Coco Chanel Biography: The Woman Who Changed The World Of Fashion

Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel

In this success story, we are going to share Coco Chanel biography, a very talented and creative fashion designer who changed the world of fashion. The story will captivate you from the first lines. Enjoy reading Coco Chanel life story on AstrumPeople.

Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971) is an outstanding French fashion designer, creator of the fashion empire of the XX century. She is the founder of The House of Chanel. Her net worth is $15 billion. Her real name is Gabrielle Chanel.

“Fashion is what one wears oneself. What is unfashionable is what other people wear”,  this is the famous quotation from Oscar Wilde. It was disproved by Coco Chanel in the mid-20s of the previous century who stated that fashion was the “little black dress”. Her authority was so great that women from different social classes unhesitatingly were wearing Chanel clothing.

Early Life, Career and First Love

We know very little about the childhood of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. Gabrielle was born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France in the family of fair trader Albert Chanel and his girlfriend Eugénie Jeanne Devolle. He married Jeanne Devolle several years after Coco Chanel was born. They did not have a permanent place to live. If things went well, they allowed themselves to have a primitive farm and settled down in some old abandoned shack, which people tried to get round. Her mother was a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital owned by the Sisters of Providence and her father was a street vendor who sold haberdashery goods on the street market.

The legendary Mademoiselle Chanel had been shy of her miserable childhood all her life. She was afraid that reporters could find out about her extramarital origins, her mother’s death from bronchitis at the age of 31 or about her father who simply gave up having passed Gabrielle in a shelter at the age of 12. Coco Chanel even invented her story that when her mother died, her father sailed for America, and she lived in a cozy and clean house with two strict aunts, who in reality did not exist.

If you were born without wings, do nothing to prevent them from growing. – Coco Chanel Click To Tweet

Having learned sewing arts during her six years at Aubazine shelter, Coco Chanel was able to find a job as a seamstress. When not plying her trade with a needle and thread, she was singing in a cabaret “La Rotonde” frequented by cavalry officers. There Gabrielle acquired her nickname “Coco”. It is derived from the famous song “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco?” that she used to sing.

Coco Chanel Biography

Caricature of Boy Capel dancing with Coco Chanel

In her early twenties, Coco Chanel concluded that the main thing in life was money. In 1905, when a young and wealthy bourgeois Étienne Balsan came into her life, Coco Chanel hung around his neck. In her eyes, he was the real man, who had money and was able to spend them easily. When she settled in the castle of her lover, Coco took full advantages of her new life. She was lying in bed until noon, drinking coffee with milk and reading cheap novels. However, Étienne did not think Coco was the woman, which was worth spending big money on.

In the spring of 1908, Coco Chanel met with a friend of Balsan Captain, Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel CBE, an English polo player with a straight black hair and a dull complexion. Arthur Capel advised Coco to open a vending hat shop and promised her financial support. Later on, he will become her partner in business and personal life.

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel and Étienne Balsan

However, she was obliged to Étienne Balsan, who helped to start her career. Étienne wanted to involve his bothered girlfriend into any matter that under the pretext to evict her from his castle. Coco settled in his bachelor apartment on the Malesherbes Boulevard in Paris where he usually had fun with his girlfriends. It was the place where Coco began making and selling her hats. An interesting fact is that all the former mistresses of Étienne became the first clients of Mademoiselle Chanel. They also expanded the range of her clients to their friends. Things went very well, and soon this bachelor apartment became too small.

The First Glory of Chanel

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel and Boy Capel, 1912.

At the end of 1910, Coco Chanel finally broke up with Étienne Balsan and began to live with Captain “Boy” Capel. In 1910, Coco became a licensed modiste (hat maker) and opened a boutique named Chanel Modes on 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. Soon the street became known throughout the world and had been linked to her name for half a century.

In 1913, Coco Chanel opened her boutique in Deauville that quickly attracted regular clients. The creator of the famous hats dreamt of developing her own line of women’s clothing. At this time, she had no right to make a ‘real’ women’s dresses, as she could be brought to justice for illegal competition because she was not a licensed dressmaker. Coco found the solution. She started sewing dresses of jersey fabric, which had been only used for men’s underwear and earned her first capital on it. Coco Chanel’s close family members have always been supportive. One was her sister, Antoinette Chanel and her aunt, Adrienne Chanel. Both of the girls Coco recruited to model Chanel’s designs and advertise the Chanel fashion clothes.

Coco Chanel Biography

Aunt Adrienne (left) and Coco Chanel (right) near “Chanel Modes” on 21 Rue Cambon in Paris.

All of her dress-discoveries were born that way. While designing Coco did not excel herself, but simplified details. She did not draw her sketches of clothing and did not sew them. Usually, Coco threw a cloth on a mannequin, then cut and slaughtered a shapeless mass of material until the desired silhouette was manifested.

Chanel quickly became the world fashion designer, turning over the spotlight. She created a style that had been previously unthinkable for women – tracksuits. She dared to appear in the sailor suit and tight skirt on the beaches of seaside resorts. The style produced by The House of Chanel was simple, practical and elegant. However, in 1914, the World War I began. There were chaos and the ‘feast during the plague’ in France. Coco continued to work vigorously, presenting new demands for clothing and generating new ideas: the first female skinny suit from Chanel. A couple of years later, she sewed a redingote without a belt and ornaments, removing the bust and curves with almost masculine stringency. She created an understated waist, dress shirt, pants for women and beach pajamas.

In order to be irreplaceacle, one must always be different. – Coco Chanel Click To Tweet

Despite the fact that The House of Chanel introduced the fashion women’s pants, Coco wore them quite rarely, as she believed that a woman would never look in the pants as good as a man would. However, she liked a short man’s hairstyle. The reason is simple – short hair is easier to take care of. Once Coco cut her hair and proudly walked out into the world, explaining that everything in her house caught on fire, and it burned her curls. Therefore, in 1917, a trend for short man’s hairstyle among women was prevalent. Before the Coco Chanel’s action, women had to be longhaired.

In 1919, when her beloved Arthur “Boy” Capel died in a car accident, Coco Chanel said: “Either I die as well. Or I finish what we started together.” If this tragedy had not happened in the life of Chanel, she would have never started experimenting with black cloth. Some people say that she brought black color clothes into vogue to make all women in France mourning for her beloved. Coco was not allowed to mourn officially, as she was not married to Arthur Capel.

The Birth of Chanel No. 5 Perfume

Chanel No. 5 Perfume

Chanel No. 5 Perfume

In the summer of the 1920s, Coco Chanel opened a big fashion house in Biarritz. Later on, she met with a Russian émigré, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, and they both felt the mutual passion to each other. The romance was short but fruitful. Coco learned many new ideas from her exotic lover. How could she forget his stories about the treasures of the Muscovite tsar or the luxury of ecclesiastical vestments? Moreover, after this meeting, there were parts of the Russian folk costume shirts with original embroidery in her new collection. The most momentous is that during the road tour in France, Dmitri Pavlovich introduced Coco to a Russian perfumer, Ernest Beaux, when they stopped in Grasse town. Ernest’s father had worked for many years at the imperial court.

The meeting was fruitful for both of them. After a year of hard work and long-term experiments, Ernest placed before of Coco ten samples and divided them into two groups. The first half Ernest Beaux numbered from one through five, the second one – from twenty through twenty-four. Coco chose the sample No. 5 and when Beaux asked her why Coco Chanel replied: “I always launch my collection on the 5th day of the 5th months, so the number 5 seems to bring me luck – therefore, I will name it No. 5”.

The marketing policy of The House Of Chanel was targeted to celebrities. This choice was not accidental: in the list of clients who wore Chanel No. 5 perfume were the most beautiful women of the century. Chanel No. 5 was a favorite perfume of Jacqueline Kennedy. However unwittingly, Marilyn Monroe invaluably promoted “Chanel”. Moreover, she did it free. In the early 1950s, in one of the interviews, Marilyn said that all she wore in bed was a few drops of Chanel No. 5 perfume. A few days later her statement skyrocketed sales of Chanel No. 5 perfume.

Designers spilled the golden liquid into a crystal bottle with a modest rectangular label that looked to them a peculiar solution; usually, perfume bottles had intricate shapes. As a result, the world had a ‘perfume for women that smelt like a woman’. It was the first synthetic perfume of eighty components that were not repeating the smell of a particular flower, as it had been earlier. The success experienced its creators – Chanel No. 5 is still the best-selling perfume in the world.

A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future. – Coco Chanel Click To Tweet

The Little Black Dress

By the early 20s, the world almost ended up in fighting for gender inequality. Women had a legal right to work, to vote and to make abortion, but at the same time, they lost their face. Fashion was going through a situation where due to the sad egalitarianism women’s clothing began to lose its sexiness and sophistication.

Coco Chanel got this point and successfully managed to combine incredible details in her models with revolutionary innovations and defiant femininity. She invented the famous “little black dress”, which seemed, at first, glance, artless, rustic garb and impersonal. This decisive step brought the 44-year designer worldwide fame and made her finding a symbol of elegance, luxury, and good taste.

Little Black Dress by Chanel

The Little Black Dress by Chanel

The first models of the dresses were made of forgotten fluid crepe marocain, knee-length, straight cut with narrow sleeves to the wrists. An incredibly accurate, adjusted and revolutionary cutting length of skirts distinguished them from other ones. By the way, Coco Chanel believed that the bottom of the dress had not to be lifted above the knee because not all women could boast flawless beauty of this part of the body. Cocktail dresses that were more expensive had V-shaped notches and evening dresses had a profound neckline at the back. It was supposed to wear long strings of pearls or colored jewelry, boas, little jackets and tiny hats with such types of dresses.

The little black dress quickly became a cult clothing and acquired a status symbol. It had been often copied, redesigned and retailored. A set of companies and fashion houses still produce this dress around the world. The popularity of this dress is incredible. New interpretations of this dress appear until nowadays so that we can confidently say that this dress will never go out of style.

A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous. – Coco Chanel Click To Tweet

While exploring Coco Chanel biography, we learned that in her early 20′s, she got involved in jewelry design. The idea to mix crystals and natural stones in a single product came not only to her. However, she was the first who gave life to this idea. Coco actively communicated with the world of Parisian bohemia. She visited ballet performances, met with the artist Pablo Picasso, the famous ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev, the composer Igor Stravinsky, the poet Pierre Reverdy and the playwright Jean Cocteau. Many famous people sought to communicate with the well-known fashion designer just out of curiosity and were surprised to find Coco intelligent, witty and original thinking woman. Once Picasso called her the most sensible woman in the world.

Not only Coco’s appearance attracted men but also her extraordinary personal qualities, strong character, and unpredictable behavior. Coco was irresistibly flirty, extremely sharp, straightforward and even cynical. She looked purposeful, confident, contented and successful woman.

Love Affair with Hugh Grosvenor

Later on, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster, GCVO, DSO (familiarly “Bendor”) came into the life of Coco Chanel. He was a British landowner and one of the richest men in the world. Their love affair had lasted for 14 years. This unusually long love affair led Coco into a different environment – the world of British aristocracy.

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel and Hugh Grosvenor, the Duke of Westminster, at the Grand National racetrack.

From 1926 to 1930, the Duke of Westminster was her most welcomed guest. She believed all along that their love would be crowned with marriage. Coco saw the long-awaited final refuge in each of the houses where the Duke took her. They often left England and traveled on his yachts. Usually, Hugh Grosvenor invited about sixty guests on weekends in his estate. Among them, there were Winston Churchill, his wife and close friends of the Duke. They had dinners with live musical accompaniment and sometimes he even invited a theater from London.

Sir Winston Churchill did not hide his enthusiastic impressions, he admired Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel and considered her of the most intelligent, nice and very strong women, with whom he has ever had to deal with.

Coco Chanel Biography

Randolph Churchill (left), Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (center) and Winston Churchill (right).

The well-known politician and statesman, not in vain called attention to these personality traits of Coco Chanel such as determination, willpower, and desire for independence: they brought her to international success.

If she had given birth to the heir of the Duke, she would have become his wife. Prior to 1928, while the passion was strong in him, he was willing to marry her too. Coco was 46 years old when she began visiting doctors, but it was too late – nature opposed to her dream. The Duke of Westminster, suffered no less than his beloved woman but was forced to marry another one.

Coco Chanel’s head went back to work. The success accompanied her in all endeavors. She was in the zenith of her fame, and despite her age, (she was already over 50), men found her very attractive.

A Ten-Year Pause in Fashion Career

Coco Chanel Lovers

Coco had a love affair with Walther Friedrich Schellenberg, German SS-Brigadeführer, during the WW II.

In 1939, despite the enormous success of her fashion clothing, Coco was forced to close all her shops and the House of Fashion due to the World War II. Many designers left the country, but Coco left in Paris. In September 1944, on the initiative of the Committee on Public Morals Coco Chanel were arrested. The reason was a love affair of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel with a Walther Friedrich Schellenberg, German SS-Brigadeführer. A few hours after her detention, she was released. Shortly after that, Coco Chanel moved to Switzerland, where she has lived for almost ten years.

After World War II, designers appeared like mushrooms after the rain in postwar France. One of them, a young fashion designer Christian Dior commented about Coco Chanel’s design: “With a black pullover and ten rows of pearls she revolutionized fashion.”

Return to the Fashion World

After the war, Christian Dior dressed up women like flowers. He dressed them in crinoline, tightened their waist and filled numerous folds on the thighs. Coco Chanel was laughing at this ‘hyper-femininity’: “Look how ridiculous these women are, wearing clothes by a man who doesn’t know women, never had one, and dreams of being one.”

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel Logo

When Coco Chanel returned from Switzerland to Paris, it was full of a generation of fashionistas, who were convinced that “Chanel” is a brand of perfumes. She rented a small two-room apartment at her favorite hotel Ritz in Paris.

Coco got involved in the fashion industry again. When Marlene Dietrich asked Coco Chanel, why she needed it, she explained it her that she was dying of boredom.

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel

The first reaction of experts and press to a new collection of Coco Chanel was shock and outrage – she could not offer anything new! Alas, the critics failed to understand that this was precisely the secret of her: nothing new, only an eternal, timeless elegance. Coco took revenge for a year. The collection that failed miserably in Paris was slightly revised and shown overseas. Americans gave her an ovation. There was a triumph of the little black dress in the United States. It was an honor to a new generation of fashionable women to wear Chanel clothes and Coco herself turned into a tycoon, managing the largest fashion house in the world fashion industry.

During these years, she created the Pink Chanel suit. On November 22, 1963, when the President John F. Kennedy was assassinated his wife wore a double-breasted, strawberry pink and navy trim collared Chanel wool suit. In the 1960s, the Pink Chanel suit has become a symbol for her husband’s assassination and one of the iconic items of fashion. Many times the suit has been shamelessly copied to the last braid, to the last golden button and stitching. Nevertheless, the name of Coco Chanel is more than a suit.

Once Coco Chanel said: “Fashion fades, only style remains the same.”

Coco Chanel Biography

Coco Chanel stands in her Hotel Ritz Paris apartment.

The world has recognized her as the only trendsetter of the most refined elegance. The Chanel’s style concept firmly anchored in the fashion industry. The Chanel’s style means that a suit should be functional and comfortable. If a Chanel suit has buttons, they certainly should be buttoned. A Chanel suit is usually worn with low-heeled toe cross strap shoes. Chanel designed skirt below the knee with pockets where a businesswoman could put a cigarette case. By the way, the idea of wearing a bag over shoulder also belongs to Mademoiselle Coco.

Coco Chanel maintained an incredible performance until old age. New fashion ideas came to her mind even in her sleep. The secret of success of this fantastic brand lies in its roots. From the very beginning, The House of Chanel sold the art of living but not only clothing for women.

Coco Chanel could not die during a working time. She could not let this happen. On January 10, 1971, she died quietly in the hotel room of Ritz with a window view of the luxuriously decorated The House of Chanel. As of 2014, the revenue of Chanel reached $7.43 billion. When Coco Chanel died, there were found only three dresses in her wardrobe. However, they were “very stylish attires” as would have said Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. We hope you have enjoyed exploring a complete biography of Coco Chanel – the Woman, who changed the world of fashion.

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  • taiya

    when was this written?

    • astrumpeople

      Hey Taiya, the article was written on December 30, 2011.

      • taiya

        thank you!!!!

  • Malorie Smith

    I adore Coco Chanel! She is the goddess of fashion and style. Thanks for such a wonderful biography and lovely quotes.

    • astrumpeople

      Hey Malorie, you are welcome. It’s our pleasure.

    • astrumpeople

      Hey Malorie, you are welcome. It’s our pleasure.

  • Alice goody

    bad grammar but interesting

    • astrumpeople

      Alice, thank you so much for your comment. We are very glad that you enjoyed the story. What is the biggest grammar mistake we have in the article?

  • Helen Chandler

    What a purposeful woman she was.She made a boundless contribution to the fashion industry.

  • Loreen Ibsen

    What an interesting story I’ve just read. Thank you, Astrum People team. Gabrielle Chanel made a boundless contribution to the whole fashion industry. By the way, I wear Chanel No. 5 fragrance, and this is my favorite perfume.

  • Loretta Gisel

    This biography is superior. I run a fashion blog, and this article helped me a lot in writing up some new staff for my readers. Thank you, guys!

    • astrumpeople

      You are welcome, Loretta! We are glad that we could help.