Coco Chanel has long been considered a figure of supreme luxury in fashion and jewelry. Little black dresses, layers of pearls, signature skirted suits complete with her trademark collarless cardigans, classic quilted handbags and the unforgettable No. 5 perfume were essentials in her own life, and famously became staples in the wardrobes and powder rooms of countless women worldwide. The fashion and jewelry icon has been emulated and adored since 1910, when the house of Chanel was founded. She was a trailblazer for women everywhere, encouraging them to take their bodies back and untangle themselves from restrictive fashion. She snubbed bustiers, corsets and complicated dresses, instead embracing a chic, modern rebellious sort of fashion, yet never compromising style and grace.
However, while poverty may be the last word that comes to mind when you think about Coco Chanel, her upbringing was anything but opulent. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in a poorhouse on August 19th, 1883, Chanel was one of five siblings born to Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle. When Chanel was just 12, her mother died of tuberculosis, and her father, a peddler, left Chanel at the orphanage in the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine. Chanel spent seven years at the orphanage, and though these times must have been trying and lonely, she made good use of them by learning to be a seamstress. As we now know, this skill would serve her very well in the years to come.
During school breaks, Chanel would stay with extended family in the province capital. Her female relatives taught Chanel to bring an artful edge and fanciful flair to her sewing - tricks that were beyond the basic skills that the nuns at the orphanage were able to teach her. When she turned 18, Chanel left the orphanage and, having already fallen in love with the construction of clothing, she took a job with a local tailor.
Eventually, Chanel was overcome with a yearning for something more than what provincial France had to offer, and she fled to Moulins with hopes of becoming a singer. Her career as a chanteuse was short lived, though legend has it that it was during her singing days that she received the nickname Coco, which stuck. But there is much speculation on how the name came to be, and one article quotes Chanel explaining it as simply a shortened version of cocotte, the French word for 'kept woman.”
After coming to the disappointing realization that a singing career wasn't in the cards for her, Chanel met Étienne Balsan, a charming (and married) French millionaire who swept her off her feet. Having come from poverty, Chanel was in a completely different world with Balsan, and she was certainly smitten by the diamonds, expensive dresses, strings of pearls and other luxuries he lavished upon her. Soon, she found a hobby in designing hats, but this quickly became her passion and she left Balsan, taking over his Paris apartment and focusing on her impending career. Before they split, however, Balsan assisted Chanel in opening her own hat and dress shop at 1910 at 31 Rue Cambon, in the 1st arrondissement of Paris. This was the official beginning of the house of Chanel.
In 1913, Chanel entered into a relationship with the rich English businessman Arthur “Boy” Chapel, the best friend of her former lover Balsan. Chapel, known widely as the great love of Chanel’s life, helped her open two more boutiques by lending her the capital. Located in Deauville and Biarritz, respectively, these and the original boutique were so successful that Chanel was able to pay Chapel back within four years. Even after he married another woman, Chapel continued his affair with Chanel. It only ended when he died in a new year’s eve car crash on his way to see her in 1919.
Though heartbroken, the fearless businesswoman persevered, earning icon status rather quickly. Known for her love of menswear, Chanel incorporated inspiration from men’s clothing into her own designs. Loose sweaters, simple skirts, trench coats, loads of black and clean, modern lines ruled her collections, and women everywhere followed suit. Her fame was quickly propelling her to elite social circles, such as Paris’ very exclusive art scene. In those early days, she even designed costumes for prominent figures such as French filmmaker Jean Cocteau and Ballets arises founder/impresario Sergei Diaghilev.
Chanel became the mistress of Russian Grand Duke Dmitri after Chapel’s death. It was through the Grand Duke that she encountered perfumer Ernest Beaux, who was toiling away on a scent for Francois Coty, a French perfume purveyor. Legend has it that Chanel was enchanted by the fragrance, but made a few suggestions. She then was able to convince Beaux to give the perfume to her.
Coco Chanel released the perfume, named Chanel No. 5, in 1924. This was a historic moment as it was the first time a designer had ever released their own perfume bearing their own name.
Leathery, warm and very masculine, the scent captured the essence of Chanel, who was always able to blend masculinity with femininity with the greatest of ease.
The advertising copy for No.5 was bold and unapologetic, much like Chanel herself. It claimed to be “A very improper perfume for nicely brought-up ladies," and the fragrance, packaged in the iconic Art Deco bottle, was an instant success, cementing Chanel as an immortal presence in fashion and beauty. It is one of the best selling perfumes, if not THE best selling perfume, of all time.
Another milestone for the house of Chanel was the creation of her fine jewelry collection, titled “Bijoux de Diamants”, which debuted in 1932. Before that time, only costume jewelry had been shown with Chanel clothing, but true to her adventurous nature, Chanel made the decision to dabble in luxury jewelry with this collection. The Paris exhibit showcased “Bijoux de Diamants”, which consisted of pieces crafted in platinum and adorned with diamonds.
Throughout the 20’s and into the 30’s, Chanel continued to serve the Hollywood elite with her clothing, jewelry and perfume, but it wasn't long before she entered into a period of scandal. During World War II, as the Nazis entered Paris, Chanel closed her shop, stating that this was “not a time for fashion”, and entered into an affair with Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage. This arrangement allowed Chanel to remain at her quarters in the Ritz hotel, a place she was deeply attached to.
For the next fifteen years, Chanel avoided the public, keeping a very low profile and relying on perfume sales as her main source of income. She believed her career in fashion was over, but she came back swinging in 1954, at the age of 71. The announcement of her comeback created ripples throughout the fashion world, with heavily mixed responses.
The comeback failed spectacularly in Europe at first, with fashion critics scoffing off her new collection, saying it was more of the same minimalist casual chic she'd already presented. That was good enough for America, though, as Americans readily embraced the classic Chanel standard. Her suits sold like hotcakes on U.S. soil, and soon enough, Europe and the critics changed their tune, once again welcoming the icon and her newest wares.
Coco Chanel built an astonishingly successful career on the philosophy that one could be comfortable and chic simultaneously, never having to sacrifice one for the other. By the time of her death in 1971, she had earned the title of “the best designer of her time”, and is still known this way today.
These days, the house of Chanel is guided by Karl Lagerfeld, and is one of the oldest and most successful fashion houses still in operation. The rebellious yet elegant essence of Chanel remains in the designs, staying true to her strong vision. Fashion forward A-listers such as Emma Stone, Kristen Stewart, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Beyoncé, to name a meager few, boast Chanel clothing and jewelry on the regular. In terms of jewelry, pieces such as Chanel’s famous logo earrings and chain link necklace are widely adored and have been seen on everyone from Kim Kardashian and Nicole Richie to Drew Barrymore and Lana del Rey, among a myriad of others. Chanel’s current fine jewelry offerings consist of stunning feminine florals, chunky geometric shapes, celestial bursts and classic chain link.
All of this incredible staying power adds up to one bottom line: Coco Chanel is, was, and always will be a legend, and the house of Chanel will forever have its finger on the pulse of modern couture.
Consistent sales prove the timelessness of the revered designer and her signature style, and it's safe to bet on the brand’s success for generations to come.