Gabrielle Chanel: Get to Know the Story Behind the Iconic Designer

Coco Chanel, born Gabrielle Chanel, was the most revolutionary stylist of the 1900s: read her raw story, from her tumultuous childhood to the history of the little black dress, and the knitted suit.
Reading time 6 minutes

Saumur, 1883. It was on August 19th Jeanne DeVolle gave birth, in a hospice, to Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel whom, one day, the world would know by the eponymous name of Coco Chanel. Though current day we know Chanel as an iconic luxury name, the designer's origins stemmed from a melancholy and grief-stricken childhood. She experienced the premature death of her mother, the abandonment by her father Henri-Albert Chasnel, a street vendor by profession, and she experienced years in custody of the Sisters of the Sacred Heart, in Aubazine. There she was surrounded by women dressed only in austere clothes, strictly white and black, and the rigorous architecture of the abbey, yet ironically, it is precisely here that Gabrielle began to become Chanel: the antithesis of the opposing colors and the severity of the lines that eventually became the distinctive feature of her designs.

At the age of 18, Gabrielle Chanel found herself free to leave Aubazine and to start living her life at the dawn of her youth. She began working as a sales assistant in the Maison Grampayre shop in Moulins, while simultaneously working as a singer in a cafe. One of her signature songs Qui qu'a vu Coco? is where she was rumored to have gotten her legendary nickname Coco. Moving forward, the same cafés in Moulins led to her exposure and meeting of prominient fashion executives such as Étienne de Balsan, a son of textile entrepreneurs, who invited her to move to a castle in Royallieu. After a six-year relationship, Étienne became not only a romantic partner, but also her first financier. While discovering Chanel's exceptional talent for creating hats, soon, the women in close proximity at Balsan's company started to also take notice and interest in her designs. Her creations quickly became highly sought-after, pushing her  to move to Paris in 1908 and then to Deauville in 1914, to open her first shop. Shortly following the opening of her first store in 1916, was the opening of high fashion showroom in Biarritz. Her quick rise to prominince was due to the contrasting nature of her designs to popular fashion of that time, which was still closely tied to traditional and slowly outdated pieces: the corset, and crinoline. Pieces that were now seen as cages in which women locked themselves in the cry of an aesthetic balance and viewed more and more as unhealthy. Thus, Chanel, against the current, began to offer sporty silhouettes, with simple and soft lines, in line with what would become the new trend of the beginning of the century.

In 1916 Rodier, a French textile industrialist, exclusively gave Gabrielle Chanel jersey, a fabric that proved to be the best interpreter of Chanel creations given the softness on the body and her innate ability to free the woman's physical form. The triptych skirt, pullover and cardigan thus became the first distinctive model of Chanel fashion, made especially in neutrals such as gray, beige and dark blue as well as the famous combination of black and white. But it was in 1920 that her signature dedication to this aesthetic took place. In that year, Chanel opened her first boutique in Paris at 31 Rue de Cambon. This being the pivotal moment for her career success, saw added and consistent exponential growth due to her ambition which was defined by her relentless desire for more. From this same unceasing desire to create more, the birth of her first and famous perfume, Chanel No.5, which can only be described as a timeless fragrance that, even today, is considered one of the best ever conceived. Subsequently, other fragrances were created, such as the No.22, the Gardenia, inspired by the the designers favorite flower and the No.19.

Always careful, Gabrielle Chanel used her observations of the clothing of the Parisian employees and orders, characterized by black dresses with a white collar and cuffs to inspire her designs. In the mid-1920s her analysis was transformed into the petit robe noir, or the little black dress with the simplest possible lines capable in hopes of making each woman equal to each other, albeit with immense style. True to her now signature belief that "fashion passes, style remains", the vision gave way to the absolute success achieved by the Chanel suit, loved by women all over the world: in gabardine, tweed and, of course, in jersey.

After establishing a substantial and unwavering vision with her garments, the designer went on to focus efforts on accessories. Chanel enlisted the help of Count Etienne de Beaumont and Duke Fulco di Verdura to start an atelier dedicated to costume jewelery creations in which non-precious gems were combined with the purest ones. Extremely rich, almost opulent creations were necessary to the designer, who loved the essentiality of her dresses, and sought to perfectly balance them with whimsical accessories. It is now to be attributed to this period, the 30s, the birth of the Chanel 2.55, now known as the most copied bag in the world since the day it was created. Though counterfit products infuriates most creatives, Chanel didn't mind at all, explaining that "being plagiarized is the greatest compliment one can receive: it only happens to adults".

During the second World War, Gabrielle Chanel found herself forced to withdraw from the fashion scene briefly, only to return in 1954. Chanel now at the age of 71, was regarded by critics and peers on the verge of imminent decline. Yet in what is  now a unsurprising turn of events, Chanel debuted her knitted suit, turning instantly into another house staple. Early fans of the classic suit included first lady Jackie Kennedy who was frequently seen in these designs. Most notiably, on the day of the murder of her husband John F. Kennedy, she wore a Chanel suit in a bright pink point knit.

In January 10, 1971 Chanel died in her suite at the Hôtel Ritz in Paris at the age of 87. Her life lived to the fullest, has forever changed international fashion and the concept of dressing the female body. Immediately following her death, the maison was carried out by Gaston Berthelot and Ramon Esparza, assistants of the late designer. Later moving onto the creative guidance of Karl Lagerfeld in 1983, an extraordinary designer who demonstrated how to make the stylistic codes of the fashion house contemporary without ever betraying Gabrielle Chanel's vision.

 Photos courtesy of Chanel

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