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Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel

Posted by in Topical Features on Jun 26, 2015 . 0 Comments.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on the 19th August 1883 in Samur, France.  She had two brothers and two sisters and at the age of 11 her mother died of bronchitis when she was just 31.  After that her father sent her and her sisters away to The Convent of Aubazine in central France, whilst her brothers were sent out to work as farm labourers. 

During her 6 years at the convent Gabrielle learned how to sew. After leaving school she took a job as a seamstress but also sang in a Moulins caberet "La Rotonde", where she entertained the crowd between the main acts.  It is thought the name "Coco" came from this period, either due to the songs she became associated with "Ko Ko Ri Ko" and "Qui qu'a vu Coco" or that she was a "cocotte", a kept woman or mistress of one of the wealthy regulars at "La Rotonde".

In 1906 Chanel moved to Vichy hoping to find fame as a singer on stage, but her voice was not strong enough to find work. Instead she worked dispensing glasses of the mineral water for which the town was well-known. After the summer season ended she returned home to Moulins, where she met, Etienne Balsan, the wealthy heir to a textile business which supplied the French Army.  She became his mistress at the age of 23, and lived with him in luxury for 3 years.  It has long been speculated that during this time she gave birth to a son, Andre Palasse, who was passed off as her eldest sister Julia's child.

In 1908 she began an affair with one of Balsan's English friends, Captain Arthur Capel, known as "Boy" who funded her in the early days.  In 1910 she became a licensed milliner and opened a boutique named "Chanel Modes".  She only sold her hats through the store and business boomed when theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat modelled a design in her play. 

In 1913 she opened a boutique in Deauville on the northern coast of France.  Here she launched luxury, casual clothes for leisure and sport.  Garments were constructed with jersey and tricot  (usually used for men's underwear).  From here she sold her hats along with jackets, sweaters and her now famous sailor top.

In 1915 she opened at her second site in Biarritz which was so successful that she repaid all of Capel's initial investment.

By 1919 she registered as a couturiere and established herself in Paris.  By 1921 she'd acquired the entire building she was based in and opened what was one of the first fashion boutiques - featuring clothes, hats, accessories, jewellery and fragance ranges.

She made a deal to license her scent No 5 with the Wertheimer brothers who set up Bourgeois in 1924, but this deal left her with just 10% of her own Parfums Chanel business and she spent the next 20 years trying to regain control.  At this time she was moving in very prominent Parisian social circles and was introduced to drugs by socialite friends.  By 1935 she was addicted to morphine and injected herself from then on for the rest of her life.

Samuel Goldwyn of MGM offered her the proposition of travelling to his studios in Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for the biggest stars of the day including Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.  The deal was worth $1,000,000 in 1931 and is the equivalent today of approximat4ely $75,000,000!!!  She didn't enjoy her movie experience however as her costumes were not considered sensational enough and left the US with a dislike of Hollywood.

She returned to France once more where her label was successful and employed more than 4,000 people.  But the 20's flapper look was disappearing fast and Chanel struggled to keep up, being overtaken by her biggest rival Elsa Schiaparelli. She attempted to keep her edge by collaborating with Jean Cocteau on "Oedipe Rex" but she was universally mocked with the critics saying the actors looked like victims of terrible accidents!

At the outbreak of WWII she closed the shops with the 3,000 female employees all losing their jobs.  She also made her political views known - her dislike of Jews and her romance with a German Nazi office Hans Gunther von Dinklage.  It is thought she committed herself to the German cause in 1941 and worked for the head of SS intelligence General Walter Schellenberg. Schellenberg was sentenced to 6 years for war crimes at the Nuremburg  Military Tribunal. On his release Chanel paid for his merdical expenses, supported his family and paid for his funeral in 1952.

After the war she listed the Nazi seizure of all Jewish-owned property to get back her Parfums Chanel back to sole ownership as the owners of the license the Wertheimers were Jewish.

At the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed the shops and the 3000 female employees lost their jobs.  She made her political views known - her dislike of Jews and her romance with a German Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dinklage.  She committed herself to the German cause in 1941 and worked for the head of the SS Intelligence, General Walter Schellenberg whom was sentenced to 6 years for war crimes at the Nuremburg Military Tribunal.  Chanel paid for his medical expenses, supported his family and paid for his funeral in 1952.

In the '50's Dior's New Look ushered in a new wave of male designers but also a new asthetic - of which Chanel had no place.  She re-established her house in 1954 but the collection was a disaster as many thought she had ruined her reputation by her wartime reputation with the Nazis.

She was reportedly extremely lonely in her final years as she became more tyrannical.  She continued working right up to her death on January 10th 1971, when she was preparing her new catalogue.

Her legacy remains until this day.  She changed the form of the female silhouette from corseted to a much looser look.  She made fuss and frills passe.  Her trademark look was youthful, easy and sporty.  Chanel herself looked as unique as her clothes - a slim and boyish frame, cropped hair and tanned skin.

Her use of jersey was also a fashion game-changer.  Her wool jersey "travelling suit" consisted of a cardigan, pleated skirt and a long-line low-belted pullover.  It became the casual look in expensive womenswear.

She introduced jewellery which combined both synthetic and fine stones - this was revolutionary at the time.  Her wealthy customers liked the option of wearing Chanel rather then their own expensive items.  She made costume jewellery covetable for the first time, and those wealthy clients made it a very successful part of her collections.  Her signature flower, the camellia was first used on a suit in 1933 and still crops up in jewellery and embossed onto bags to this day.


The House of Chanel is still one of the biggest names on the International fashion stage.  The current designer, Karl Lagerfeld, is keeping the brand relevant by getting the balance right between heritage - he famously re-launched the 2.55 bag in the 1980's and modern - who can forget his recent staging of the catwalk show in the Chanel Supermarket?





Last update: Jul 03, 2015


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