Complicated childhood and an unhappy personal life. Groundbreaking designs and great fame in the fashion world. Shameful collaboration with the Germans during the war and a hard fight to regain position. An icon whose name is recognized by every woman today. Explore
Coco Chanel’s childhood and her first job
Gabrielle Chanel was born on August 18, 1883 in a poorhouse in Saumur. At birth, her surname was recorded as “Chasnel”. The clerk’s typo could explain this, but it is also presumed that it was a family name spelled according to an ancient orthography. Gabrielle’s mother was Jeanne Devolle. Only a few years after the birth of Chanel, her mother married her father – Albert Chanel. Until the death of Jeanne (she died in 1895 at the age of thirty-three), for twelve years Chanel with her father, sisters: Julie-Berthe, Antonine and brothers: Alphonsus and Lucien, traveled in a horse cart from town to town. My father was a door-to-door trader. After her death, Albert placed both sons on the farm as farmhand, while Gabrielle and her sisters were sent to an orphanage. Their whereabouts were in the Correze region of central France. The girls became the charges of Catholic nuns.
Getting your own money
During her six-year stay in the orphanage, Chanel learned to sew, thanks to which she could find employment as a seamstress. When she did not work with a needle in her hand, she earned extra money by singing in cabarets.
She made her first steps in one of the then popular meeting places in Moulins – in “La Rotonde”. Chanel was among the so-called poseuses, meaning female artists entertaining the crowd between star performances. Earned money was exactly as much as they managed to collect “on the tray” during the performance if the audience liked it. It was then that Gabrielle got the name “Coco”, probably because of one of the two songs she was identified with – “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco”. Or perhaps the name was an allusion to a French word for a kept woman: cocotte.
In 1906, Channel appeared at the Vichy spa resort. The venue was known for its numerous concert stages, theaters and pubs in which Chanel hoped to succeed in performing in front of an audience. While her charm could impress, it was worse with singing, for which she had no special talent. Consequently, her plan has failed. However, because she was forced to work anywhere, she took a job at the Grande Grille, where, as a so-called donneuse d’eau, she handed out glasses of the health water Vichy was famous for. When the spa season ended, Chanel returned to Mouilins and La Rotonde. She realized that there was no need to link her career with the stage.
Coco Chanel and Balsan
On the Moulins Channel, she met a young French ex-cavalry officer, Etienne Balsan. Etienne came from a family of wealthy textile industrialists who supplied uniforms for the French army.
At 23, Channel became his mistress, taking the place of his former courtesan, Emlienne d’Alençon. For the next 3 years she lived with Balsan at his estate in Royallieu near Compiègne, a forest area known for its equestrian routes and ideal conditions for hunting. Channel’s life has changed significantly. Balsan was wealthy and had a lot of free time – so he spent it sparing himself with entertainment. He was very generous to Coco and pampered her with diamonds, pearls and expensive clothes. He also taught her horse riding, both in a women’s and men’s saddle, and how to run a stable. Balsan became the Channel’s friend for life.
Artur Capel – Coco Chanel’s great love and a shocking tragedy
In 1908, Coco fell in love with Arthur Capel, Balsan’s horse riding companion and friend. Capel, nicknamed “Boy”, was from the English upper class. He was handsome and rich. He arranged an apartment for the Channel in Paris and helped her set up a shop and a hat workshop for women. Later, when she became involved in fashion, he donated funds to her boutiques in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. Their romance lasted 11 years. Her low origin, however, was an obstacle in marrying an Englishman, a representative of the highest society.
But even after Capel married an English aristocrat in 1918, the daughter of an English lord, Lady Diana Wyndham, he did not break entirely with the Channel. Soon a tragedy happened. “Boy” died in a car accident while returning home with his wife and newborn baby. The event was shocking for Channel, and it was also revealed that she was not his only lover. In 1920, the London “The Times” reported that Capel left her – and the second woman, the Italian countess, left quite substantial entries in the will.
Chanel boutique in the center of Paris
In 1918, Chanel was able to purchase an entire tenement house at 31 Cambon Street, situated in the most elegant area of Paris, and located her boutique there. By 1927, she already owned five properties on rue Cambon with buildings between numbers 23 and 31.
Acquaintance with Stravinsky
In the spring of 1920, Sergei Diaghilev introduced the composer Igor Stravinsky. During the summer, when Stravinsky was in Paris with his family and had problems with a place to live, Chanel offered them to stay at her new Bel Respiro estate near Paris until they found something suitable. She also donated a hefty sum of money for a ballet composed by Stravinsky and staged by Diaghilev and entitled The Rite of Spring. She probably had an affair with him, the story of which was filmed in the movie “Chanel and Stravinsky” in 2009.
Contract for the production of Chanel no 5
In 1922, Chanel met businessman Pierre Wertheimer. She made a decision that he would produce and sell her a new brand of the famous Chanel No. 5.
The company Chanel Perfums S.A. was established, to which it handed over recipes and methods of producing fragrances. Its ownership comprised 10% of the capital invested. It also guaranteed her 10% of the capital of all companies producing her perfumes outside France. 70% went to the Wertheimers clan and 20% to Théophile Bader. Chanel quickly regretted the terms of the contract and was very dissatisfied with it. At the time of concluding it, she had no idea that Chanel no. 5 will become such a fountain of wealth. Her contacts with her partners became so tense that at some point a lawyer began to mediate them. Ultimately, the next 20 years she struggled to take control of the brand.
Misia Sert and Parisian salons
It is impossible not to mention Chanel’s acquaintance with Misia Sert, the soul of Parisian bohemian life and the wife of the Spanish writer Jose-Maria Sert. The bear was charmed by Chanel. Moreover, it allowed her to enter the salons of the artistic elite. They had a long and deep friendship, although it had its ups and downs. Their knowledge was shrouded in mysteries, including their use of morphine. Chanel was taking the morphine continuously for the rest of her days.
Coco Chanel and the British aristocracy
In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi introduced Chanel to the salons of the highest British aristocracy. It was an elite group with close ties to Winston Churchill, aristocrats like the Prince of Webminster, and royalty like Edward, Prince of Wales.
Chanel won the favor of Prince of Wesminster Richard Arthur Grosvenor privately known as “Bendor”. She received extravagant jewelry, works of art and even a house in London’s prestigious Mayfair district, and a five-acre plot of land near Roquebrune on Cap Mattin between Menton and Monte Carlo. Her relationship with Bendor lasted about 5 years. Living with him, at least for a while, was like an endless vacation. In the role of eternal hosts, they held wonderful balls. The service battalions worked around the clock to handle all the whims of the guests. They rode horses together, fished together, sailed and attended merry parties. This relationship, however, was going nowhere. Chanel did not allow her zone of independence to be violated, which became a nuisance for the Prince. Moreover, the couple would never be accepted at court, let alone the expected descendant, which Chanel would not have given him.
Coco Chanel dresses Hollywood stars
In 1931, in Monte Carlo, Chanel met Samul Goldwyn. She had received a tempting offer from him. For a million dollars, she would appear in Hollywood twice a year to design outfits for the stars of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Chanel accepted the offer. On her first trip to the USA, she took Misia Sert with her, who was currently experiencing separation from her husband. After the ship, a special white wagon arranged by Goldwyn took the star to California. On the platform at the Los Angeles station, there was a welcome ceremony in the presence of Greta Garbo.
Chanel designed the outfit for Gloria Swanson for “Tonight or Never” and for Ina Claire, Magda Evans and Jpan Blondel for “The Greeks Had a Word for Them”. She dressed Goldwyn Girls for the musical comedy “Palmy Days”.
However, the Hollywood adventure disappointed both sides a bit. The narrow jersey suits with white collars and cuffs were not glamorous enough. Chanel’s creative vision lacked the sexiness sought by actors and directors to enhance the appeal of a movie. The discreet elegance of Chanel costumes on the cinema screens seemed bland. According to the New Yorker, Coco left the US a bit offended, because unfortunately her outfits turned out not to be great enough for movie magnates. “Thanks to Chanel, a lady looks like a lady, and Hollywood wants her to look like two ladies.” Chanel, on the other hand, decided that Hollywood is the capital of bad taste.