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Spy, visionary, and icon: The complicated legacy of Coco Chanel

Spy, visionary, and icon: The complicated legacy of Coco Chanel

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What are you willing to sacrifice in order to achieve ultimate success? Most importantly, when confronted with the greatest challenge in your career, would you be willing to risk it all? War, poverty, and social ruin, Coco Chanel survived thanks to her ambitions, persuasion, and instinct. Her classic rags-to-riches epic resulted in an empire that shattered an industry dominated by men. We know her designs and her famous Chanel No. 5 perfume, but who was the woman behind the timeless style? Life wasn’t always $4,000 patent leather handbags and drapey pearl necklaces.

The making of Coco Chanel: Fashion industry icon

Before she was Coco Chanel, the high-fashion mogul was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883 to a peddler father and impoverished mother. She was abandoned at the tender age of twelve, and as a result, she and her sister were sent to an orphanage run by the holiest of the holy — nuns.

Gabrielle Chanel lounging on a couch

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, couturiere, in her preferred pose, lounging in a chair. (Photo by George Hoyningen-Huene/Condé Nast via Getty Images)

The nuns were strict when it came to Chanel’s upbringing and it was in the nunnery that she first learned how to sew. However, before you thank our Ladies of Perpetual Fashion, Coco’s interest in sewing started actually outside the orphanage walls, in her safe haven.

Threading the needle

Relief came in the form of the holidays when Chanel was free to visit her aunts, Louise and Adrienne. Her aunts welcomed Chanel into their home. It was her aunts who taught her how to sew frills, ribbons, ruffles, and other embellishments into her garment and accessories such as hats and bonnets.

Fashion : Coco Chanel In London 1932

UNITED KINGDOM – FEBRUARY 25: February 25, 1932 portrait of the fashion designer Gabrielle CHANEL, called Coco CHANEL, during a trip to London. (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

It was Chanel’s way to cope with a world where love was limited.  It was in these sessions that the sting of her father’s abandonment temporarily subsided. With loving hands, her aunts taught her the beauty and practicalities of stitch-work. However, nothing was ever permanent in Chanel’s life.

A fork in the road

At eighteen, the nuns — dressed in their somber uniform of black robes and white veils — sat Chanel down for a little chat. No longer a child, and no longer the nun’s obligation, they presented her with two choices: become a nun or leave. Chanel chose her destiny, away from a life of Hail Marys and Our Fathers.

Gabrielle Chasnel called Coco Chanel (1883-1971), french fashion designer, here before 1914

Gabrielle Chanel called Coco Chanel (1883-1971), French fashion designer, here before 1914 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

Hightailing it out of the sisterhood, Chanel’s next moves was to establish herself in a world that respected class and modesty. She wanted to live a life without suffering. Chanel wanted to be somebody. She looked up to the ladies of high society and decided to enroll into the Notre Dame finishing school for girls. From there, her drive and ambitions grew.

Through the looking glass

Every day during those two years, Chanel was influenced and inspired by the women of high society. It was in finishing school that Chanel came to realize that if she ever wanted to be somebody, she needed money and she needed to find a way to be a part of the world of luxury.

Ina Claire and Coco Chanel

(Original Caption) Mademoiselle Gabrielle (Coco) Chanel, right, fashion expert, with actress Ina Claire.

She wasn’t into the idea of becoming a housewife nor particularly drawn to the duties of motherhood — no, Chanel wanted a profession, she wanted a career, a business of her own. After a tumultuous childhood, she was determined to never depend on anyone else. In what? She had no clue. But that was all about to change.

A stitch in time

In 1903 Chanel took her first step into the world of fashion. Don’t get too excited, it wasn’t like she was hired by a famous Edwardian designer or became a dressmaker’s apprentice. No, at age twenty, thanks to her time in finishing school, Chanel landed a job as a seamstress in a small garrison town called Moulins.

Coco Chanel Shows Newly-Designed Dress

Coco Chanel admires a flounced brown chiffon evening dress from her new collection.

Tailoring, mending, and sewing, Chanel was hired because of her impeccable skill with a needle and thread. This was a humble profession for a woman in her class, but Chanel knew it wasn’t enough for her. She would soon have a date with destiny.

Finding a way in

Moulins was periodically swarmed with off-duty soldiers. Many would waltz into Chanel’s place of work to have their uniforms mended. As a dark-haired beauty, she caught the attention of many soldiers. Soon she was invited to an evening of live entertainment.

Profile of coco chanel

Portrait de Coco Chanel, la créatrice de haute couture prise en 1944 à Paris. (Photo credit should read -/AFP/Getty Images)

She was hesitant at first, but Chanel quickly became enthralled and enchanted by the performances of local music halls where she rubbed elbows with those she had watched from afar for so long. When she realized amateurs were welcomed on the stage, Chanel went from being a member of the audience to a stage performer. If America’s Got Talent was in Edwardian Era France, Chanel was aiming for a golden buzzer ticket to Paris. A star was beginning to be formed. 

Life in the limelight

Chanel saw a much more glamorous future on the stage and thought she could make it as a singer. Her repertoire limited, Chanel only performed two songs: Ko Ko Ri Ko and Kike Roo Coco, which earned her the stage name Le Petite Coco. Her stage name stuck, and she was no longer Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, but simply Coco.

portrait of coco chanel

Portrait of French fashion designer Coco Chanel (born Gabrielle Chanel, 1883 – 1971) as she reclines an a sofa in her home, 1960. (Photo by Horst P. Horst/Conde Nast Collection/Getty Images)

Her onstage presence started to amass much attention from the watchful soldiers of Moulins. One of them was a playboy, polo-playing millionaire named Etienne Balsan. Enchanted by her wit and charm, his relationship with Chanel would change the trajectory of her life.

First love

Chanel was only twenty-one when she began her intimate relationship with Balsan, but the relationship wasn’t serious. Balsan had no interest in settling down. In fact, he already had a live-in mistress at his estate. Chanel was amused that Balsan would think she wanted him for a husband.

Coco Chanel sitting and posing

The French couturier and fashion designer Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel (1883-1971). (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Like Balsan, Chanel also had no interest in getting married. She saw something else in the philandering millionaire — opportunity. Chanel saw him as her ticket out of poverty and as a liaison into the world of the elite. After a year of being one of his many mistress, Chanel made her next move.

A new style

In the early 1900s, “fashion was just about sexual politics as it was about clothes.” While Chanel lived in Balsan’s chateau Royallieu, she busied herself making elaborate hats. It was her keen attention to detail that lead her to observe the fashion of her age and put her own twist on it.

elite woman wearing a lace dress

4th July 1908: An Edwardian lady wearing an elegant heavy lace, high-necked gown, taken from a postcard. (Photo by Reutlinger/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

At the time, all fashion was designed by men. Their designs were often solely decorative and highly impractical. The gowns of the time were ridiculous to Chanel. Dresses were breathlessly constrained at the waist, tightened stiffly by a corset, and the skirts were billowy, long, and made women helpless in performing the simplest task without fainting. 

Haute couture

To Chanel, the women’s fashion implied that women were only meant for decorative purposes. Didn’t they know there were women under those gowns? Apparently, not. Women’s comfort was not a consideration to the male designers of the day — and Chanel saw an opportunity.

women in the 1900s

The promenade, Williamsburg Bridge, New York, USA. The Williamsburg Bridge over the East River had the longest suspension bridge span in the world when it was completed in 1903.  (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

She refused to be a slave to the common practices of fashion. She came to the conclusion when Balsan gifted her with fine clothing and jewelry appropriate for a woman of the time, but one look at the curtain drapes that society called a gown enabled Chanel to refuse contemporary fashion. What she did next left the modern Edwardian woman gasping in both horror and intrigue.

A grand arrival

It was the summer of 1909 when Chanel discovered her true self and understood her calling. At age twenty-six, she attended a horse race with Balsan, and her arrival stirred a flurry of whispers and raised brows. Chanel had done something really out of the box.

Chanel And Abdy

30th May 1929: French couturier Coco Chanel, left, with Lady Abdy, in the garden of Chanel’s Faubourg St Honore home, Paris. (Photo by Sasha/Getty Images)

She wore one of Balsan’s ties, donned an abandoned coat belonging to one of Balsan’s friends, and topped it off with one of the boater hats she had designed — all men’s cloths. It was a fitting look for Chanel, one that would be echoed in her designs for decades. She knew she was doing something unique, and it got the attention she wanted. 

More than a hobby

Amused and intrigued by her bold style, Balsan decided to gift her a small room in his chateau to encourage her hat-making hobby. Chanel didn’t see her creations as a hobby. It was her life’s calling. She wanted to start her own business and finally become the “somebody” she always knew she was meant to be. However, it was a dream she couldn’t accomplish alone.

Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris

FRANCE – CIRCA 1937: Coco Chanel ( 1883-1971 ), French couturier. Paris, 1937. LIP-6958-060. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

With no money of her own, she needed an investor. Luckily for Chanel, she happened to know a very wealthy aristocrat who could help her with just that. It was during this opportunistic moment of her life that Chanel met someone who didn’t just change her life, but also won her heart.

Drunk in love

When Chanel finally realized her true calling, she bumped into one of Balsan’s closest friends. His name was Captain Arthur “Boy” Capel, a wealthy English aristocrat who soon became the love of Chanel’s life. It was unclear how they met or fell in love, but rumor had it it happened while strolling through a meadow under the snow-capped Pyrenees peaks.

coco chanel descending from an airplane

1957: French fashion designer Coco Chanel says goodbye to American department store executive Stanley Marcus as she boards an airplane in Dallas, Texas. Chanel had been visiting for the opening of a new Neiman-Marcus store. She holds a package from the store. (Photo by Shel Hershorn/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Soon after they began their affair, Chanel left Balsan for Capel. The couple left for Paris during the city’s Belle Epoque. Balsan, though saddened, was at ease with Chanel running off with Capel. In fact, it was Balsan and Capel who created a partnership and financed her first business. 

House of Chanel

If you’re thinking this is the part where Coco Chanel opens her first boutique, made her millions and lived happily ever after, you would be wrong. Though Capel and Balsan did invest in Chanel’s first venture into the fashion industry, what they invested in was a hat shop. Chanel managed her millinery store under the name Chanel Modes, located on 21 rue Cambon in Paris.

Strike In Chanel Fashion House In Paris On 1938

FRANCE – JANUARY 01: Strike In Chanel Fashion House In Paris On 1938 (Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone via Getty Images)

Her hats were simple, yet elegant — a different look compared to the time’s fruit-bowl-styled hats with feathers, over-sized visors, and an abundance of fabric. She prioritized function over decoration. Causing a citywide sensation, her hats were worn by the most famous French actresses of her generation. Her reputation grew and helped propel the new business owner into the next phase of her life.

The life of the rich and famous

When we think about the places where the filthy rich and famous roam, we often think of a California scene like Los Angeles and Orange County. Just the mention of the word California makes Instagram start populating pictures of avocado toast and trust-fund babies in designer crop tops. For Coco Chanel, that was Deauville. There, the “crème de la crème” spent their vacations on beaches.

Gabrielle Chanel called Coco Chanel (1883-1971), french fashion designer, here playing golf c.1910

APRIL 08: Gabrielle Chanel called Coco Chanel (1883-1971), French fashion designer, here playing golf c.1910 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

It was on a romantic getaway with Capel that Chanel decided to open her first boutique at the epicenter of France’s finest. The doors to her first-ever boutique opened in 1913 and introduced a collection of sportswear. Her premier line was mostly made from jersey — a soft and stretchy material used in men’s underwear. Chanel’s jersey garments caught on quick. They changed everything in women’s fashion.

The vision

Chanel’s first couture collection was designed solely by women and didn’t feature ruffles or ribbons. Her collection was simple, stylish, and best of all, her designs were functional. “I want to give women the possibility to laugh and eat without necessarily having to faint,” she said soon after opening her boutique.

Coco Chanel in Fashionable Clothing

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel in suit and beret. (Photo by George Rinhart/Corbis via Getty Images)

Chanel was able to bask in celebrity, a spotlight she had craved all her life, but soon, her progress came to a startling halt. The world was changing, and the events that followed soon challenged Chanel to make drastic changes in her designs. Tensions had been rising in Europe; war loomed on the horizon.

Wartime business opportunity

World War I erupted in the summer of 1914. Chanel realized that people were entering a time that resources were becoming increasingly scarce and having the latest pieces from a high fashion designer would be the last thing on anyone’s mind. She had to think quickly, but carefully. As Europe’s men left to fight a violent war, women stepped into the labor force to help bridge the void.

First World War Soldiers in Trench

French and British soldiers in trenches on the Western Front during World War I, 1916. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Working in a factory wasn’t easy — on the contrary, most of the time, it was quite dangerous. Women’s traditional wardrobes of dresses were not only useless, but impractical to wear in factories with all their extra fabric and embellishments. Using her signature jersey fabric, Chanel came up with a breakthrough design.

Building a brand

Chanel created a small collection of jersey day-wear for women, and like all her trademark designs, they were functional and practical for a woman in the workforce. The dress was shorter than average skirts of the day, reaching just below the knees. They were tailored for a slim fit, didn’t require a corset, and was easy to move in.

coco chanel day dress

Day dress, 1925 (front view). Printed silk crepe, metallic thread by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

The jersey dress was a hit. Chanel had turned wartime scarcity into profit and found her niche. The designer once quipped: “The world was dying while another was being born. I was there. An opportunity came forward and I took it.” Her jersey dresses sparked a revolution in women’s fashion. By the 1920s, Chanel was a household name. Life was going well — but trouble was brewing in the soon-to-be icon’s personal life. 

Master of her destiny

After her initial success, Chanel felt like she could conquer the world. “I was my own master and I depended on myself alone. Boy Capel was well aware he didn’t control me. ‘I thought I’d given you a plaything, I gave you freedom,’ he once said to me in a melancholy voice,” Chanel once said when reflecting upon her initial success.

Arthur Boy Capel

Arthur Boy Capel, 1911. Private Collection. Strictly for Editorial use only. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

But with that success came a shift in the relationship between the two. They grew apart, and the warm love between faded and was replaced with platitudes and routine. In 1918 — the same year the war ended — Boy Capel would betray Chanel.

A woman scorned

Chanel was fully devoted to Capel. But in the fall of 1918, Capel announced his intention to marry an aristocratic English beauty — daughter of a lord. Chanel was distraught. “We were made for each other, that he was there and that he loved me and that he knew that I loved him with all that mattered.”

Coco Chanel and her lover Arthur " Boy " Capel in 1917

Coco Chanel and her lover Arthur ” Boy ” Capel (mustache) with Constent Say on the beach in Saint Jean de Luz in 1917 (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

By this time, Chanel’s name was worth its weight in gold. But she was still second best to the thing that mattered most to her. Though he got married, their relationship continued. But Chanel was no longer his partner. Both professionally and romantically, she was his mistress. Just a year later, Chanel’s life crumbled before her feet.

‘Til death do us part

On December 21, 1919, Boy Capel was killed in a car accident. If news of his marriage shattered her, the news of his death killed her. “I lost everything when I lost Capel,” she admitted. Now she was alone, and in her loneliness, anger grew. She blamed society’s elite for Capel’s death and she wanted, more than anything, justice and revenge.

a car accident stuck in a ravine

A car ends up in a ditch after being driven off the road, somewhere in Persia.

Chanel was going to show the world just how merciless she could be. She had a plan. She was going to find a way to join high society and become their goddess. Her hubris began to grow. An interesting course of action, but okay, to each their own. 

The LBD

As the years passed, Chanel knocked down every standard in women’s fashion. Her styles spread like a wildfire in the fashion industry and before long, she was dominating it. She is credited with the advent of the little black dress. Her sensational Chanel No.5 was the first to put women in sleek and stylish trousers.

little black evening dress

Evening dress, 1931 (front oblique partial view). Crocheted silk, sequins by Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel. (Photo by Chicago History Museum/Getty Images)

She also created the first line of makeup comprised of red lipstick, nail polish, and suntan oil. Chanel coined the term and concept “fashion statement.” Because of her innovation, by the end of the 1920s, the corset became obsolete. Chanel was a living legend, and the House of Chanel was her temple. She was practically royalty. 

A royal romance

If being a fashion icon wasn’t enough, Chanel dated the Duke of Westminster, His Majesty Hugh “Bendor” Grosvenor. Enchanted by her confidence and character, the duke sent her love letters, fruit, and flowers. It was through their courtship that she socialized with the friends of royalty and met Winston Churchill.

Coco And The Duke

Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879 – 1953) at Chester Races with French fashion designer Coco Chanel (1883 – 1971), 1st May 1924. (Photo by Phillips/Topical Press Agency/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

There was talk of marriage. However, it wasn’t meant to be. “He wasn’t free, nor was I. I didn’t want to leave the House of Chanel, which I had built all by myself and continuously reshaped.” Though her statement was strong and noble, the simple truth was this: She was a commoner, and he could never marry her. Their royal romance ended, and soon, war would sweep Europe once more.

A world at war

World War II broke out in 1939. Germany invaded Poland, and shortly after, France and England declared war on Germany. France’s government had not immediately fallen under direct attack and begged Chanel to keep her shops open to keep the spirits of the citizens of France up.

soldiers on their way to omaha beach

Photo: Robert F. Sargent, U.S. Coast Guard (USCG). Normandy, France. (Photo by Galerie Bilderwelt/Getty Images)

It all went downhill when the Germans advanced in France. They swiftly marched into Paris, and rather than destroying the City of Love, took it over ans occupied it. They used the Hotel Ritz as their headquarters — the same hotel Chanel had put up her residency. She was sleeping next to the enemy, figuratively and literally.

Chanel eau de parfume

It was during the war that Chanel saw another business opportunity. There is some speculation that Chanel wanted to destroy her competitors by using Germany’s Aryan laws. The investors of her famous perfume, a private company owned by Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, profited 80% on her perfume sales, while Chanel only pocketed 10%.

Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1936

FRANCE – CIRCA 1936: Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1936. LIP-6958-108. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

It was also rumored that she leveraged her German connections to void their contract. She didn’t know it at the time, but she was risking it all. If shady business prospects weren’t enough, Chanel found romance under German rule. She began an affair with German cavalry officer and spy, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, who was thirteen years her junior. It was during their affair that von Dincklage offered her a daring proposition. 

Powerful connections

The Axis Powers knew Chanel had connections with the English parliament, namely Winston Churchill. They planned to use Chanel as bait to lure Churchill to France to negotiate a surrender with Germany having the upper-hand. She agreed to try. But she overestimated her influence with the British powers and failed to bring Churchill to France.

Winston Churchill Hunting with his Son Randolph and Coco Chanel

Britain’s Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill enjoys a few days’ boar hunting with his son Randolph and Coco Chanel in the forests near Dieppe.

Big mistake. Chanel was now known as a German collaborator. When the war ended and France was liberated, the public initiated a witch hunt for all those who aided Germany and their regime. Women who slept with German soldiers were publicly humiliated by having their heads shaved and were paraded down the streets. It was only a matter of time before authorities came knocking on Chanel’s door.

The aftermath

It was well known that Chanel collaborated with the Germans and had even profited off of the war. Her German lover gone (he fled to Switzerland), Chanel stayed behind to face the consequences of her actions. Officers arrested Chanel and labeled her not just a collaborator, but a spy.

Bastille Day During Nazi Occupation

Parisians spend the first Bastille Day under Nazi occupation quietly.

The House of Chanel was tarnished and ruined. Like Rome, her fashion empire had been destroyed — and she bore some of the blame for her own decline. However, though she was devastated, Chanel was able to avoid war-crime charges. Hours after her capture, Chanel was released. What happened next stunned the city of Paris.

The verdict

The public was surprised that Chanel was cleared of all charges. Some whispered that it was because she blackmailed her way out of prison, others said that Winston Churchill used his influence to help her. Regardless, Chanel’s reputation was tattered. France hated her and her brand, so much so that it was unsafe for her to stay in France. She left for Switzerland, where her German lover awaited.

Coco Chanel leaning against door frame

FRANCE – CIRCA 1937: Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1937. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

When she left France, she wasn’t leaving just her home, but her legacy too. She lost the two things that mattered most to her: Her business and her reputation. The House of Chanel was no more. She remained in hiding for nearly ten years. Then, something in the fashion world caught her attention.

In hiding

Bitter and full of regret, Chanel watched the world of fashion from the sidelines. She hated what she saw. In 1947 Christian Dior introduced a new look that incorporated a cinched waist, lengthy and full skirts, and yards of fabric. It looked stiff, ornamental, and stood against everything that Chanel had set out to accomplish in her own fashion lines.

Dior and his models

25th April 1950: Fashion couturier Christian Dior (1905 – 1957), designer of the ‘New Look’ and the ‘A-line’, with six of his models after a fashion parade at the Savoy Hotel, London. (Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone/Getty Images)

She was convinced that women would soon be eager for something more modern. Convinced the fashion world needed her once again, Chanel re-entered the fashion scene. However, in light of the whole you-betrayed-our-country thing, not everyone was happy to see her back on the scene.

Out of hiding

Chanel was in her 70s when she returned to Paris. In February of 1954, Chanel began working on the most important collection of her life. She was going to launch her first post-war fashion line. Every model was subjugated to Chanel’s need for perfection. The stakes were high. She would either come back slaying dragons or face defeat for good.

Coco Chanel mending her signature suit

FRANCE – CIRCA 1959: Coco Chanel in Paris, France in 1959 – Miss Coco Chanel (on the left). Coco Chanel’s apartment, Cambon street. (Photo by KAMMERMAN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

When she debuted her new line, the French press was furious. She had not been forgiven for collaborating with German soldiers during the war. They ridiculed her and called her new line a fiasco. Despite the bad publicity, not everyone hated the new line. The star-spangled banner waved to her across the Atlantic.

The icon’s legacy

American’s fell in love with Chanel and her designs. They were simple, elegant, and perfect for the working woman. Chanel arrived and was ready to dress the American people. She was revered by celebrities and the public alike. She had once again become a fashion icon, only this time, she was twice as successful as she was in her heyday in Paris.

Coco Chanel posing

FRANCE – CIRCA 1936: Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1936. Colourized photo. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)

The House of Chanel was worth millions and had once again had risen to the top of a male-dominated industry. Even up until her timely death in 1971, her brand continued to influence major fashion designers around the world.  Today, the Chanel brand is associated with the finest, most elegant, and beautiful fashion in the world, with price tags that only the world’s most elite can afford.

 

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