A LIFE IN DESIGN: COCO CHANEL (1883-1971)

Joanna Cunningham explores the life of the famous fashion designer, Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel; socialite, couturière, costume designer, and Nazi spy.

EARLY LIFE AND FAMILY

Coco Chanel was born on 19th August 1883 to Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, a charity hospital laundrywoman known as Jeanne. After a mix-up at the registry office, Chanel was actually named “Chasnel”, when neither of her parents could attend the registration! After herself and her older sister, Julia, were born, Jeanne and their father, Albert, got married in 1884, with Jeanne’s family’s persuasion. They lived in a very rundown, one-room lodging in Brive-la-Gaillarde, with five surviving children.

At 12 years of age, her mother died (probably) of pneumonia, pregnancy and labour. Unable to look after his five children due to his work as an itinerant street peddler, Albert sent his two sons to work as farm labourers, and his three daughters to a convent. This was a pinnacle moment in Chanel’s life, as here was where she learnt to sew – and so her legacy began…

According to those who knew her, Chanel glamorously exaggerated aspects of her life, claiming that her mother died of tuberculosis, and that she was sent away when her father sailed to America to seek a great fortune. She also tended to lie about her age, claiming to have been
10 years younger than she actually was. Therefore, a lot of what we know about her life is based on the speculation of those who knew her and lived around her.

EARLY JOBS, LOVE AFFAIRS, & THE FIRST CHANEL STORE

On leaving school, Chanel took up a job as a seamstress by day, and a cabaret singer for military personnel by night. Here was where Gabrielle acquired the name “Coco”, which is where her famous brand, and the classic intertwined “C” logo came about. Unsurprisingly, her alluring performances attracted many of the military men who came to these shows.

As an aspiring performer, Chanel auditioned for a number of singing roles but, with only an average voice, her physical charms were not enough to win her a role. She soon realised that this was not a realistic career path and sought a new lifestyle.

At the young age of 23, Chanel met Balsan, an ex-cavalry officer, becoming his mistress and living with him in his château in a lovely wooded area near Compiègne. Here was where her social life really took hold, and she lived a life of luxurious parties and decadence, reminiscent of the Roman emperors. Some even suggest that André Palasse, her sister Julia’s son, was actually Chanel’s own son by Balsan.

Catching the eyes of many men, Chanel soon took the fancy of Arthur Capel, one of Balsan’s friends. He provided her an apartment in Paris, as well as her first shop. Some say that she actually designed the bottle of her famous scent, Chanel. No. 5, on Capel’s leather travelling case, or his whiskey decanter, which she so much admired. She wished for a happy life with her provider, but his elaborate lifestyle meant he was never faithful to her, and he died in a car crash in 1919. She claimed that, from then on, her life was not a happy one, so it seems she really did love her Capel.  

Initially designing hats, she became a licensed milliner and after theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat wore one of her creations her fashion career took off. She then introduced her famous casual chic clothing, liberating women from the corset silhouette to a sportier figure, pioneering the look. After such success, and opening more shops, she finally reimbursed Capel’s generous investment in 1916.

BRANCHING OUT

In 1918, Chanel purchased the famous store on 31 rue Cambon and, by 1927, she owned five stores on this stretch. Here, she was able to stretch her business beyond clothing, to accessories such as hats, handbags, jewellery, and perfume.

Although competition for her was high, sparked by the disappearance of the 1920s boyish figure during the 1930s, Chanel still hired 4000 people. She also became a costume designer for the Ballets Russes between 1923 and 1937, but she faced some criticism for her designs. Finally, when war struck in 1939, the Ballet was axed, and her theatre career ended.

FILM CAREER

Naturally, being friends with so many British Aristocrats, she was also acquainted with the cousin to Nicolas II, Tzar of Russia, who introduced her to Samuel Goldwyn in Monte Carlo. He proposed an offer she could not refuse in 1931; to be whisked away to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for MGM. However, this brief stint with Hollywood left her with a bitter taste in her mouth; she described the film business as vulgar and tasteless, but it was speculated that they simply didn’t like her designs, hence her disappearance from the scene.

FRIENDS, DRUG ABUSE, AND MORE LOVE AFFAIRS

By 1935, Chanel and her kindred spirit, Misia Sert, were morphine addicts. They injected themselves on a daily basis, and Chanel continued to do so until the day she died. According to those surrounding her, she threw fabulous cocaine parties.

Chanel also maintained strong relationships with British Aristocrats, such as Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales, and she later struck up an affair with the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, which lasted 10 years. This relationship was where Chanel’s inherent anti-Semitism and homophobia manifested. It was rumoured that Edward, Prince of Wales, was also infatuated with her, and they shared a heated romantic moment with one another during her affair with the Duke. In 1927, the Duke bestowed a parcel of land in the French Riviera to the lucky lady, which she later sold after WWII. She never married Hugh; she never married at all, but her affairs with famous men, not limited to the men described previously, meant she led quite the “American dream”.

WWII: A NAZI SYMPATHISER

When war came, Chanel was obliged to close her shops, causing the unemployment of 4000 women. Some say this was a revenge plot for the 1936 labour strike, which put her out of business at the time.  

This was when her political views on Jews became openly apparent and, when residing at the Hotel Ritz, her love affair with Hans Günther von Dincklage lit up. Dincklage was a confidant of Hitler in the German Embassy in Paris during WWII, promoting Nazi journalism at the height of the Nazi occupation. Her residence at the Ritz was suspicious, as this was where the German military were housed during the Nazi occupation of France, and she was later criticised for being too close to German occupiers.

Chanel was involved in numerous Nazi orchestrations, not limited to a plan for her to carry an SS peace overture to Winston Churchill in Madrid, in order to end the war. This plan was nicknamed “Operation Modellhut”, which translates to “Operation Model Hat”. This was an ultimate failure, as British intelligence uprooted the plan, implicating Chanel and others as Nazi spies.

CHANEL NO. 5 LEGAL AGREEMENT

On pioneering her signature scent, Chanel No. 5 in the 1920s, the Wertheimer brothers struck a deal with the businesswoman, fully financing it in exchange for her receiving only 10% of the profits. Naturally, she later became unhappy with this deal and worked tirelessly to purchase the famous scent back from them.

After the “Night of Broken Glass”, when Jewish store windows were broken by Nazis who kidnapped them for concentration camps, Chanel was able to fully claim her No. 5 perfume from the Jewish Wertheimers. However, she was unaware that the brothers had preempted the Nazi occupation, and had placed Félix Amiot, a Christian French businessman and industrialist, in control. When the Wertheimers returned to Paris, the perfume was granted back into their hands.

Chanel’s direct involvement and collaboration with the Germans during WWII was kept under wraps, as it would have really damaged her business if people were to discover her shady past. This meant that legally taking control of her No. 5 scent would be incredibly difficult, as a legal quarrel might bring to light her relationship with the Nazis, destroying her reputation.

Thus, they came to a mutual agreement which landed her millions.

END OF WWII

In 1944, France was liberated from German occupation, and Chanel fled to Switzerland to avoid criminal charges. Although many women were implicated, Chanel avoided this and, on later interrogation about her relationship with von Dincklage, she was not charged as a collaborator. Some speculate that Churchill played a large part in her acquittal, and her ultimate salvation as a lucrative businesswoman.

LATER LIFE AND DEATH

After the female reign of fashion design during the pre-war era, numerous male designers took the scene, including Christian Dior. Chanel believed that a woman needed to take back control, primarily due to the impractical designs of these men who favoured the small-waisted figures and heavy skirts of previous years. Thus, at the age of 70, she re-entered the fashion world in 1954. Although the French press were a little wary about her comeback due to her Nazi collaborations, the American and British press revelled in it.

In 1971, at 87 years old, Chanel set about preparing the Spring catalogue, as usual. After taking a long drive that afternoon, she went to bed in her residence in the Ritz. Chanel died in her sleep on 10th January 1971, and André Palasse, her nephew and alleged son, inherited much of her estate.

LEGACY

Some of Chanel’s most iconic pieces include the little black dress, which we still see today as a staple in every woman’s wardrobe, as well as the Chanel suit, another staple piece for any business woman. Her casual and comfortable attitude to women’s wear was revolutionary and, although she certainly faced competition, her legacy lives on in the sportychic fashion of today. The Chanel bag is also a winner, and its quilted style is still seen throughout modern Chanel stores. This just goes to show how influential fashion is to people’s lives, as it transcends the boundaries of time, becoming timeless itself.

You can keep up to date with Joanna’s work on her blog, itstartedwithrebecca.wordpress.com, or follow @itstartedwithrebecca on Instagram, and @iswrebecca on Twitter.

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