Reminders of this fashion icon–arguably the first fashion icon–are everywhere in Paris. Under the obvious category are her boutiques, the ‘CC’ logo on billboards, and the fashion pilgrims who line up outside Angelina Cafe, her habitual haunt later in life, to pay homage. They wait to take a seat, breathe in the elegant air, sip a latte, and, if they’re lucky, sit at what was her regular table (good luck with that).
Subtler is the easy, elegant attitude that seems to have been absorbed into the DNA of French women; one could easily credit Coco Chanel for the most definitive, modern expression of this, if not its creation. Happy Birthday, Gabrielle. Bien joue.
Coco Chanel is the founder and namesake of the iconic Chanel fashion brand. She’s also acknowledged to be the first ‘influencer’ in women’s fashion, as well as the first person to take a ‘selfie’.
Glamorous as her later life appeared to the public, it didn’t start out that way. After her mother’s death, young Gabrielle was sent to an orphanage. Life for children there was harsh and accommodations spartan. It was, however, where she would learn to sew, a skill that would change her life, as well as the world of fashion.
Success came early after she constructed a dress from an oversized jersey sweater. When asked about where she got the dress by several people, being a savvy business woman, she capitalized on the opportunity and offered to make dresses for them. The cut was stylish, the color choice was bold for that time, associated only with periods of mourning. But Mademoiselle Chanel had a vision, and the ‘little black dress’ was born.
Declaring that, “Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” she liberated women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and introduced a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style immediately after World War I. This clean, classic, and comfortable style of dress that has endured for almost a century made her famous around the world, and very rich. Still, she wasn’t satisfied.
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel, as she was then known, launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, the first to feature a designer’s name. Perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” she once explained.
A prolific fashion creator, Mademoiselle Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, expanding her design aesthetic to include jewelry and accessories, many marked with her famed interlocked-CC monogram.
The Depression of the 1930s and the outbreak of World War II forced her to close her once-thriving business. Rumors of her romantic involvement with a Nazi military officer during the occupation badly damaged her reputation. While never formally charged with collaborating, the charges nevertheless resonated with French citizens. She was convicted in the court of public opinion and went into self-imposed exile in Switzerland. But she was not finished.
At age 73 she made a triumphant return to the world of fashion with a line of timeless designs that wowed the public, even if they were initially panned by the critics. She worked relentlessly until her death in Paris at age 87.
If you love fashion and think you might want a career in the field, or if you want to ‘start over’ at any age, read more about the life of Coco Chanel.
“I don’t do fashion. I am fashion.” – Coco Chanel