Exactly 132 years ago one of the most stylish woman of the twentieth century was born – Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel. The legendary Coco changed forever the perception of women all over the world, being the only designer who got to be on the list of “100 most influential people of the XX century,” according to Time Magazine. Every child knows who she is, the crossed letter C logo, along with her quotes and remarks which turned into movies and musicals.
Today, on her birthday, I want to take the opportunity to remind you how an orphan from the town of Saumur was able to become one of the most influential figures of its time, and why she deserves all the glory.
Gabrielle is 11 when her mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle ( laundrywoman in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence), dies of bronchitis at the age of 31. Her father, Albert Chanel ( street vendor of work clothes and undergarment), sends her to the convent of Aubazine, where life was frugal and demanding strict discipline. This period puts a huge mark on her work – her collections came out as formless dresses in austere black.
At 18 she goes to work in the theater, where she mets her first patron, Étienne Balsan, a young French ex-cavalry officer, who drove her into a life of luxury and decadence by making her his mistress. She soon leaves him for one of his friends, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class. He installs her in an apartment in Paris and finances Chanel’s first shops. Coco is still often accused because she received start-up capital, but do not forget that in the beginning of the twentieth century women entrepreneurs were not usual or normal to meet, and Coco was all for the independence. In 1910 she opens her first store hats, which, frankly, no one was buying, but she just had to wait.
After a couple of years, the most fashionable and wealthy women of Paris lines up to Chanel, whose outfits, long before this, all seemed ridiculous: no excessive decoration, simple straight silhouettes, architectural hats, restrained colors, and, above all, the use of jersey and tricot – humble fabrics primarily used for men’s underwear. Coco comes up with the first bag that can be worn on the shoulder – the same 2.55; dresses the whole world into “mourning” with the little black dress, covering the knees; debuts with the first ever synthetic aroma, Chanel №5; she introduces the fashion for short haircuts, cutting off their chic hair; and gives us the same tweed suit which Jacqueline Kennedy loved so much. Deprived by Arthur Capel (in 1916 Chanel was able to reimburse Capel his original investment—a decision Chanel made on her own, without Capel’s input), who dies in a car accident, she never marries, and that is not welcomed at the beginning of the XX century. She becomes one of the first self-made woman, which means more than the modern sense of the word. Karl Lagerfeld carries on her legacy for over 30 years, a reputation that is not just about a successful fashion house , but the embodiment of fashion and luxury.
In her honour London Saatchi Gallery hosts an exhibition seen through Karl Lagerfeld’s eyes, focused on her fashion career – a selection of haute couture pieces, a focus on the perfume that has featured in Vogue the most – Chanel №5 – and a re-edition of the Bijoux de Diamants haute jewelry collection created in 1932 and recently reinterpreted by Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel haute couture Fall/Winter 2015-2016. Check it out in London, from October 13 to November 1 2015.