Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and founder of the Chanel brand. She was the only fashion designer to appear on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Along with Paul Poiret, Chanel was credited with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing the acceptance of a sportive, casual chic as the feminine standard in the post-World War I era. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel’s influence extended beyond couture clothing. Her design aesthetic was realized in jewelry, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. Chanel was known for her lifelong determination, ambition, and energy which she applied to her professional and social life. She achieved both success as a businesswoman and social prominence thanks to the connections she made through her work.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to an unwed mother, Eugénie “Jeanne” Devolle, a laundrywoman, in “the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence” in Saumur, France. She was Devolle’s second daughter. Her father, Albert Chanel, was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns, while the family resided in rundown lodgings. At birth, Chanel’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel”. Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as “travelling”. With both parents absent, the infant’s last name was misspelled, probably due to a clerical error. In 1895,when Gabrielle was twelve years old, her mother died of bronchitis at age thirty-one. Chanel went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Having learned the art of sewing during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel was able to find employment as a seamstress. When not plying her needle, she sang in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Chanel made her stage debut singing at a café-concert (a popular entertainment venue of the era) in a Moulins pavilion, “La Rotonde”. She was among other girls dubbed poseuses, the performers who entertained the crowd between star turns. The money earned was what they managed to accumulate when the plate was passed among the audience in appreciation of their performance. It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name “Coco”, possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, “Ko Ko Ri Ko”, and “Qui qu’a vu Coco”, or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte. As cafe entertainer, Chanel radiated a juvenile allure that tantalized the military habitués of the cabaret.
The year 1906 found Chanel in the spa resort town of Vichy. Vichy boasted a profusion of concert halls, theatres and cafes where Chanel hoped to find success as a performer. Chanel’s youth and physical charms impressed those for whom she auditioned, but her singing voice was marginal and she failed to find stage work. Obliged to find employment, she took work at the “Grande Grille”, where as a donneuse d’eau she was one of the females whose job was to dispense glasses of the purportedly curative mineral water for which Vichy was renowned.
Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class, installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris and financed Chanel’s first shops. It is said that Capel’s own sartorial style influenced the conception of the Chanel look. The bottle design for Chanel No. 5 had two probable origins, both attributable to the sophisticated design sensibilities of Capel. It is believed Chanel adapted the rectangular, beveled lines of the Charvet toiletry bottles he carried in his leather traveling case or it was the design of the whiskey decanter Capel used and Chanel so admired that she wished to reproduce it in “exquisite, expensive, delicate glass”.
Chanel began designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion thatevolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner (hat maker) in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes. As this location already housed an established clothing business, Chanel sold only her millinery creations at this address. Chanel’s millinery career bloomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat modelled her hats in the F Noziere’s play Bel Ami in 1912. Subsequently, Dorziat modelled her hats again in Les Modes.
In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauville financed by Arthur Capel where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport. The fashions were constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot, primarily used for men’s underwear. Here Chanel sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse. Adrienne and Antoinette(her family members) were recruited to model her designs; on a daily basis the two women paraded through the town and on its boardwalks, advertising the Chanel creations. Chanel, determined to re-create the success she had enjoyed in Deauville, opened an establishment in Biarritz in 1915. After only one year of operation, the business proved to be so lucrative that in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment—a decision Chanel made on her own, without Capel’s input. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturiere and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon.
The writer Colette, who moved in the same social circles as Chanel, provided a whimsical description of Chanel at work in her atelier, which appeared in “Prisons et Paradis” (1932). “If every human face bears a resemblance to some animal, then Mademoiselle Chanel is a small black bull. That tuft of curly black hair, the attribute of bull-calves, falls over her brow all the way to the eyelids and dances with every maneuver of her head.” As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing, but nonetheless stuck to her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday January 9 and feeling ill went to bed early. She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than 30 years.