Coco Chanel: Once upon a time there was a poor girl called Gabrielle. She had three sisters and two brothers. One of her sisters died very young. Gabrielle didn’t like living in a crowded house. When she turned twelve, her always sick mother died, and her father sent the boys to work on a farm and the girls to a convent boarding school for orphans and then he entirely vanished. Gabrielle was supposed to start a class for cooking, but one of the nuns needed one more girl for the sewing class and Gabrielle was pushed towards the sewing machine. Those were not happy years, but they were not sad either.
The story here has a lot of missing parts from the puzzle, and the story later was somehow patched up by Gabrielle, but history tells us that in 1901 Gabrielle started working as a singer and an escort for rich men. She didn’t sing well, but she was pretty. One of the songs the people in the French brothel loved was called “KO-KO-KO-RI-KO”, and soon everyone knew her as Coco.
Coco Chanel was one of the most controversial personas in the world of fashion, surely, one of the most influential women of all time, and definitely loved by many and equally hated as a personality, but ever so admired for her work. Whatever she told people about her youth and personal life was always tailored and re-tailored, so no one really knew what the truth was, apart from those facts which have remained as historically proved evidence. What is not known, can never be traced. Coco used to hide her real age from very young, when she said she was ten years older so as to be socially accepted.
Having drifted apart from her siblings, she never looked back to her family, she never helped them out, she almost never showed any interest in them and their children. “I hate family. This is something you are born in, but not born of,” she used to say. Maybe that is one reason for her never to get married and have children.
Coco Chanel set off on her road to absolute glory and wealth quite accidently – she couldn’t find a hat to her taste and so she made one. Then she made many more for poorer women and later, with the sponsorship of an exceptionally rich man, who kept her as his mistress, she opened her small boutique in Paris in 1913.
Coco’s dream since a very young age was to be rich and she followed that dream to her last breath. While other designers were fighting for the hearts of the women, she was fighting for their comfort and also for their wallets, making elegant, but practical clothes.
She started making women’s clothes from the same material used for men’s underwear. She used to say that “a woman needs to breathe, feel comfortable and feel younger”.
Coco Chanel was the first woman to introduce trousers into women’s fashion – men and women were outraged, but she felt uncomfortable sailing in a gondola and riding a horse in long not practical skirts. She didn’t care. And women followed her.
She was also the first woman to introduce the woman’s suit. Once again society was shocked, but women overcame the surprise with ease and men… well, they got used to it.
Coco Chanel was the designer who presented the shoulder bag, freeing women’s hands. We can use them for talking on the phone these days, for carrying shopping or children.
You know how in summer we go to the beach and try to get suntanned in days, to achieve that golden complexion. People invented the solarium for that purpose. Well, before the day Coco accidently got sunburnt at the beach and appeared before the public, suntan was considered a sign of a destitute status – rednecks working in the fields. Of course she changed that.
Coco was a woman who put up with nothing that challenged her beliefs and also her mood. She thought extremely highly of herself and it’s a good example to follow when it comes to our own worth, but she entirely disregarded the achievements of her fellow designers – probably because she was the only woman in that industry at the time. That does not justify her totally unpardonable behavior towards Christian Dior, whom she hated, which she never tried to hide, as well as the way she treated her assistants and models. After all, they did not always have her inexhaustible drive to work.
Chanel was highly superstitious. Once, a fortune teller told her that her lucky number was 5. That is why her perfume, the first ever fashion-designer perfume, bears the number 5. Chanel No. 5, loved by many, not so much by others, is still among the best-selling perfumes of all time probably because it is a symbol of prestige and glamour. It has been ever since Merlin Monroe pushed the brand to skyrocketing sales: “What I wear in bed? Why, Chanel 5 of course.” Mr. Beaux followed Coco’s instructions – no scent of flowers, just “the smell of a woman”. What inspired the perfume master was the smell of frozen lakes and rivers. So much like Coco herself.
Her ego was enormous. Her zodiac sign was Leo after all, which is why a lion is present in almost all accessories in her collections. Also, a great relief for women was the day when Coco presented the first fake jewelry – not all women could and can afford diamonds and pearls. Women did go for the simplicity, the comfort and practicality in her fashion line, for the revolutionary leaps, with which she strode towards women’s independence.
She was a desired woman. The list of her lovers is countless and none of them was poor or average. As Coco’s famous “little black dress” (black was her favourite colour) came to the world in 1926, she had affairs with British royalty, including the Duke of Westminster and the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. Have you ever wondered what the inscriptions on the lampposts in Westminster mean? Well, some of them have a simple W, but not all. Look closely if you go to London. When the Duke proposed her marriage, she declined. “Too many Duchesses, only one Coco Chanel.” Yes, she was so big in her own eyes, so independent and holding onto her freedom for life. Also, she hated families, as you recall. In her honour, he instructed the inscription of her brand on most of the lampposts in Westminster.
What marred her reputation and stayed with her till the end, was her collaboration with Nazi Germany. She had a long-standing relationship with a highly ranked Nazi general and kept her fashion house open for orders for the German elite, while the other French designers refused to collaborate and barely survived. She was also rumored to have been a German spy. After the war, she had to flee to Switzerland to escape facing a trial for treason. Two decades later, the French were still seriously upset with her and did not welcome her with open arms. But Hollywood did. For one million dollars she went every two years and dressed up actresses for movie opening nights. And the million was per visit and only for buying her consent and entirely on her terms.
Her hotel apartment at the Ritz was full to the brim with presents from admirers from all over the world. It was also the place where the rehearsals for her reviews were held. She was never present at those, but she had a hiding place – the 5th step of the staircase (remember, 5 was her lucky number) to her bedroom suite, where no one could see her, and she watched. Later, she literally crushed the models and assistants with criticism.
Coco believed in what she was doing, she wanted to show it at its best, and she never compromised. She worked till her final breath. In her youth she developed bad habits – morphine addiction was a life-time love, according to documented interviews and her biography. Alcohol, too, was a frequent companion. After all, who can take all that fame easily? Or was it a buried wound from her childhood she was trying to heal? We shall never know.
She died in her bed on a January day in 1971 in Paris, in the Ritz. Her famous last words were “So this is how you die.”
She worked till the day she died, preparing her new collection, which debuted a week after her death. The front seats at her funeral were taken by models. Coco, being the woman who never trusted the taste of other people, had pre-designed her headstone. She was headed to dress up the angels.
Coco Chanel (written in by mistake in the registry office when she was born as Gabrielle Chasnel) was seen crying just once in her entire 88-year long life. That was when her beloved boyfriend Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel died in a car crush. He was the one who had given her the first push to glory and he was the one, whose death affected her the most.
Coco Chanel was a woman who loved and hated with equal passion, but what she loved most – simplicity and perfection – is what we still have today in the best (and most expensive) shopping streets. Her name still sells and will most certainly do in the future.
–by Gery Decheva
More on Coco Chanel in Diamonds Production Magazine MARCH 2021