Keen to learn but short on time? Get to grips with the life and career of Coco Chanel in next to no time with this concise guide.
50MINUTES.com provides a clear and engaging analysis of the work of the iconic French fashion designer Coco Chanel. Chanel entered the fashion world at a time when most designers were men and womenswear was impractical and restrictive, but before long women across France were clamouring to get their hands on her comfortable yet elegant designs, which made use of looser cuts, removing the need for corsets, and new fabrics such as jersey. She also branched out into jewellery design, cosmetics and perfume, allowing her to fund her haute couture collections and paving the way for the business model of modern fashion brands. As an independent woman, innovative designer and brilliant entrepreneur, Coco Chanel changed the world of fashion forever.
In just 50 minutes you will:
• Find out about the young Gabrielle Chanel’s tireless efforts to work her way out of the poverty she was born into
• Discover her greatest successes as a designer and the head of her own fashion empire, including her many stores and the launch of her Chanel No. 5 perfume
• Learn about her darker moments, namely her collaboration with the Nazis, and her return to fashion later in life
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From humble beginnings as an impoverished orphan who seemed destined to toil in anonymity as a seamstress, Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco, became a legend in the fashion world. She lived through the darkest days of the 20th century, marked by two world wars and the Great Depression, and had an intuitive understanding of the needs of the women of her time. Specifically, she simplified womenswear and designed items that were more comfortable to wear. She was determined, driven, utterly fearless and always ready to seize any opportunities that presented themselves, and worked tirelessly to claw her way out of poverty and climb the social ladder. Nothing illustrates her tenacity better than her famous quote “If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing”.
Chanel lived by her own rules and paid no heed to society’s ideas about what was appropriate for women. This allowed her to escape the patriarchal world around her and overcome the obstacles that her sex and social condition represented, ultimately becoming the first woman in the 20th century to build her own haute couture empire. Given the enduring success and popularity of her exclusive brand, her maxim “May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life” seems nothing short of prophetic.
Did you know?
Coco’s nickname reportedly came from Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro ? (“Who has seen Coco in the Trocadéro?”), the song that Gabrielle sang every night at La Rotonde. Another suggestion is that it is a diminutive of Cocotte, a term generally associated with kept women.
Portrait of Coco Chanel by Boris Lipnitzki.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on 19 August 1883 in Saumur, western France to a laundrywoman and a street vendor. Her childhood was marked by poverty and hardship: after her mother died in her early 30s when Gabrielle was just 12, she and her two sisters, Julia-Berthe (1882-1912) and Antoinette (1887-1919), were sent to the orphanage at Aubazine Abbey in Corrèze, southwestern France. She never saw her father again, and for the rest of her life claimed that he had left to seek his fortune in America.
She spent six years in the orphanage, where she learnt the basics of sewing, before moving to a boarding house in the town of Moulins, where she honed her skills as a seamstress and met her aunt Adrienne. The two women then went to work at the Maison Grampayre, which specialised in trousseaus and baby clothes. After sewing all day, in the evenings Gabrielle would sing at La Rotonde, a café-cabaret that was popular with soldiers. This was where she met the wealthy racehorse owner Étienne Balsan (1878-1953). She soon became his mistress, and later moved into the château of Royallieu in Compiègne with him.
At Royallieu, Chanel raised eyebrows with her refusal to ride horses side-saddle and her masculine clothing. The simplicity of the hats she designed also garnered attention, as she eschewed large, elaborate headwear in favour of smaller hats worn very low on her forehead. Émilienne d’Alençon (1869-1946), a cabaret dancer, courtesan and one of Balsan’s former mistresses, bought one of these hats and wore it to the races, drawing the eyes of all the women of high society.
At around this time, Chanel met Arthur “Boy” Capel (1881-1919), a wealthy self-made man from England and the first great love of her life. While Balsan had introduced her to the world of equestrianism and taught her the rules of high society, it was with Capel that she really began to thrive. She soon left Balsan and went to live with him, and he gave her the money to open her first store, a hat boutique called Chanel Modes (“Chanel Fashions”) at 21 rue Cambon in Paris, in 1910. Three years later, she opened another shop in Deauville in the south of France, which sold simple, comfortable, functional clothing that was ideal for the beach.
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