Ones to know| Coco Chanel

Everybody knows the words fashion and Coco Chanel go hand-in-hand. Today we take a brief gander in the icons’ life and the acceleration of her name sake brand.

Early life: Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 to Eugénie Jeanne Devolle Chanel, known as Jeanne, a laundrywoman in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. At birth, Chanel’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel”.Her mother was too ill to attend the registration, and  her fathers Albert was registered as “travelling”. With both parents absent, the infant’s last name was misspelled, due to a clerical error.

When Gabrielle was 11, her mother Jeanne died at the age of 32. After this her father sent Gabrielle’s two brothers to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage.

Being placed in the orphanage may have contributed to Chanel’s future career in fashion, as it was where she learned to sew. At age eighteen, Chanel went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins as she was too old to remain in the orphanage.

Later in life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently often including more glamorous accounts, which were mostly untrue. 

Foray into fashion: Chanel‘s rise to become one of the most famous French fashion designers starts around 1908. Chanel was a beautiful young woman in her early 20’s. She caught the eye of many Cavalrymen singing at the café clubs in Moulin, where she performed with her aunt Adrienne Chanel.

Chanel went from poor working girl barely getting by to living a lavish life, days spent in equestrian pursuits and nights socializing with Balsan’s famous and wealthy friends. Balsan pampered Chanel and showered her with beautiful dresses, jewelry and gifts. 

With all this free time, Chanel started creating hats. The hats she wanted to wear but couldn’t find. Something she would do throughout her fashion designer career.

Some of the wealthy women that came to Royallieu liked her hats and asked Chanel to make some for them, including Émilienne Marie André, known as Émilienne d’Alençon, a famous comedian and French courtesan.

Chanel‘s aunt Adrienne Chanel also met her future husband Maurice de Nexon at Etienne’s estate. 

Her hats were popular and worn by well-known French actresses of the era, which helped build her reputation.

Her big break came in 1912 when French actress Gabrielle Dorziat, whom Chanel had met at Royallieu, wore a Chanel hat with a single feather in the 1912 adaptation of “Bel Ami.” 

Gabrielle Dorziat was a famous French stage entertainer, film actress and Paris fashion trendsetter who helped popularize the designs of Coco Chanel.

In 1922, at the Longchamps races, Théophile Bader, founder of the Paris Galeries Lafayette, introduced Chanel to businessman Pierre Wertheimer. Bader was interested in selling Chanel No. 5 in his department store. In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors since 1917 of the eminent perfume and cosmetics house Bourjois. They created a corporate entity, Parfums Chanel, and the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for the production, marketing, and distribution of Chanel No. 5.

The Wertheimers would receive seventy percent of the profits, and Théophile Bader twenty percent. For ten percent of the stock, Chanel licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and withdrew from involvement in business operations. Later, unhappy with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel. She said that Pierre Wertheimer was “the bandit who screwed me” (sourced from Wikipedia) 


Chanel’s initial triumph was her innovative use of jersey, a machine knit material manufactured for her by the firm Rodier. Traditionally used to the manufacture of undergarments and sportswear, jersey was considered too “ordinary” to be used in couture, and was disliked by designers because the knit structure made it difficult to handle compared to woven fabrics. Chanel purchased jersey primarily for its low cost, the war had caused a shortage of more traditional couture materials, and second, women began desiring simpler and more practical clothes. The qualities of the fabric, however, ensured that the designer would continue to use it long after her business became profitable.” Chanel’s early wool jersey traveling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. 

At that designers such as Paul Poiret introduced ethnic references into haute couture in the 1900s and early 1910s. Chanel continued this trend with Slav-inspired designs in the early 1920s. The beading and embroidery on her garments at this time was exclusively executed by Kitmir, an embroidery house founded by an exiled Russian aristocrat, the Grand Duchess Maria Pavlovna, who was the sister of Chanel’s erstwhile lover, Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich.

The Chanel tweed suit was designed for comfort and practicality. It consisted of a jacket and skirt in supple and light wool or mohair tweed, and a blouse and jacket lining in jersey or silk. Chanel did not stiffen the material or use shoulder pads, as was common in contemporary fashion. She cut the jackets on the straight grain, without adding bust darts. This allowed for quick and easy movement. After the jersey suit, the concept of the little black dress is often cited as a Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon, a style still worn to this day. In 1912–1913, the actress Suzanne Orlandi was one of the first women to wear a Chanel little black dress, in velvet with a white collar. In 1920, Chanel herself vowed that, while observing an audience at the opera, she would dress all women in black.


In January 1971 Chanel passed away in her home in Paris. It is believed her final words were: “You see, this is how you die”. 


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