Born on August 19, 1883, at 4 a.m., at the hospice of Saumur held by the sisters of Providence, Gabrielle Chasnela comes from a line of fairground merchants, from Ponteils-et-Brésis near Alès. Born out of wedlock, she is the second daughter of Henri-Albert Chasnel (known by the name Albert but under the name of Henri in the birth certificate1), a junkie from Nîmes (Gard) and Eugenie Jeanne Devolles (known by the name Jeanne), Seamstress from Courpière (Puy-de-Dôme), both established no. 29 rue Saint-Jean in Saumur and married a year after his birth on November 17, 1884.
Jeanne Devolles had five other children: Julia-Berthe (18826-1912) — who, by making her self-indemnity, would have left a son, André Palasse, whom Gabrielle was to take care of as if she was the seamstress's own son, — Alphonse (1885-1953), Antoinette ( 1887-1920), Lucien (1889-1941) and Augustine (1891-1891). Very little is known about Chanel's childhood, of which she spoke very little, other than that she found herself in solitude and did not feel loved by her embittered father, who blamed his wife and children for preventing him from leading the life of success of he dreamed about. This did not prevent Gabrielle from devoting true adoration to this gruff, fickle and often absent father.
Coco's mother died on 6 February 1895, in Brive, at the age of 33, exhausted by successive pregnancies, tuberculosis and the work she was doing in the Paris markets in the cold.
She was only twelve years old at the time.
Around 1907 and 1908, the very courted, Chanel chose not to share the anonymous fate of the her mother suffered, and sought a better future for herself. She frequented the Grand Café, a chic place of millian life where she met officers of the 10th Regiment stationed in the Bourbon capital. Today the former barracks houses the National Centre for Stage Costume. She followed them to another café-concert in the city, the Rotunda. Soon, she dared to push the performances and began to dream of work in a music hall. Twenty-four years old, she performed in front of the officers who nicknamed her "Coco", because she has a habit of singing "Who Saw Coco in the Trocadero?"
Convened by many wealthy or titled young boys, she seduced the rich Étienne Balsan, an officer, and a man of the world who had just left the army to devote himself to horse breeding and racing. He introduced her to the life of a mistress at the Royallieu estate near Compiègne, which remained famous for its history during the Second World War; if Balsan was perhaps not always her lover, he was always her friend.
For almost a year she learned the requirements and practices of high society, but this idyll lasted only a few months: she realized that she no longer loved him, she was bored and cried often. She's twenty-five years old and had nowhere to go. Her first dress revolution, she invented it with the equestrian outfits she wore on horseback and tie and headband in her hair.
The attendance of Balsan's relations, however, led her to meet the Englishman Arthur Capel, nicknamed "Boy"; she became his mistress in 1909 and followed him to Paris, where he offered her her first shop. Capel was a businessman who then made his fortune in coal freight during the Great War, and a horseman with a polo stable. It was to be an irregular love (he was still married to an Englishwoman) yet it lasted ten years, until a car accident in 1919 to which he did not survive.
Gabrielle Chanel, however, did not remain inactive after the death of her lover. Drawing on the basics taught at Moulins, the handling of the thread and the needle and the initiation given by Lucienne Rabaté, famous milliner of the time, she made small original hats that she placed very low on her forehead. To attend the worldly horse races, she did not wear the dresses of the great couturiers but her own creations. A charming young woman with a quirky style, sometimes a schoolgirl in a sage black and white outfit, sometimes a boyish woman who does not hesitate to wear polo, cardigan, jodhpurs and trousers, she is already inventing a new style, a new look that would change the world ofhigh fashion forever. His avant-garde creations, very sober, contrast with those worn by the elegant ones of the time.
In 1909, on the advice of Boy Capel, her craft began on Boulevard Malesherbes, in the Parisian bachelor pad of her lover Étienne Balsan. The hats she offered her clients are variations of those she made for herself and which, at the Château de Royallieu, near Compiègne, seduced her friends, half-worldly people who frequented the place. Balsan didn't believe however that Chanel would find commercial success.
Having no technical training or manufacturing tools, Chanel first bought the hat shapes in department stores and then filled them herself, before selling them. The novelty and elegance of her style meant that, very quickly, she must call on her cousin Adrienne and her sister Antoinette to assist her. Her hat creations, bore the large feathers of ostriches or other voluminous frills began to be appreciated for their simplicity and sophistication.
As early as 1915 she began to cut sports dresses from jersey knits for the soldiers, which she had long adopted. Freeing the body, abandoning the waist, Chanel announced this "new silhouette" that will earn her her reputation. To conform, women strive to be "skinny like Coco," who becomes one of the first women with short hair to create simple and practical clothing, inspired by a dynamic and sporty life and playing with the feminine/male codes in all of her work.
In 1916, she used Adrienne as a model in Deauville, which was then a fashionable resort. She herself walked around, testing her new outfits under the eyes of European aristocrats, covered in pageantry and held in rigid corsets, contrasting with their simplicity and comfort. The shortage of fabrics due to the First World War, as well as the relative lack of domestic labor created new needs for women in this environment, and Chanel perceived these needs. She bought Rodier whole pieces of a jersey used at the time only for men's underwear, and launched the sailor.
In 1918, immediately after the war, she gradually began to build one of the most important fashion houses of the time, employing more than 300 workers, and finally repaid Boy Capel, refusing the status of a maintained woman. After the war, Boy had to take a wife, according to the rules of the English aristocracy, and Chanel felt an unbearable humiliation. But, like her mother, she will accepted this situation and continued to love Boy. On the night of December 22, 1919, she learned that he had killed himself the day before at the wheel of his car. "When I lost Capel, I lost everything," she confessed 50 years later.
While the war did not move her much, the death of her lover deeply affected her, and, not to sink into grief, Chanel clung to her work. This attitude will pay off, as the success of her catalog grew and encourages her to further develop her house.
As early as 1921 in Paris, next to the luxurious Place Vendôme, Coco Chanel annexed, in a few years, the numbers 27, 29 and finally the 31st of Rue Cambon. An address where the famous fashion house that bears her name is still located today. It also has its own fabric factories in Normandy and is partnering with the owners of the Bourjois brand — the Wertheimer brothers — to commercially distribute its perfumes.
Her male liaisons often give her inspirational motifs, so she creates slavic-patterned dresses when she has a romantic affair with Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovich of Russia, cousin of the last Russian tsar in exile who is said to have inspired the shape of the bottle of her famous No 5 (based on the vodka flask of Russian troops). She was also the mistress of the poet Pierre Reverdy, who edited aphorisms and quotations from the seamstress, before the seamstress, increasingly mystical, retired to the abbey of Solesmes. Her lover Paul Iribe worked for her as a furniture designer while her friend François Hugo, Great-Grandson of Victor Hugo, designed her fake jewelry including the metal buttons.
She housed Igor Stravinsky and his family from the fall of 1920 to the spring of 1921 in Garches.
In the autumn of 1924, Coco Chanel became an intimate of Hughes Richard Arthur Grosvenor, second Duke of Westminster, reputed to be the richest man in England. She borrowed elements of men's suits, such as sweater, pelisse, sailor's beret or tweed jacket. She then adapted them to the feminine clothing panoply, which she wanted to be modern and dynamic, combining comfort with elegance. During this period, she became a privileged visitor to Woolsack Castle, on the shores of Lake Aureilhan, where she stayed until 1930 to regain her energy and drive.
During her stays in Mimizan, she offered her duvets and models a few days of vacation in the Pylon colony, a few years before the introduction of the first paid leave.
She was one of the first to launch short hair fashion, and strongly opposed the sophistication advocated by Paul Poiret (who accused Chanel of turning women into "undernourished little telegraphists"). According to some sources she countered by saying that she did not want women who looked like "slaves escaped from their harem", referring to the Orientalist fashion of the time. Chanel favored a very studied simplicity, practical outfits, such as pajamas, to wear on the beach as in the evening; the first trousers, the short pleated skirt, the tailor adorned with pockets. A fashion inspired by the sportswear of seaside places (golf, tennis, beach, boating). It featured jersey knit cardigans on short skirts, all topped with a bell hat. Similarly, the low-waisted evening gowns stopped above the knee, which can be associated with the popularity of Charleston dances between 1925 and 1935.
In 1926, the famous little black dress was created (a color previously reserved exclusively for mourning); a straight sheath with no 3/4 sleeves, black tube in crepe from China, perfectly match the fashion "boyish" erasing the shapes of the female body. Repeatedly copied, this "Ford signed Chanel" referring to the popular American car, as it was to be called in Vogue magazine. Who predicted that it would become a classic of the women's wardrobe of the 1920s and 30s.
Rejecting the term "poor gender" often attached to her creations, Chanel wanted to distinguish sobriety from stripping: if the women's wardrobe must be simple, it must instead be embellished with accessories. Chanel used, for example, fake jewelery mixing semi-precious stones, rhinestones and false pearls, as well as bracelets decorated with a "Malta cross" motif, or Byzantine-inspired brooches or motifs of animals, flowers or shells. Étienne de Beaumont, Paul Iribe and, above all, between 1929 and 1937, Fulco di Verdura, gave these fake jewels a recognizable identity.
In 1927, Gabrielle Chanel built a house in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin called La Pausa. She asked the architect Robert Streitz to draw it by incorporating some elements, the staircase and the cloister, recalling her childhood at the orphanage of Aubazine. It was furnished mainly with English and Spanish furniture from the 16th and 17th centuries. It is home to the Duke of Westminster (who financed the construction), Jean Cocteau, Pierre Reverdy, Paul Iribe, Salvador Dali, Luchino Visconti; part of the house was recreated at the Dallas Museum of Art during the donation of the Reves collection. Its furniture is now housed in the Dallas Museum of Art.
At the same time, Chanel was the first seamstress to launch her own perfumes. With the help of her perfumer Ernest Beaux who designed: No 5 (1921), who achieved worldwide fame with the creation, but also No 22 (1922), Gardénia (1925), Wood of the Islands (1926) and Leather of Russia (1926). To distribute her products internationally, Chanel drew on the commercial experience of brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer who since 1924 own 70% of Chanel perfumes. Their descendants Alain and Gérard Wertheimer own the entire Chanel house today.
From 1927 to 1944, Chanel regularly stayed at the Château de Corbère-Abères in Béarn to continue her work with her cousettes. She adapted to the changes of the 1930s, during which she had to face both the social demands of her workers and the rising star of Parisian Haute Couture that is Elsa Schiaparelli. Preferring a more refined silhouette, Chanel presents in particular light and transparent evening dresses in chiffon, tulle or lace lay, most often in falsely neutral colors (white, black or beige), sometimes embroidered beads or rhinestones. Featuring a combination sewn inside, the very simple cut of these dresses allows the woman of the world to dress without the assistance of a servant. A little later, she created the first dresses with balconets, then in 1937, the "gypsy" style.
Chanel never traveled without its pearls, and had a very pronounced taste for jewelry. In 1924, she opened a costume jewelry workshop. Étienne de Beaumont and then Duke Fulco de Verdura contributed to the development of the house's jewelery.
But it was in 1932 that Chanel made headlines again. At the request of the International Diamond Guild, Chanel created "Diamond Jewelry", its first collection of high jewelry. The diamonds are mounted on platinum, an extravagance after the crash of 1929. The historic jewelers of Place Vendôme are insurgent, accusing a "seamstress of her state" of improvising herself as a jeweler. In 2011, Chanel found by chance a 1932 film showing this collection. However, it was not until 1993 that Chanel created a jewellery department.
In 1939, she was the head of a company of 4,000 workers, which fulfilled 28,000 orders a year which would later waiver and close in the wake of World War Two.
In 1954, at the age of 71, Chanel agreed to reopen her house at the insistence of her sponsors, the Wertheimer brothers, whom she had tried to dispossess during the Occupation and who relied on her presence to revive the sale of perfumes. She returned to creative process but her first collection was not well received, as it was at odds with Christian Dior's style. Faced with the balconies and puffy shapes that marked the success of this post-war style, Chanel wanted to impose again dresses close to the body and an androgynous silhouette.
The tweed suit, complemented by a silk blouse, two-tone shoes and a gold chain quilted bag would make up the new Chanel style and become a classic, often copied.
Chanel clothes were worn by the actresses of the time, notably Romy Schneider and Jeanne Moreau in Les Amants (1958) by Louis Malle, and Delphine Seyrig in Last Year in Marienbad (1961) by Alain Resnais. Jackie Kennedy wore a pink Chanel suit when her husband John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
In 1957, she received an "Oscar for Fashion" in Dallas. Marilyn Monroe contributes to this consecration by stating that she wears only "a few drops of No. 5" at night.
From 1954, Robert Goossens was entrusted with the creation of jewelery. At the same time, new perfumes were created under the impetus of Henri Robert, the new "nose" of the house, who launched Pour Monsieur (1955), No 19 (1970) and Cristalle (1974).
Chanel received her acquaintances and clients in the two-room apartment on the second floor of her fashion house, but resides in a suite at the Ritz Hotel, located next to Chanel.
The 1960s saw the emergence of the fashion of the miniskirt, popularized by Mary Quant and André Courrèges, but Chanel opposed it and did not raise the skirt above the knee, because she thinks the knees are ugly. She will not touch her classic tailor with skirts below the knee, and remained insensitive to the fashion of the time and to the Anglo-Saxon influences conveyed by pop music.
The haute couture shows take place in the salons on the first floor of 31 Rue Cambon, where Chanel follows them sitting on the steps of the staircase leading to the upper floor, from where she observed the reactions of her clients through the mirrors that line the walls and stairs.
With the events of May 1968, the hippie wave changed the fashion game all together.
Chanel claimed that fashions were only good when they took to the streets, not when they came from them. Chanel became tyrannical, locking herself in a world made of fittings, fashion shows, models and courteles. Edmonde Charles-Roux writes: "Chanel never liked to admit that her way of life was made up of recipes borrowed from Sert. The violence she brought to deny it denounced her. Dry and stingy, she is very lonely, accompanied in her later years sometimes by Jacques Chazot and especially by her long-time confidante, Lilou Marquand. She hates youth in miniskirts or blue jeans, spits on feminism. She suffers from intimate wounds never healed that mask her reputation as an "iron woman" not showing her despair. Aimée de Heeren was a faithful friend, with whom she shared fond memories of Duke Hugh Grosvenor.
On January 10, 1971, at the age of 87, she died of old age in her suite at the Ritz Hotel at 15 Place Vendôme in Paris. Salvador Dali, Serge Lifar, Jacques Chazot, Yves Saint-Laurent and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild participated in the memorial service in the Madeleine church. She is buried in the Bois-de-Vaux cemetery, Section 9, concession 129-130-131, in Lausanne, Switzerland, in a grave she herself designed, made by Jacques Labrunie, husband of her great-niece Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie, her only descendant Direct. In his will written on 11 October 1965, Chanel bequeathed his fortune (estimated by the press at the time to be $10 million) to the Coga Foundation (initials of Coco and Gabrielle) administered by Gabrielle Palasse-Labrunie and Swiss lawyers, responsible for pay annuities to loved ones, employees or artists.