She would become synonymous with perfume and effortless, classy style, but there was much more to the gamine French woman who conquered the world.
Her name was Coco Chanel.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel could not have had a more inauspicious beginning. She was born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France, the illegitimate daughter of a laundress named Eugénie Jeanne Devolle. Devolle, who worked in the Charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence, was surrounded by poverty.
Chanel’s father, Albert Chanel, was a street vendor, who peddled work clothes and undergarments for a living. She was 12 when her mother died of bronchitis and her father put Gabrielle and other daughters in the convent of Aubazine, in Central France. She had a tough time in Aubazine, but the nuns taught her how to sew – a skill that would lead to her life’s work.
At the age of 18, Gabrielle left the demanding life at Aubazine for the Notre Dame school in Moulins – a religious institution run by canonesses. Her aunt Adrienne (just a year older than her) was also present and the Mother Superior at Notre Dame found employment for Adrienne and Gabrielle as shop assistants and seamstresses in a draper’s store on the rue de l’Horloge. It was there that Gabrielle and Adrienne were spotted by half a dozen men, who started taking them out to La Rotonde – a pavilion in a park in Moulins.
Rowdy concerts were held for audiences from the local barracks, and Gabrielle was determined to sing on stage, eventually finding a regular slot with only two songs in her repertoire. These were ‘Ko Ko Ri Ko’ , with a French version of the refrain ‘cock-a-doodle-doo’, and ‘Qui qu’a vu Coco?’, about a girl who had lost her dog. Thus the audience soon began greeting her with cockerel calls, and christened her with the name of ‘the lost dog’. Gabrielle became ‘Coco’. She would later deny this, admitting only that one of her lovers was a former cavalry officer named Etienne Balsan, who was a self-made man. He bred horses and owned the estate Chateau de Royallieu.
Chanel was 26 in 1909, when she left Balsan for his friend, Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel. She later admitted that she still saw Balsan. The relationship with Capel would last nine years, and even after Capel married, he continued his affair with Chanel until his death in late 1919 in a road accident. After protracted negotiations, Balsan and Capel agreed to share the cost of setting Chanel up in business to sell the hats that she was already making for herself, and for her friends and their girlfriends.
She opened her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910. Her success was assured when she fashioned a dress out of an old jersey. “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she once told author Paul Morand (www.biography.com). Chanel dressed like a convent girl or schoolboy, and made hats that were stripped of embellishments. She also bought simple straw boaters from the Galeries Lafayette department store, and then trimmed them with ribbon. Chanel had a strong ethos. “You can be gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty, and irresistible for the rest of your life,” she said (www.curatedquotes.com)
Chanel’s business was growing, and she began selling clothes as well as hats. But she also began suffering from the symptoms of stress, which seemed to abate only when she worked. She was distressed to discover that Capel had deposited bank securities as a guarantee for her business and overdrafts, and that the money she believed she was making had not yet repaid her debt.
Yet, a year later, she was earning sufficient money to no longer need Capel’s financial support. “I was my own master, and I depended on myself alone,” she told Morand. “Boy Capel was well aware that 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.’ (www.telegraph.co.uk). Yet the two would always be entwined in the iconic double C logo – Chanel and Capel.
Chanel was going against convention in 1917, and chopping off her hair to look more androgynous. She deliberately avoided ostentation and opted for the simple lines that were to become her trademark. Chanel was a petite and gamine brunette, with an appealing smile. Beneath the petite fragility was steal. “I don’t care what you think about me. I don’t think about you at all,” she is quoted as saying (www.goodreads.com).
By 1921, Chanel had a series of successful boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. She owned a villa in the south of France and drove around in her own blue Rolls Royce. Chanel wanted to create an evocative perfume for the modern woman. “A woman who doesn’t wear perfume has no future,” she is quoted as saying (www.goodreads.com).
During the late summer of 1920, she was holidaying in the Cote d’Azur with her lover, the Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich. There she met Ernest Beaux, who took up her challenge. It took him several months to perfect a new fragrance, but eventually he came up with 10 samples and presented them to Chanel. They were numbered one to five and 20 to 24. She picked number five. The perfume had a soapy scent, which she wanted, and it was later rumoured that Beaux’s assistant had added a dose of synthetic aldehyde in a quantity never used before. “It was what I was waiting for. A perfume like nothing else. A woman’s perfume, with the scent of a woman,” Chanel claimed (www.perfumesociety.org).
Thus was born the iconic Chanel No.5 perfume.
In 1925, Chanel introduced the now legendary Chanel suit, with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. The androgynous look to her outfits were revolutionary for the time and when she appeared with a tan, she began a preoccupation that has not abated since. Another of her innovations was the little black dress, which gained iconic status.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman,” she once said (www.goodreads.com). She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends. For a time, Chanel had a romantic liaison with the composer Igor Stravinsky.
Chanel’s star had ascended such that in 1925, she was spending time with Hugh Grosvenor, the second Duke of Westminster (known as ‘Bendor’ after his grandfather’s Derby-winning stallion) on his Reay Forest estate in Scotland. Winston Churchill, who was a long-standing friend of Bendor, joined them there. “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster – but there is only one Chanel,” she is alleged to have said (www.brainyquote.com).
The Duke was staunchly right-wing and an unrepentant anti-Semite: “His anti-Semitic rants were notorious,” according to a biographer of Coco Chanel (www.revolvy.com). Chanel had first met the Duke in Monte Carlo, in 1923. Although she had been seeing Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich of Russia, she eventually jettisoned him for the Duke of Westminster. She took to the role of chatelaine with verve. She also held court at her villa La Pausa on the French Riviera, where Salvador Dali and his wife were frequent visitors.
The romantic liaison between the Duke and Chanel would last 10 years, but by the end of 1929, he was looking for a new wife who could bear him a son. In February 1930, he married Loelia Ponsonby, although his relationship with Chanel continued. Lobelia’s subsequent memoir, Grace and Favour, recorded her impression of Chanel for posterity:
“At that time, Mademoiselle Chanel was at the height of her fame – her quiet, neat, uncomplicated clothes being considered the epitome of all that was most chic. She was wearing a dark blue suit and a white blouse with very light stockings (light stockings were one of her credos). Described in this way, she sounds as if she looked like a high-school girl, but the effect was of extreme sophistication.” (www.telegraph.co.uk)
Nevertheless, the marriage to Loelia did not last. The international economic depression of the 1930s had a negative impact on Chanel’s company, but it was the outbreak of World War II that led her to close her business. She fired her workers and shut down her shops.
It was her relationship with the German military officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage that would fuel speculation that she was a Nazi sympathiser. ‘Really, sir, a woman of my age cannot be expected to look at his passport if she has a chance of a lover,” she allegedly told Cecil Beaton (www.telegraph.co.uk). Nevertheless, Chanel did nothing to dispel rumours surrounding her activities in the course of the German occupation of France during World War II. She appeared a little too comfortable in the presence of the enemy. Coco Chanel was a complex woman and nothing was ever as it seemed. Although she was interrogated, she was never charged as a collaborator, and after several years in Switzerland after the war, she returned to Paris and revived her fashion house.
“Fashion changes, but style endures,” Chanel once said. (www.searchquotes.com)
She was over 70 when she made her comeback, in 1954. But it wasn’t easy. After receiving scathing reviews from critics, her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world. In 1969, her fascinating life story became the basis for the Broadway musical Coco, starring Katharine Hepburn as the legendary designer. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book and lyrics for the show’s song, while Andre Prévin composed the music. Cecil Beaton handled the set and costume design for the production. The show received seven Tony Award nominations, and Beaton won for Best Costume Design and René Auberjonois for Best Featured Actor.
She was lonely and cantankerous in her final years. She was sometimes accompanied by Jacques Chazot and her confidante Lilou Marquand. A former rival and now faithful friend was Brazilian Aimée de Heeren, who lived in Paris four months a year at the nearby Hôtel Meurice.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was 87 when she died on Sunday 10 January, 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years. Chanel’s final words to her maid Celine were: “You see, this is how you die” (www.theguardian.com). Her funeral was held at the Église de la Madeleine; her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony and her coffin was covered with white flowers – camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses. Her grave is located in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland. Most of her estate was inherited by her nephew André Palasse, who lived in Switzerland, and his two daughters, who lived in Paris.
Chanel’s legacy lives on. She is synonymous with timeless designs, trademark suits, little black dresses and perfumes. Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel is a cultural French icon. In 2009, French actress Audrey Tautou played the young Chanel in the film Coco Before Chanel. The film was co-written and directed by actor turned director Anne Fontaine, with a budget of $23 million. As of 21 December that year, it had grossed $43,832,376 worldwide.
Time could not end the enduring fascination with Coco Chanel.
Words: Alex Karas
Image: Silvia Carrus