Chanel was a French fashion pioneer of the 20th century. She was a leader of haute couture (high fashion) who focused on simplicity and elegance in women’s apparel. Inspired by men’s clothing, Chanel reworked the construction to have sports clothes for women enter the fashion lexicon. Some of her unique contributions to contemporary fashion are jersey outfits, cardigan suits, pleated skirts, the blazer, and the turtleneck sweater. A staple of every woman’s closet, the little black dress was another of her trademark contributions. Her signature fragrance, Chanel No. 5, is still highly coveted today. The iconic Chanel quilted leather bags are huge sellers. Her impact on the world of fashion made her the only designer listed in TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
Gabrielle Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 in the French town of Saumur. The second oldest of six children, Chanel was born in a poorhouse. When Chanel was 12, her mother died, leaving her father to place her in a Catholic orphanage. The nuns there taught her how to sew. After she left the orphanage at age 18, she worked for a tailor. She soon met millionaire Etienne Balsan, who introduced her to a world of luxury and wealth, including riding horses. One of her earliest design inspirations was the riding jacket. For a brief time, Chanel worked as a café singer, where she adopted the name Coco.
Beginning as a milliner in 1908, Chanel’s hats received notoriety after actresses began wearing them. She opened her first clothing shop in Paris in 1913. That same year, she fell in love with Boy Capel, the best friend of her former beau. He supported her next venture in Deauville, where she sold sportswear and sweaters for women. Her first couture shop opened in Biarritz in 1915. The American market had taken notice of her designs, especially the jersey dresses, which evoked a comfortable, loose fitting silhouette. The popularity of her jersey designs prompted Vogue magazine in 1917 to dub the Chanel brand “the Jersey House.”
Building Her Empire
Chanel enjoyed an aristocratic and cultured worldly clientele, including the future British Queen mother. Russian influences in her clothes were inspired by her new love, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovitch, grandson of Czar Alexander II. The collection had tunics, peasant blouses, and embroidered dresses. During this time, she developed one of her signature items, a coat whose lining matched the dress fabric worn underneath it. In 1921, she began selling perfume under the name Chanel No. 5, her lucky number. The bottle shape and packaging were her ideas. It was the first time a couturier put her name on a scent. Chanel also contributed to the Garçonne look of France, known as the flapper look in the United States. It was characterized by a short, bob hairstyle worn under a cloche hat, and a boyish appearance accentuated by higher hemlines and straight-waist skirts. Chanel also designed and wore women’s trousers, making them fashionable for the first time. The little black dress was introduced in 1926. Used in both her day and evening looks, the concept was a huge success. Chanel also designed costume jewelry, and made fake jewels fashionable and affordable. She reversed the rules when she began wearing large amounts of jewelry in the daytime, and hardly any at all for evening. Her first jewelry workshop opened in 1924. Chanel is best remembered for the long strings of faux pearls she designed.
Despite the Depression, Chanel continued to garner huge success. Working for Samuel Goldwyn in Hollywood in 1931 and 1932 made her two million dollars. She designed wardrobes for the biggest starlets of the day, including Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. Chanel’s clothing was form fitting, accentuated by shoulder pads, with longer hemlines and frills around cuffs and collars. She also designed black velvet capes that were worn with berets. Her use of decorative bows, and the popular combination of black paired with white, were other contributions.
In 1932, Chanel introduced a diamond jewelry collection, sponsored by the International Diamond Guild. Collaborating with boyfriend and jewelry designer Paul Iribe, their collection had three design themes: feathers, stars, and knots. The necklaces were known for their lack of clasps, and were made to drape around the neck. After France’s declaration of war against the Nazis in 1939, Chanel closed her fashion house. She remained in Paris after the Germans seized the city, living at the Ritz Hotel until the city was liberated in 1944. She then lived in Switzerland for the next 10 years.
Return to the World of Fashion
Chanel did not design clothes in the 1940s, but did continue to sell her perfume. Of her comeback in 1953, at the age of 70, Chanel said that she wanted to bring back comfort and beauty to women’s clothes. The collection that debuted the following year received negative press because the styles she showed were revivals of earlier decades. Undaunted, Chanel continued to design, and later collections proved successful. The woman’s suit had a side pleat in the skirt, with braiding on the jacket. The Chanel suit became a classic: a collarless jacket with skirt that touched the knee. Her variations on the suit included tweed, pastel colors, and her continued use of jersey. In 1955, she introduced the first quilted leather handbag. Made of leather and jersey, it had a twisted shoulder strap of leather and chain. She also returned to designing costume jewelry.
In 1964, she designed sailor pants and trouser suits. A musical production about her, Coco, debuted on Broadway in 1969, with Katharine Hepburn playing the lead. In 1970, she began selling Chanel perfume No. 19, a fragrance that appealed to a new generation of admirers. She passed away in Paris on January 10, 1971, at the age of 87.
After her death the company flourished with continued commitment to its perfume line. Chanel No. 5 was re-established as the exclusive fragrance for the fashion savvy. Chanel’s fashion line was reinvigorated with the addition of Karl Lagerfeld as its chief designer in 1983. The company has remained successful by marketing its designs as classic pieces of simplistic elegance. Branching out into cosmetics, jewelry, shoes, and accessories, the Chanel brand upholds Coco’s desire to dress the modern woman in comfort and impeccable style.