Synonymous with luxury the world over, the Chanel brand needs no introduction. But who was Gabrielle Chanel, better known as Coco? When the 140th anniversary of her birth was celebrated, F Luxury went to discover this poor woman who defied the codes of high society and created a true legend.
She died 52 years ago, and never married or had children. She was born into a poor family, but she knew luxury and fortune thanks to her work. He left behind one of the greatest luxury brands of all time, which today is a veritable empire and owes much of its fame to Karl Lagerfeld, the creative director of the French Maison until his death in 2019, who paid authentic tributes to Coco in all collections. Today, Virginie Viard is the heir to this heritage, full of codes traced by a woman who came into this world 140 years ago in a poor rural area near the Loire.
Opposite of poor childhood
In Paris, she slept in the luxurious Ritz, on Place Vendôme, but her home was behind the mythical hotel, on Rue Cambom. That’s where she had her shop, on the ground floor; the atelier, on the first floor, whose staircase was covered in a kaleidoscope of art deco mirrors, and, on the second floor, social life and elite reception. The luxury of the apartment couldn’t be more in contrast to her humble beginnings. Here everything was beautiful and rare. Already at the peak of her career, Coco was committed to decorating an elegant and sophisticated house with unique mixtures of European baroque art, where orientalism was also present, especially in her famous Coromandel screens in Chinese lacquer. Mademoiselle’s secret refuge had walls lined with paper painted in the tone of gold, crystal chandeliers, mirrors in gilded carving: one from the 18th century with the emblem of the Romanovs; another, Venetian, decorated with Murano crystal camellias, her favorite flower, after having received her first branch in life, with white camellias, from Boy Capel, one of her many lovers. Engraved leather books line the walls and are a companion for nights dedicated to reading. Louis XVI chairs mix with gilded bronze stags, a pair of sculptures, the Venetian Moors, and silver boxes offered by the Duke of Westminster. There are crystal balls, sculptures of lions, her sign and the image of the city of Venice, which enchanted her, and several branches of wheat, a symbol of abundance and prosperity, but also of fertility, she who was never a mother… And to contrast with the aristocratic salons with sofas and fauteuils with rigid backs, Coco designs and has a vast leather settee made for the living room, where one can stretch out and read.
She was born 140 years ago and died 52 years ago. When she came into the world, no one in her family could have predicted that she would become one of the most famous women of all time and that she would revolutionize fashion. Gabrielle Chanel didn’t like to talk about her humble origins and often lied about her past, pretended not to remember the dates, and told episodes that didn’t quite correspond to reality to hide her rural condition. In a society that was very attached to appearances and that was marked by class differences, those who were poor were almost always born and died in this environment. But that was not the case with Gabrielle, who, years later, confesses: “I chose what I wanted to be and that’s what I am”. And all this has an explanation in her past. Gabrielle was not born from her parent’s marriage. Her mother Jeanne was single, and her father Albert was a traveling salesman. Both were not wealthy and worked to survive. Mr. Chanel looked good, but he was aggressive and didn’t want a relationship. When she discovers that she is pregnant, the “boyfriend” is not by his side, but they decide to live together. The birth of the couple’s second daughter, Gabrielle, does not unite them sentimentally, but they get married when Coco was 1 year old. Three more children were born, and the family’s misery is increasingly accentuated. At the age of 5, Gabrielle likes to go and play in her village’s cemetery. “I was the queen of that secret garden. Its subterranean inhabitants fascinated me, and those tombstones were my playroom.” In 1889, the mother’s health deteriorated, and she died of tuberculosis. Her father was not at home and her siblings are being cared for by their grandparents. “I wanted to commit suicide. During my childhood, I just wanted to be loved. The only thing that saved me was pride.” It is then that she is welcomed into a convent of nuns, but her condition as an orphan does not give her a privileged status. Without love, she created defenses. She had food and sleep, but the orphanage was synonymous with humiliation, given her condition. Chanel doesn’t like the place where she was abandoned. She becomes proud, with a difficult temper, she doesn’t like to obey, but her irreverent side doesn’t hide that she is becoming a woman with dreams. She loved to read romantic stories in newspaper serials, where girls from the upper classes became her heroines. These descriptions were aspirational and in Coco’s mind, her ambitions to stop being a provincial woman began to take shape. She learned to sew clothes from her father’s sister and, at the age of 18, when she leaves the Aubazine orphanage, she looks for a new life and already makes her own clothes. In the care of a family of merchants, she works in a grocery store and as a seamstress, becoming the officers’ favorite to make arrangements for uniforms.
Among the gallant lieutenants was Étienne Balsan, who was the first man to win Coco’s heart, who immediately realized the difference in classes and that this could be of benefit to him. He didn’t want the same life as his mother. She was willing to write another, more auspicious destination. She wanted to be independent and that was only possible with money. He leaves with Balsan for his family home, three stories high, spacious, and it is there that he learned to ride a horse, because riding was a pastime of the rich, as he also learned to know how to be and eat politely, always through observation. Balsan’s friends were not indifferent to Gabrielle’s free spirit and style. Even then, she felt the need for comfortable clothes and abhorred the long dresses of the elite, with trailing trains. She wore a small straw hat that she made herself and which began to gain followers among the ladies who frequented Balsan’s house. However, she meets Arthur Capel, better known as Boy, who was her great love. “He was the only man I ever really loved.” Green-eyed, handsome, and tall, this Englishman was wealthy but hardworking. It was he who helped her to open a hat shop in Paris, in 1910, on Rue Cambom. The business was an immediate success, and three years later, Coco can repay Boy the money he lent her. She was financially independent. In 1913, she decides to open a store in Deauville. Here, in this seaside resort frequented by the elite, the ladies strolled along the beach as in Paris, wearing long dresses with bodices and highly adorned hats. Gabrielle deconstructs this fashion and creates lighter and more unpretentious clothes, with a more casual, sporty style, with comfortable knit sweaters, without belts, making the silhouette more fluid. This success makes her one of the first women entrepreneurs in the country and one of the richest too, without having inherited a fortune. With the outbreak of World War I, she continued with the Deuville store open and decided not to close the one in Paris and sales did not decrease. She follows up a shop in Biarritz, another haven of high society. The post-war period and the emerging crazy 20s of the last century show a different vision of society, and the woman, who is now able to drive, accepts that the fashion of yesteryear was outdated. The Chanel brand is the expression of this new experience.
Boy’s death in a car accident leaves her with great sadness, but she never stopped working. Chanel does not diminish her social life and knows that her creations continue to arouse great interest, as does her personality. It was around this time that she met Mísia Sert, who had a great influence on her life, and who would become her friend and confidant. It is thanks to this woman, of Russian origin, that she meets the painters Picasso, Braque, the businessman Diaguilev, the poet Jean Cocteau and the composer Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky becomes her lover and Chanel supports him financially, but the stylist is exchanged for another woman, which dictates the end of the relationship, but not the friendship. In 1922, in Biarritz, she meets a younger man who fascinated her from the first moment and who would be a decisive influence.
The tsar’s cousin
This is Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich, cousin of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia. Dimitri was single, elegant, and shrouded in mystery because he had participated in Rasputin’s murder. He was a wealthy exile who lived off the Romanov jewels I managed to slip out of Russia when he fled. Dimitri and Coco date for a year, and the young man offers her several of his valuable pearls, which have a real fascination for the designer. It is thanks to this prince, now without a throne, that Coco introduces rows of pearls in her clothes, today one of the images of the Chanel brand. It is also thanks to Dimitri that Gabrielle is fascinated by Slavic culture, and a sister of the duke even works for her as an embroiderer. Perfume No. 5, which made her a millionaire, and is still one of the greatest successes of the French House, was born to celebrate her 40th birthday and had the help of this Russian dethroned. In fact, it was Dimitri who introduced Coco to the Romanovs’ former perfumer. Marilyn Monroe, one of the greatest sex symbols of the time, also helped to make this essence famous, because when asked what she wore to sleep, she replied: “Just a few like Chanel No. 5”. The relationship between the Grand Duke and Gabrielle ends with Dimitri’s marriage to a wealthy American heiress.
Westminster and the tweed
Christmas 1923, Monte Carlo. Coco was invited to dinner on the yacht of the Duke of Westminster, an English nobleman, as rich as he was a flirt. There, a romance was born between the two, which would also be decisive for Chanel. Bendor, as he was affectionately treated, falls in love and fills her house with flowers. “My life really started when I met the Duke of Westminster. He finally had a shoulder to rest my head on,” she said. Bendor had been married with daughters but was divorced. A stay at the aristocrat’s British estates gives Coco access to a whole new world. She went to live with him and toured several of his houses and huge properties. Luxury is everywhere, yet you also appreciate its simplicity. Country life marked her. She lets herself be captivated by the discreet beauty of outdoor life, and from Scotland, she brings plaid and tweed to her universe, which she found elegant and comfortable, as well as warm. However, the duke wanted a son, but Coco, now over 40, was unable to get pregnant, which she regretted. Meanwhile, Bendor rebuilds her life, and their ten-year relationship comes to an end. Before, she chooses black as her fashion. The black, whose inspiration came from the orphanage uniforms, transformed into icons of elegance. This color would be his “revenge” for a humiliating past in relation to the rich Parisian ladies. She imposed the simplicity of the petite robe noire and the white cuffs and collar: “I was allowed the luxury of giving the aristocrats and multimillionaires an appearance of the poor”, she said with irony.
Fortune in America
The economic crisis of 1929 further accentuated the need for restraint and to hide the outward signs of wealth. Awaiting new challenges and a visionary, she heads to Hollywood. She works in the film industry creating clothes for the big stars with a million dollar a year cachet. Coco starts a romance, one more, with the poet Pierre Reverdy, without much history, and falls in love with Paul Iribe, “the most complicated man I have ever known”, she admitted, and who would also die suddenly. The 1930s is fertile in events and, once again, it proves to be a pioneer…
After succeeding as a stylist and with the success achieved with her perfume, Coco Chanel ventured into a new challenge and until then takes a path that was not accessible to couturiers, designing a collection of jewels, just one. We are talking about high jewelry all in diamonds because she made several accessories, with jewelry stones. It was in 1932. Chanel innovated by creating pieces that could have different uses: a star could be a pendant on a necklace, but it could also be mounted on a bracelet, used in the hair, or as a pin. This transforming power of a jewel conquered the elegant fine flower of Paris. It was a new world that that poor and orphaned child had never thought of conquering one day. To this end, two men born with golden cradles helped her to consolidate her taste and knowledge of jewels: Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia, who introduced her to pearls, and the Duke of Westminster, at the time the richest man in Great Britain. Seduced by feathers, so often used in hats, Coco creates diamond feathers, which have become an object of desire for her clients. The success was incomparable and left the great French jewelers amazed.
Arrested in World War II
Accustomed to surprising, daring, and creating new codes, Chanel gave a new silhouette, doing away with corsets and big hats and inventing sportswear, the striped sweater, creating lines of accessories and jewelry with a real look, but perhaps she was not yet aware that she had become the most influential fashion designer of the 20th century. In 1936, her employees imbued with the demanding climate of the working classes, took part in a national strike. He had to make redundancies until, in 1939, with France at war with Germany, in one of the most tragic periods of humanity, Coco realized that, unlike the 1914-18 conflict, this time he had to close the haute couture business, but his perfume shop was still open, and soldiers and officers lined up to buy his No. 5 and begin a romance. It was this link that led to her being arrested, and accused of collaborating with the German regime, but she was released with the supposed help of Westminster and Churchill. The stylist joins her new love in Lausanne, Switzerland, but the relationship would end up ending.
Failure and success
In 1954, mademoiselle decided to present a collection again, not because she needed the money, but because she wanted more challenges. She dressed carefully, and wore a bow on her head, as in the orphanage days, her voice was hoarse, her eyebrows bushy and she smoked incessantly. She didn’t give in to the fashion of the time, she didn’t explore the new colors, she didn’t adhere to the miniskirt (which she considered vulgar), and the reviews weren’t positive, but she continued to work. She invented the trimmed tweed suit, the most imitated skirt and coat set ever, the 2.55 bag (born in February 1955) with the golden chain, and the beige shoes with the front in black. These three examples are great successes in her career, considered true icons of the elegant woman. Princess Grace of Monaco loved her style and became one of her most famous clients.
The weight of loneliness
In recent years, the best friends had already died. Of all her eight relationships, none were lasting. She loved, but was she loved? She suffered from the isolation of the last few years and now all she had to do was see and be seen at the Ritz. “Loneliness terrifies me, and I live in total solitude. I would pay not to be alone,” she confessed. At the age of 87, she would remember that in her childhood she felt the same loneliness, “that formed my character and hardened my heart, which is proud”. She never found true happiness. As she confessed to Paul Morand: “I was very unhappy. I have had a life that, from the outside, appears to be brilliant.” In 1971, she dies in her hotel room. She was buried, as she wished, in the Lausanne cemetery, in an unmarked tomb where five lions’ glow. The lion was her sign, and the number five corresponds to femininity, pleasure, and the perfection of woman’s beauty.
By: Alberto Miranda