn’t change much from year to year-or even generation to generation.
Chanel came out with her first signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5, in 1921. The perfume was the first to have a designer’s name attached to it, and it has enjoyed tremendous success since its introduction. In this way, Chanel set the standard for successive designers to do the same.
In 1925, Vera Bate Lombardi, reputedly the illegitimate daughter of Adolphus Cambridge, 1st Marquess of Cambridge and Duke of Teck became Chanel’s muse and public relations liaison to a number of European royal families. Lombardi had the highest connections possible to build the House of Chanel. Chanel established the English look based upon Lombardi’s persona and Lombardi introduced Chanel to her uncle the Duke of Westminster, her cousin the Duke of Windsor, and many other aristocratic families for Chanel’s creative, romantic, financial, social and political rise to power.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, the designer closed her shops. She believed that it was not a time for fashion.She would live in the Hôtel Ritz Paris, on and off, and for more than 30 years,making the hotel her Paris home even during the Nazi occupation. During that time she was criticized for having an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Nazi spy who arranged for her to remain in the hotel.
She also maintained an apartment above her couture house at 31, rue Cambon and built Villa La Pausa in Roquebrune on the French Riviera.
In 1943 after 4 years of professional separation, Chanel sought collaboration with Lombardi in Rome to access Lombardi’s relative Si
r Winston Churchill in the Walter Schellenberg Nazi plot “Operation Modellhut” under the guise of requesting Lombardi return to work for the House of Chanel in Paris.
When Vera refused Chanel’s invitation to come to Paris, she was arrested as an English spy and thrown into a Roman prison by the Gestapo. Chanel’s invitation to Lombardi became purposely diverted by Chanel during a trip to the Ritz Hotel in Madrid, Spain. The true motive of her invitation was to use Lombardi to contact Churchill in order to arrange a meeting between him and Chanel. Chanel was later arrested and charged with war crimes, but avoided trial due to an intervention by the British Royal family.
In 1945, she moved to Switzerland, eventually returning to Paris in 1954, the year she also returned to the fashion world. Her new collection did not have much success with the Parisians because of her relationship with the Nazis; however, it was much applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.
Coco had affairs with some of the most influential men at the time but she never married which she explained with the words ‘There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel’ (when asked why she did not marry Duke of Westminster for example).
Coco Chanel died of a heart attack in her private suite at the Hôtel Ritz Paris on 10 January 1971, at the age of 87. She was buried in Lausanne, Switzerland and her tombstone is carved with lion heads representing her birth sign, Leo.
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