Gabrielle Chanel was born illegitimately in 1883 in a small provincial French town to a laundress and an itinerant street vendor. When she was 12 her mother died and her father gave her into the care of an order of charitable nuns where she remained until age 18. Here she lived a frugal, pared-back life, strictly disciplined and subject to devotion to a higher ideal, all of which influences can be detected in her later attitude to life and work, and even her sense of beauty in design.
She first found work as a seamstress, then flirted with a singing career, which came to nothing. Her life changed when she met Etienne Balsan, a rich and well-connected young man who installed her in his chateau as his mistress. Soon she could ride, play polo, be the perfect hostess and charm his Society guests. A few years passed, during which she amused herself with making interesting and original hats; then a visiting English friend of his, the dashing Boy Capel, fell victim to her charisma. “The two boys were outbidding each other for my hot little body” as she later described it. Boy Capel won; she decamped with him to Paris, where they decorated a chic apartment as their love nest. Capel’s aesthetic sense was well developed, and it was not merely out of blind devotion that he financed Coco’s first shops in Paris. Her trademark was a striking and unusual simplicity, a little ahead of her time, perhaps, but she gradually acquired a clientele discerning enough to appreciate her original approach. Her hats were modelled on the Paris stage by a popular actress, providing a real publicity boost.
In 1913, when Chanel was just 30, she opened a shop in the fashionable French seaside resort of Deauville
This was where she launched her new line of luxury casual and leisure outfits, made from jersey and tricot, fabrics hitherto reserved for men’s underwear! This bold move, producing garments that allowed the wearer to move freely and that looked effortlessly chic, was the turning point for Chanel design – and as it would turn out, for modern women’s fashion from that point on. The famous designer Paul Poiret had only just released women from the bondage of corsets, and now Chanel was completing the revolution in design – total comfort combined with total chic.
Soon she had made so much money that she was able to reimburse Capel his original investment, and went on to open new premises in the Rue Cambon in Paris. Not long afterward, Boy was killed in an automobile accident; Chanel mourned him ever afterward, saying quite late in life that there was to be be no more real happiness for her after his death. Nevertheless, she would go on to have several lovers, such as the glamorous young Prince of Wales and the Duke of Westminster, the richest man in England, who even asked her to marry him. “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster” was her reply, “but there is only one Coco Chanel!” As her fame grew, her circle included all the famous artists of the day, but her style remained utterly distinctive. Pared-down, yet vibrating with her unique energy, she insisted that clothes merely set a woman off, never overwhelm her individuality. “A well-dressed woman,” she once said “makes people notice her, not what she is wearing.” She believed in fashion as foil, not statement. Understatement is what Chanel understood so well; those years in the convent had left their mark. In her designs over the decades one sees variations of an orphan’s utterly simple black uniform, with its clean white collar – this basic look provided the wellspring of her creativity. She famously advised “Before going out, look in the mirror, and remove one item of jewellery.” Her understanding of taste would be one Beau Brummel could approve: nothing in excess, nothing to distract from the wearer’s personality; in short, pure harmony.
Despite a damaged reputation gained through a wartime affair with a German officer while living at the Ritz in Paris, France eventually forgave her.
In the 1950s, she returned from exile in Switzerland to start once again designing collections in the Rue Cambon. Her style apogee was the early 1960s, when contemporary fashion finally caught up with her and the Chanel style expressed perfectly the look of the era – think Jackie Kennedy, Empress Farah Diba, Maria Callas, Princess Grace of Monaco. Even when they weren’t wearing Chanel, their look was entirely expressive of her style philosophy. Other designers had begun to design like her. Chanel had gone beyond fashion, to the realm of a Platonic ideal of style itself.