Gabrielle Chanel was born in 1883 and was placed in an orphanage at the age of 12 after the death of her mother. In 1901 she discovered a passion for dressmaking that she had learned at the convent in Moulins.
She found a job in a haberdashery shop in the same town and also tried her hand at being a cabaret singer where she was nicknamed Coco by her audience. This audience included the rich heir, Etienne Balsan, who offered her a life of ease at his side on his estate at Royallieu.
Coco Chanel accepted but soon got bored and decided to put her knowledge to work by making herself sober or tomboyish hats and clothing, in contrast to the feminine fashions of her time, and getting her noticed by Arthur Capel in particular. This businessman, who became the love of her life, believed in her talent and offered to set her up in a Paris workshop. It was a success and was followed by the opening of a shop on Rue Cambon (1910), and two more in Deauville (1913) and Biarritz (1915).
Coco Chanel’s simple style, rejecting decorations and fine fabrics, was inspired by men’s clothing and was designed to give freedom of movement to a woman’s body.
In 1920, Coco Chanel began making costume jewellery, such as big brooches and ostentatious chains which still typify Chanel jewellery.
At the same time her little black dress became a great hit and was widely copied, becoming the must-have garment of the fifties and sixties.
The first Chanel fragrance, Chanel n°5, appeared in 1924, thanks to a collaboration between Coco and the rich Wertheimer family (which owned 70% of the perfume side of her business). However, the collaboration started to go wrong in 1928 because Coco felt she was being financially exploited.
In the fifties and sixties her famous tweed or bouclé fabric skirt suits made their appearance, becoming a symbol of the brand.
In February 1955 (hence its name), the first Chanel signature handbag, the 2.55, was launched. It was inspired by childhood memories and her life story. The quilted pattern of the calfskin leather is a reference to the windows in the abbey at Aubazine which she attended when she was at the convent, the rectangular clasp, known as the Mademoiselle clasp, refers to her choice never to marry.
Despite these innovations, Chanel’s style found it hard to compete with Christian Dior’s New Look which was designed to bring back the voluptuous femininity of the pre-war period, where the corset was once again de rigueur. Coco Chanel was obliged to sell her couture house to Pierre Wertheimer in 1954 and it is still the property of the Wertheimer family today.
Coco Chanel died in 1971.
It wasn’t until the appointment of the talented German designer Karl Lagerfeld as creative director of Chanel in 1983 that the brand managed to return to its former glory. Lagerfeld’s reinterpretation of the Chanel suit was such a success that it is now one of the essential items in the feminine wardrobe.
The same applies to the makeover of the 2.55 bag which was launched as the Timeless in 1982. The Timeless is different to the 2.55 because its chain is interwoven with a leather strap in beige or black and its clasp is curved representing the two intertwined Cs of the Chanel brand logo. These two bags are the It-Bags of the Chanel fashion house, but they did not stop Karl Lagerfeld from designing a new handbag in 2010, called the Mademoiselle, carried by Blake Lively, the heroine of the TV series Gossip Girl. It is a curved clutch bag in quilted leather that looks more like an evening bag than one for everyday use.
In 2011, the Chanel company Foundation opened its doors in Neuilly-sur-Seine. It is true to Coco’s feminist spirit and supports projects that contribute to improving the lives of women in the world and promoting their business activities.
Lastly, from a financial point of view, the Chanel brand now has undeniable international fame and success (Chanel n°5 is the perfume with the highest sales in the world), it has over 240 shops and embodies a certain concept of luxury, that according to Coco is not the opposite of poverty but the opposite of vulgarity. Although the brand prefers to remain discreet about the company’s figures and the breakdown of its international clientele, it seems that it made an annual turnover of 1.8 billion euros in 2010 and 2.27 billion euros in 2011.
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