CHANEL, Gabrielle ‘Coco’

Born: Saumur, France, 1883
Died: Paris, France, 1971

One of the best-known fashion names of the 20th century, Chanel is unique. She came out of retirement at the age of seventy-one and made as great an impact on fashion as she had when she was a young woman. She was born humbly and her early life is obscure – an obscurity Chanel did everything possible to deepen – but it is known that she spent some of her childhood in an orphanage. Ambitious and determined, she soon realized that men could be exploited. From the beginning she was attracted to wealthy and powerful lovers who were able to provide the money and protection essential to gratify her social and creative needs. Her first lover set her up in a hat shop (the traditional role for the discarded mistress) but it was the Englishman, Boy Capel, who took her to Paris, gave her a taste for the high life and backed her when she wished to open a hat shop in Deauville. In 1914 she opened a dress shop in Paris, but her ambitions were thwarted by the outbreak of war; she reopened after the war, in 1919. It was her darkest hour, emotionally, for Capel had been killed in a car crash. But it was her first triumph as a designer.

From this time her fame, wealth and importance grew. By 1930 her annual turnover was 120 million francs and she was said to have over three million pounds on deposit in London banks. Her success was based on the simple observation, made very early in her life, that what she liked for herself would appeal to other women. She was a trend-setter and a style-maker and all her designs were based on her personal liking for simple, comfortable and sensible clothes. Unnecessary elaboration and fussiness were anathema to her; practicality and wearability were essential: her clothes had the beauty of fitness of purpose. Through the thousands of copies which sold world-wide, they had a permanent effect, not only on the way women looked but also on the way they behaved. It is from Chanel’s insistence on easy wearability that the modern woman’s clothes have sprung. Uniquely among couturiers, she never objected to her ideas being plagiarized and she was always happy to see copies of her designs on the streets.

What Chanel gave to the world was an uncluttered, relaxed way of dressing. It took much of its inspiration from menswear; amazingly for couture, often working-men’s wear – the sort of clothes she wanted to wear, clothes that suited her active, sporty approach to life. Chanel could never be constrained in clothes that dominated her. She demanded clothes which could be donned and forgotten. This does not imply a slip-shod approach to the quality of material and workmanship, however. On the contrary, a perfectly simple garment requires the highest level of finish, since it exposes faults which can be masked in a more elaborate confection. Chanel understood this and the cunning construction of her clothes reflected her inflexible perfectionism. She hated decoration for decoration’s sake, just as she hated change for the sake of change, and throughout the 1920s and 1930s her look became classic. It was relaxed and sporty and its basic ingredients were easy cardigans, wool jersey dresses, pea-jackets, bell-bottomed trousers, demure white collars and bows, hair ribbons and chunky fake jewellery. Chanel’s clothes were usually somber: black, grey, white and beige for day, and white, black and pastels for evening. Red was also a favourite. She released women from formal dressing, elaborate hairstyles (her own short crop started a fashion) and over-elaborate make-up (she is reputed to be the woman who made a tan acceptable). She was naturally original and supremely confident. She imposed her style and could not fail.

Chanel’s private life was as spectacular as her design career. The Duke of Westminster and the Grand Duke Dmitri were her lovers; she was part of the Diaghilev set; she knew every creative artist in Paris from Picasso to Stravinksy; her close friends included Misia Sert and Cocteau; her openings were social occasions; she designed the costumes for the ballet Le Train Bleu, which had considerable fashion impact; she worked with Sam Goldwyn in Hollywood, designing costumes for Gloria Swanson in Tonight or Never and, with Renoir, for La Règle du Jeu, in Paris. Her wealth and fame grew all the time. In addition to her clothes, she produced the world’s most famous scent when she launched ‘Chanel No. 5’ in 1921.

In 1939 she closed her doors in the face of war and made her first serious error. She took a German lover and mixed with the Nazi officers who had captured Paris. After the war she was arrested as a collaborator but, owing to intervention on the highest level, she did not have to pay the penalty some other women did – having her head shaved and being paraded naked through the streets of Paris – and was allowed to escape into exile in Switzerland.

This should have been the end of her story but in 1954 Chanel returned to Paris and reopened in the rue Cambon. She was persuaded to come out of retirement because it was felt that sales of her perfume would be boosted if she were once more an active fashion figure. She knew, moreover, that the neo-romantic feelings engendered by the ‘New Look’ were on the wane and that she could lead women back to real clothes. Her first collection was received coolly by the French press, no doubt in some degree because of her wartime behaviour. But the Americans bought and what could have been a disastrous comeback became, within a couple of seasons, a triumph.

Over the next few years she evolved the instantly recognizable, timeless look which has become the modern classic: the Chanel suit, in either jersey or soft tweed, was usually collarless and braid-trimmed; the blouse had a softly tied bow; the shoes were beige with black toecaps; the hat was a Breton or the hair was caught with a black bow and white gardenia; and the jewellery consisted of many strands of pearls and gold chains. It was an effortlessly elegant and relaxed look. Once having been perfected, it hardly changed.

So Chanel continued until her death in 1971. She lived in the Ritz, alone, as she had lived for years. Her house continued under various designers, including Guibourge. In 1983 Karl Lagerfeld joined the team as haute couture consultant and he presented a look based, not on the later Chanel, but on her 1920s’ look.

Opinions differ as to Chanel’s stature as a couturier. Some critics place her on the same level as Balenciaga, James and Vionnet. Others consider that her strength lay mainly in her ability to market her personality in a way that made women want to copy her. Nevertheless there can be no doubt about her success and influence, nor about her monumental obstinacy and her implacable hatred of those who crossed her. This woman, who coolly sat at the top of her stairs watching her collection being admired by press and buyers below, had, in the words of Mrs. Chase, ‘the spirit of a Til Eulenspiegel. In coping with her one could never be sure whether her mischief-making was deliberate or unconscious.’

Chanel’s uniqueness as a designer lies in the clothes she created in her ‘second coming’. She was so in tune with her times that, almost without alteration, her designs have remained chic for over 50 years. A Chanel suit from the 1950s could be worn anywhere today without appearing to be old-fashioned. No other designer has produced clothes of such long-lived acceptability and influence. They exemplify her own philosophy: ‘Let us beware of originality: in couture it leads to costume’.

In 1957 Chanel received a Neiman-Marcus Award; then in 1969 came Coco, a Broadway musical (with costumes by Beaton) based on her life.

Major perfumes: Chanel No. 5 (1921); Cuir de Russie (1924); Cristalle (1974)