There are only a handful of people that were capable of building a fashion brand from the ground up, that could withstand the passage of time – Coco Chanel is one of them. Her ability to create not only fashion, but also perfumes was unmatched to this very day. Her ability is unrivalled, and until this day her creative designs have inspired and influenced fashion beyond what anyone could imagine. The brand she created lived on, and her memory will be present in every piece of clothes branded with her name. She not only revolutionized women’s fashion, but also the perception of what women should wear. In a time where women were repressed, her brand stood out as an irreverent statement that women could wear more than what society dictated.
READ MORE: THE HISTORY BEHIND THE LOUIS VUITTON IMPIRE
This is her story, and how this iconic brand that has shaken the world of fashion came to be.
How Channel came to be
Although today everyone knows that Chanel’s founder was Coco, life did not quite start
that way. Born in the town of Saumur in western France in 1883, Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel
was the daughter of Eugénie Jeanne Devolle Chanel and Albert Chanel. Her mother
worked in a hospital as a launderer. It could be said that part of Coco’s inspiration for
fashion came from her father, who was a clothes and garment salesman in markets and
door to door. Coco Chanel had a modest upbringing. Being the second eldest daughter of
the couple, who had six kids. The records show that the family lived in a single room
house, without enough conditions for the large family.
From a young age Coco had to deal with great adversity. When she was just 11 her mother
passed away. Albert Chanel, who was left to attend to his kids, felt lost without the help of
his wife. Unaware of how to care for all of their sons and daughters, Albert was faced with
a complicated decision. He regrettably decided that the best for their children’s future
would be to be educated for someone else. Sending his boys to work in a farm, and his
daughters, including Chanel, to the convent of Aubazine. The convent of Aubazine was an
orphanage, and a charity project of Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
This part of Coco’s upbringing had a tremendous influence on her personality, and
character. However, it is believed that Coco’s impression of women’s fashion, from the
nuns that roamed the convent influenced her wish to redefine women’s fashion, and
clothing. The nuns’ uninspiring, and boring garments led young Coco to question who
could have designed such an ugly outfit. It was during her stay at the convent that young
Coco Chanel learned to sew, and create clothing pieces.
I believe Coco was still haunted by the excruciating period of her young life, where she had
nobody but herself to look after. This was certainly a defining moment in her life, that had a
tremendous influence in what later would become the Chanel brand.
Leaving the convent
When Coco Chanel turned 18, she was forced to leave the convent behind. Coco was
determined to make something out of herself, and headed to Moulins. She had developed
her sewing skills during her stay at the convent, and she quickly found a job at La Maison
Grampayre. La Maison Grampayre was one of the most prominent dressmakers in the
region. In between her work at La Maison Grampayre, Coco would sing at a cafe. Her
performances as a singer would later change her name without her even knowing it. It is
important to note that at this time nobody knew Coco by this name, by all accounts she
was still Gabrielle Chanel.
Her performances would often include the song “Qui qu’a vu Coco?”, which she had
mastered to a point that it was a common request among the audience. This is why
everyone started calling her Coco, and the name stuck.
Her audience was often composed of young military men, who all gathered to see the
beauty of Coco irradiated with her voice. It was during one of her performances that she
met Fulcran Étienne Balsan. A former French military man who was stunned by Coco’s
beauty and energy. Fulcran Étienne Balsan came from a completely different world. Born
in Paris, he was the son of a wealthy and prominent family that had a vast textile empire.
Fulcran Étienne Balsan’s relationship with Coco Chanel opened the door to the higher
echelons of French society. Fulcran Étienne Balsan would invite Coco to live with him, in
his château near Compiègne. The luxurious life was something that Coco was not used to,
but still she quickly adapted to it. She began to frequently socialize with some of the most
influential individuals at the time. Coco would design hats, and showcase them in these
high society gatherings. Women would be impressed with her irreverent and beautiful
Somewhere around 1908, Coco Chanel met Arthur Edward Capel, a friend of Étienne
Balsan. The Englishman was the son of a notable merchant, with a keen interest in polo.
Coco would soon find herself in a love triangle. Arthur Edward Capel soon invited Coco to
move to Paris, and provided her with accommodation in the city. Coco Chanel, who all her
life envisioned a life in a big city, took the offer.
Creating the Chanel brand
It is believed that Arthur Edward Capel was the financial driving force behind the opening
of the first Chanel shop. He saw so much potential in Coco, that he thought that she
should have her own business. The first Chanel store was located on 21 rue Cambon, and
opened in 1910. The location was highly known for its clothing shops, and a favorite place
to shop for some of the wealthier Parisiennes. It was the ideal place for Coco’s first
boutique, which would later grow into a massive empire. Coco decided to name the store
Chanel Modes, or in english, Chanel fashions. Chanel had become known for her hat
designs that impressed her clientele. Although at the time Chanel’s speciality was millinery,
she wanted more.
Chanel would not stop here, she would soon open a second store, and a third store
focused on women’s clothing. Her designs were frowned upon at first, since they were so
unconventional. However with time women would embrace them and be deemed as some
of the most creative and irreverent clothing in all of Paris.
Coco’s irreverent designs broke away from what was considered traditional women’s
clothing at the time. Her clothes highlighted women’s silhouette, combining simplicity with
elegance and luxury. Soon women looking to embrace this cultural change through
clothing, began to compulsively buy all of Coco’s designs. Chanel’s designs are often
mentioned as a turning point in women’s clothes, completely breaking up with the
conventional ideas of how women should dress. Another defining aspect of Coco’s clothes
was her rather odd choice of colours. Women at the time were rarely seen in garments
with colours like grey and blue. Her designs completely changed the norm, and opened a
whole new door to what women’s clothing should look like.
Her choice of neutral and dark colours, contrasted with the bright colors used in the older
designs, and that were the norm of women’s clothing in the late 19th century.
The roaring 20’s – The No.5 was born
Around this time Coco’s fame and praise started to slowly grow. Driven by her desire to do
more, Coco started considering the idea of launching her own perfume. It was a great
addition to her stores, and she could easily sell it to her loyal customers. However
fragrances were not something that Chanel knew as well as clothing and garments.
With the help of a dedicated specialist, Earnest Baux was the man chosen for the task of
creating a fragrance that would match the Chanel brand. Chanel was able to launch the
No.5 in 1921. It is incredible how a fragrance can be timeless, but the No.5 truly is a
fragrance that lives on.
The successful launch of the No.5 gave Coco enough confidence to expand her business
into much more than just clothing. In 1924 she launched Chanel’s first jewelry piece, a pair
of contrasting pearl earrings. One black, and one white. The distinctive look was very well
received by her loyal customers. Some of the most influential pieces created at this time were the little black dress and the iconic Chanel cardigan. The Chanel cardigan made its debut in 1925, and soon after she
created the little black dress design, her vision of the perfect evening dress. At the same
time the idea of a dress had nothing to do with what Coco had in mind.
Her designs accentuated the female figure, in a way that has never been seen before. At
the same time they broke the conventional ideas that people had towards certain colors.
Black was usually seen as a color that should only be used in times of grief. Chanel
completely redefined the preconceived ideas towards certain colors. In 1925 Coco also designed the iconic logo that has accompanied the brand’s products throughout the years.
Chanel – the downfall period
The 1930’s were not a great period for Chanel. As her designs got known across the
globe, requests to design clothes started coming in from all over the world. Hollywood
soon took notice of Chanel’s ability to design clothes. Coco Chanel products were always
simple yet elegant. It was just the perfect combination for what some movie directors were
looking for. However soon nobody would be interested in luxurious clothes.
The great depression had an immense effect on the world economy, and Chanel was no
exception. Soon no one was interested in buying expensive clothing, while the average
person was struggling to feed their families. The combination of the following
consequences of the great depression and the start of the second world war, forced Coco
to close all of her stores. Coco Chanel would soon find refuge in Switzerland, where she
stayed for over a long period of the time.
Both the war and the great depression forced Chanel to retire earlier than she expected, or
so she thought. The reality is that Chanel has an immense drive to continuously work in
designing and creating new products that embezzled her spirit and soul. Although she was
71 years old at the time, Chanel wanted more than ever to become relevant again. She
decided to reopen her stores in 1954, combining her old designs with new inspirations.
With her return to Paris, and the fashion capital of the world, Coco decided that she would
leave one more mark in the fashion world. She had offered several accessories over the
years, but in 1955 Coco would create a bag that would send shockwaves throughout the
Her design was a functional bag that allowed women to carry their belongings in a
fashionable and comfortable way. The 2.55 was born, bearing the iconic Chanel logo that
we all have grown to love and admire. Over 65 years have passed since the 2.55 bag
made its debut, and it is still an incredibly relevant and fashionable accessory to women
across the world. Chanel would pass away in 1971.
Adapting the Chanel brand
The Chanel brand was well known across the globe, and soon after her death there were
several businessmen interested in acquiring the company. A French businessman by the
name of Jacques Wertheimer would eventually acquire the company. In 1983 Karl
Lagerfeld took over as the creative head behind the brand. His knowledge and expertise
brought innovative marketing strategies that were able to propel the brand into the late
Karl Lagerfeld was also responsible for improving some of the older designs that built the
Chanel brand, redesigning them to meet the needs of the new decades. Karl Lagerfeld is
often seen as the person responsible for bringing Chanel into the 20th century, and making
the brand more influential than ever.
Karl Lagerfeld passed away in 2019, but Chanel’s creative drive is still here to stay. Virgie
Viard was the man chosen to replace the legend that was Karl lagerfeld. Virgie has worked
closely with Karl, and has vowed to continue the brand’s legacy, promoting its values and
designs. Today Chanel has 200,000 people worldwide, and its products range from
watches to jewelry, clothes, accessories, perfumes, make up, eyewear and even skin care.
The brand has certainly grown far far away from what Coco ever envisioned.
Coco’s legacy still perdures today, and she will always be remembered as a true fashion
icon, responsible for revolutionizing women’s clothing. Her sophisticated yet minimalist
outfits are a true feminine statement.
Few people have influenced fashion the same way Coco Chanel did. Her creations, and
desire to change women’s clothing was an influential mark of the 20th century. Coco is
even credited with introducing trousers to women. Something that was at the time seen as
a prohibitive piece of clothing, was soon widely adopted due to its comfortable fitting. Her
memory lives on, not only in the brand she created but in all of the brand’s products. She
lived by the motto of only creating things she would wear. Chanel remains one of the most
remarkable and influential fashion brands across the world.