Coсo Chanel

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.

Early  Years

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.

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