Coco Chanel was a fashion icon who had a tremendous impact on both women's fashion and the world of fragrance. Some of the fashions that modern women take for granted, such as the little black dress, were not considered acceptable before Chanel. Her designs are classic and easily recognizable around the world. To fully appreciate Chanel's contributions to the world of fashion, one must understand her history and the hurdles that the designer overcame on her path to success. Through two World Wars to the 1970s, Coco Chanel was a formidable, entrepreneurial spirit.
Coco Chanel's Life
The designer who would become known as Coco Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in Saumur, France. Following the death of her mother, Chanel's father placed her in an orphanage. It was in the orphanage that she gained her sewing skills; however, sewing was not her first career. Before becoming a designer she was a singer, during which time she took on the name Coco. She began her career as a designer with the help of a male admirer who provided her with the financial backing that she needed to open a shop. This initial shop was in Paris and opened in 1913. Although this shop primarily sold hats, she was soon opening additional shops and began to make clothing primarily out of jersey. Unfortunately, Chanel's success stalled with World War II when she had to close shops during the German occupation of France. The designer was known to have had several lovers, some of whom were controversial. One such relationship was with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer who provided Coco with special privileges such as staying at the Ritz during the occupation. This raised questions and many believed that she was a Nazi collaborator. Following the war she was not charged with any crime and fled to Switzerland. She returned to fashion when she was in her 70s and with some effort became a successful comeback. The designer worked until her death on January 10, 1971.
Legacy as a Designer
Coco Chanel's clothing changed the way that women dressed in terms of fit and style. More menswear attributes were added from material to the cut as she helped women move away from tight-fitting and uncomfortable garments such as the corset. The collarless Chanel suit, which she introduced during the mid-20s, was one of her cutting edge contributions to fashion. Another addition to her legacy was the little black dress, the impact of which was compared to that of the Ford Model T by Vogue magazine. Prior to Chanel, black was reserved for funerals and times of mourning and wasn't worn as evening wear. Chanel, however, turned the black dress into something chic and fashionable. During the designer's comeback she reworked many of her previous designs to appeal to a more modern woman. This resulted in the return of the Chanel suit, which soon became a status symbol for wealthy women. Stand-out features of the Chanel suit included not only the collarless jacket, but also the golden chain sewn into the hem, which ensured that it hung properly, the gold buttons, and the braid trim. The quilted Chanel handbag with its golden chain shoulder strap is also a highly recognizable part of the Chanel fashion legacy.
Chanel No. 5
Coco Chanel's perfume, Chanel No. 5, was a first in many ways. One of these ways was that it was the first perfume to carry the name of the designer. Chanel believed that a woman should smell more like a woman than a flower. Unfortunately, many popular perfumes for women at the time were floral scents. She tasked Ernest Beaux, a perfumer, with creating her new scent. In 1921 Beaux presented her with samples that he had created. Coco selected the fifth sample. This was meaningful as the designer's lucky number was five. As a result she named the fragrance Chanel No. 5. In creating the packaging for Chanel No. 5, the double "C" monogram was created and turned into the highly recognizable Chanel logo. Chanel No. 5 became a huge success for her, and has since become one of the most popular and iconic perfumes in the world.
Battle for Control of Parfums Chanel
In 1924 Les Parfums Chanel came into being. The company was made possible courtesy of Paul and Pierre Wertheimer who were perfume manufacturers. Parfums Chanel was created as a way for Coco to expand her popular No. 5 fragrance. This collaboration gave the Wertheimers control of Parfums Chanel, as they had 70 percent interest, while Coco was given only 10 percent. This was an upsetting arrangement for Coco who also felt the quality of her perfume was sinking. When Germans came to Paris during World War II, the Wertheimers fled while Coco remained. In an attempt to regain control of her perfume company, Coco attempted to take advantage of the Aryanization laws that Germany had put into place in 1941. This would have allowed her to take the company from the Wertheimers due to the fact that they were Jewish and she was not. Before fleeing Paris, however, the brothers had left their interest in Parfums Chanel with Felix Amiot, a builder of French aircraft. Because Amiot was French and not Jewish, Chanel was unable to wrest control of Parfums Chanel. After World War II came to an end, the Wertheimers eventually bought out Coco, thereby taking control of the company.