THE STORY OF CHANEL, THE MOST LEGENDARY FASHION LABEL OF OUR TIME, IS UNLIKE ANY OTHER. IT IS A STORY OF PASSION, ILLUSION AND INTRIGUE. A STORY OF EMANCIPATION, CONTROVERSY AND CHALLENGES THAT HAS INSPIRED NOT ONLY COUNTLESS FILMS AND BOOKS, BUT MANY OF THE GREATEST FASHION ICONS OF TODAY. IN RECOUNTING THE STORY OF THE HOUSE OF CHANEL, WE ARE PRESENTING ONE OF THE MOST FABULOUS TALES EVER TOLD IN THE WORLD OF FASHION.
EVERY STORY HAS A BEGINNING
As in any good tale, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s origins were far removed from the glorious success and wealth that she would come to enjoy throughout her life. Instead it was cast into the struggling pits of society. Born in August 1883 in the city of Saumur in the Loire valley, Gabrielle Chanel was the illegitimate child of a laundrywoman and vendor father. Upon her mother’s death, at the age of eleven, Gabrielle’s father sent her and her sister to the convent of Aubazine in Central France. This would be her home for six frugal years, in which the nuns raised her with strict discipline and educated her in the art of sewing. Gabrielle would never see her father again.
ALWAYS CENTER STAGE
At the age of 18, when Gabrielle outgrew the convent, she set off together with her sister for a catholic boarding house in the town of Moulins, and began work as a seamstress.
To make some extra money and with aspirations for a life on stage, Gabrielle began singing in local cabarets at night, acquiring the nickname ‘Coco’ along the way. Her night-time frolics caught the eye of Étienne Balsan, a wealthy French aristocrat and textile-heir. Without much hesitation he took Gabrielle in as his mistress, having her move into his chateau for the next three years. It was here, that Coco Chanel was first introduced to a life of luxury and into the highest circles of French society.
A LABEL IS BORN AGAINST ALL ODDS
It was during her time with Balsan then that Coco first started making hats for some of the fellow mistresses, courtesans and actresses that were part of the scene and always keen to be on the cusp of the fashion avant-garde. Her designs became extremely popular, so that with the support of Balsan, she opened a millinery shop below his Paris apartment in 1909. Around this time a second aristocrat entered Coco’s life. Arthur Capel, an upper class Englishman and polo player, who competed with Balsan for Coco’s affections and succeeding in making her his mistress for the next nine years. With the support and financial backing of Capel, Coco opened two couture boutiques in the fashionable resorts of Deauville and Biarritz in 1913 and 1915.
Her designs were luxurious, comfortable and liberating. Taking loose forms and materials such as jersey and tricot Coco started experimenting with fabrics traditionally used for men’s clothing. Trying to create elegance through simplicity, she veered away from the restricting, body shaping and heavily decorated fashions of the early 1900s and would instead find inspiration in garments reserved for men. Chanel was so successful, that by 1916 she was able to fully reimburse Capel for his initial investment, thus becoming self-funding for the first time.
It has to be pointed out that Coco Chanel’s venture into business at this time was beyond extraordinary. Commerce and entrepreneurialism were firmly locked into the male domain well into the 1930’s and the advent of the Second World War. The obstacles Chanel had to overcome to make it were immense and would have been impossible without her determination and inspiring charm.
Even when Maison Chanel had become fully self-funded, Coco needed the help of Capel to set up a bank account under his name, as this was not possible for women during those days. Just as women did not have the right to vote, managing money was not part of the accepted female realm.
Proving over and over again that her keen spirit was visionary and fearless, Coco Chanel vehemently believed that a woman should not smell like a flower but like a woman, promoting the idea that a woman is an individual and alluring being, just as with her design aesthetic.
In 1921 Coco Chanel commissioned the perfumer Ernest Beaux to create the first modern perfume. The final product, Chanel No. 5, was a ground-breaking departure form the norm, pioneering the use of artificial smells and a total of 80 ingredients. As everything else Chanel had put her mind to, the perfume, through its revolutionary nature and its finely balanced elegance, was an instant success and became an over night must-have amongst her clientele. Chanel had reached an unparalleled pinnacle of success as a free and independent woman. But as demand for the perfume picked up and as Chanel wanted to pursue other markets, Beaux’s laboratory in Grasse reached the end of its capabilities. Seeking investment and business acumen for the expansion of her perfume, Chanel turned to her friend and founder of Galleries Lafayettes, Théophile Bader, who on a day out at the horse races, in Deauville, in 1923 introduced Chanel to the wealthy venture capitalist brothers Paul and Pierre Wertheimer. The brothers instantly recognised the potential of Chanel No. 5 and together with Chanel and Bader established Les Parfums Chanel, of which Chanel herself received the smallest share of 10 percent. The deal struck on this day would become both a lifeline and constant irritation to Chanel in the years to come, leading her to file countless unsuccessful lawsuits and a highly controversial allegiance with the occupying Nazi force during the early 1940’s in which she tried to try to regain control of Parfums Chanel by arguing that the Jewish Wertheimer brothers should be disowned.
AN EMPIRE IN THE MAKING
After the Deauville deal and throughout the 20’s and 30’s Chanel No.5 and the Maison of Chanel progressed with tremendous success. The Chanel Suit, the little black dress, the Chanel bag and No.5 had become firmly established icons of fashion that were not only must-haves items but had also changed the course of fashion. Despite her success, by the time the Second World War started in 1939, Chanel closed her shops. The wartime era was defined by her love affair with a Nazi intelligence officer and a rumoured stint as German agent with a mission to broker a peace deal with Churchill. Meeting with fierce opposition in France for her dealings with the Germans after the war, Chanel fled France in 1944 and established herself in Switzerland.
It wouldn’t be until her 1954 return to Paris and the Wertheimers’ agreement to finance her come-back, that Chanel would design another collection. The trade-off for the financial deal with the Wertheimer’s, which included the coverage of all of her expenses, the back payment of her share of the war time profits of Chanel No.5, a suite in the Ritz and a 0.2 percent cut of all annual profits, was the transfer of the entire Chanel-Group to the Wertheimers, Chanel staying on as the creative head.
Even though Chanel’s first show after the war was not well received in Paris, she did reignite a strong following in Britain and the USA. Her return to the fashion elite was not without complication though. Post-war couture had seen the rise of male designers such as Balenciaga, Piguet and Dior, who had introduced a “New Look” of cinched waists and full skirts, and which were a stark departure from the looser 1920’s silhouettes that had harboured Chanel’s pre-war designs.
After Chanel’s death in 1971 the label faced difficult times. Going through a string of creative directors, it wasn’t until the 1983 instalment of Karl Lagerfeld as creative director by Pierre Wertheimer’s grandson Alain, that new life came into the fashion house. With an iconic vision of his own and a talent that is matched by few, Lagerfeld has successfully steered the label out of near retirement and opened it up to a new and younger audience. By revamping the ready-to-wear lineup as well as his merger of luxury with contemporary and forward thinking designs, Lagerfeld has made cult items of the house’s bouclétweed, pearls, dual-toned footwear and interlocking C’s for new generations around the globe. Thanks to Karl Lagerfeld, the ongoing commitment of the Wertheimer Family and the unbreakable spirit of Coco Chanel, the house of Chanel has once again taken its place at the apex of the luxury industry, becoming yet again the absolute pinnacle of fashion that leaves nothing but awe, beauty and desire in its wake.
Reflecting the visionary quest for elegance and simplicity that defines Chanel’s approach to fashion, the two crossed C’s that make up the label have become an icon in their own right.
The house of Chanel has been in the hands of the Wertheimer family for nearly a century. It is also one of the few fashion conglomerates that has never been listed on the stock market.
With the financial support of her lover Arthur Capel, Chanel opens her first couture boutique in Deauville
The tremendous success of her couture collections enables Chanel to repay Capel his initial investment making her a self-sufficient business and woman.
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