Thursday, April 30, 2009


Gabrielle Coco Chanel was a haute couture revolutionary, changing the way women dress in the 1920s and again in the early 1960s. She is an iconic figure in the fashion world, responsible for decades of innovation and several classic, signature looks- like the Little Black Dress and Chanel suit. Coco spent her entire life building a fashion empire on her talent and intuition for what women want to wear. She left a monumental impact on the fashion industry.


Gabrielle as a shop girls in Moulins 1903 (with one of her many admirers)

Gabrielle Chanel, Etienne Balsan and Boy Capel at Royalieu

Gabrielle Chanel in 1909

Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, August 20, 1883. She was the daughter of Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle, a small wares peddler and a shop girl. Gabrielle spent her early childhood in the public markets where her parents sold their wares.
In 1895, when Gabrielle was 12 years old, her mother died. About a week later Albert Chanel abandoned his two daughters (Gabrielle & Antoinette) at the region's largest orphanage. For the rest of her childhood Gabrielle endured all of the strictness, solitude and mental anguish of harsh convent life.
At 18 Gabrielle left the convent to attend a boarding school in Moulins (that admitted a certain number of girls without means for free). During her two years at the school she was placed as a clerk in a thriving hosiery shop.
The next few years were filled with a series of false starts, including a move to Vichy to pursue singing and dancing.
After her previous ventures proved unsuccessful, Gabrielle moved in with Etienne Balsan (horse breeder, riding enthusiast and beneficiary of a considerable private income) who proposed not marriage but a life together.

Breaking into Fashion

Gabrielle Chanel wearing embellished boater hat at the race tracks 1910

Gabrielle Doziat in Bel Ami wearing Chanel hat

Antoinette and Adrienne Chanel wearing clothes from Gabrielle's Boutique

March 1917 Les Elegances Parisiennes announcement of hats and dresses by Gabrielle Chanel

While living with Balsan, Gabrielle began her millinery efforts, making hats for her and her friends to wear to the fashion conscious race tracks. In 1910 she opened a hat shop in Balsan's first floor Parisian apartment. Chanel hats were worn by actress Gabrielle Dorziat in the play Bel Ami, presented by Theatre du Vaudeville in 1912.
Gabrielle opened her first boutique in Deauville in 1913 (with funds advanced from Arthur "Boy" Capel). When WWI broke out in 1914, the wealthy sought refuge in Deauville. Women needed to be mobile and this made Chanel's comfortable, corsetless clothing ideal. Affluent women who had lost everything (but still retained the means to replace their wardrobes) flocked to the only boutique that had not closed: chez Chanel. Business flourished.
Gabrielle understood the importance of advertising early on. Almost daily her aunt Adrienne and sister Antoinette would borrow clothes from her store and walk around town in them, acting as Chanel Mannequins.
In 1915 Boy Capel advanced Gabrielle the funds to open another boutique in Biarritz- close to neutral Spain to ensure material and wealthy clients. Orders came in immediately and Gabrielle was soon working at full capacity.
By the end of the year she was back in Paris busy overseeing the beginning of her fashion empire. By early 1916 Gabrielle had over 300 employees and was able to reimburse Boy Capel. The House of Chanel continued to thrive throughout the 1920s and 30s.
November 1927 Vogue stated, "Mademoiselle Chanel's dresses are peculiarly free from mistakes, either in taste or execution."

Signature Styles

Gabrielle standing outside her 1st boutique with Adrienne, both dressed in Chanel

Gabrielle Chanel dresses in her own signature style

Chanel day ensemble 1928, The Kyoto Costume Institute

Chanel evening dress 1930, The Kyoto Costume Institute

Chanel day ensemble in wool jersey late 1950s, The Kyoto Costume Institute

Chanel day ensembles in wood tweed 1969, The Kyoto Costume Institute

Coco Chanel was first noticed for her millinery skills and embellished boater hats.
In 1916 she began making clothing with jersey (which was only used for underwear at the time) and innovated the boxy, corsetless signature silhouette of the 1920s.
From the beginning her clothes had the elegant simplicity she came to be known for. Her silhouettes suggested a woman's natural shape rather than exaggerating it.
By 1918 she was making cardigans and twinsets and showing adapted mens sweaters over plain skirts.
In 1920 she debuted wide-leg pants for women.
Coco Chanel continued to introduce countless fashionable innovations throughout the 1920s and 30s:
~ tweed skirts, sweaters and strings of pearls
~ pea jackets and rain coats transformed into fashionable garments
~ Little Black Dress
~ collarless cardigan jacket with braid trim, accessorized with patch pockets and worn with a knee-length tweed skirt
~ simple chemise dress with round, straight or bateau neckline, hung loosely to mid or lower calf and worn with waist or hip length belt
~ over-sized flat black bows, gilt buttons on blazers, sling-back sandals, handbags with gilt chains
~ costume jewelry
~ No. 5 perfume
Coco made her comeback in 1954 and by the mid 1960s her Chanel suit had become a classic symbol of elegance.


Gabrielle Chanel in 1912 wearing a menswear inspired outfit and boater hat

Gabrielle Chanel in her own design, inspired by Norman fishermen

Adrienne & Antoinette dressed in Chanel at the races

Coco's primary objective was always to show elegance through simplicity and refinement. She designed fashionable- but also functional and comfortable- clothes for real women to live their lives in.
She drew inspiration from many traditional menswear garments (pea jackets, rain coats, sweaters, trousers) She continuously looked to her lover's closet for inspiration and adapted menswear into practical styles for women.
Early on Coco was also inspired by Norman fishermen. She made loose blouses and women's trousers based on the sailors' clothing.
While seeing Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia, she developed a taste for fur lined coats and fabric of almost Byzantine opulence. She discovered British tweeds while seeing the Duke of Westminster.
The world around her was a continuous source of inspiration. "Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas. The way we live, what is happening."- Coco Chanel


Karl Lagerfeld designs for Chanel fall/winter 2000, The Collection of the Kyoto Costume Institute
Lagerfeld is also an accomplished photographer. He took this photo of his 2002/2003 fall/winter Chanel rtw.

Karl Lagerfeld, self-portrait

Chanel prepared no successor and her house of couture was left in jeopardy for twelve years after her death. Karl Lagerfeld stepped up to the challenge of taking over where the legendary Coco Chanel left off in 1983. This was a perilous task because the enterprise of Chanel depended entirely on the talent of its founder.
Lagerfeld has successfully kept the name, work, elegance and refinement of Chanel alive. Instead of simply copying Coco's designs, Lagerfeld has had an innovative approach to the revival of the house of Chanel. In each of his collections he pays tribute to the Grande Mademoiselle by incorporating her trademark tweeds, lace, quilted bags and pearls.


"Chanel and her stable of mannequins,"
Chanel and Her World

Coco in her mirror lined salon

Coco Chanel debuted her first post-war collection on February 5, 1954, at the age of 71. Critics were harsh. The French and British press said she had "lost her touch." Coco had better sense than to listen to her critics and even her business associates (who feared negative publicity might affect perfume sales).
The dresses that were so maliciously scrutinized sold better than anyone had imagined- in the United States. It took Coco Chanel one year to regain her premier position in Haute Couture. Chanel had rediscovered her raison d'etre and continued to design clothing and accessories until her natural death in 1971, at 88. The Chanel style endures today.