“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different,” said Coco Chanel at the pinnacle of her career, and indeed, to this day, there is an electric aura surrounding the legend of the little orphan girl who relied on her sartorial flair and confidence, to make it to the top of one of the most competitive (and elite) industries in the world.
Coco was one-of-a-kind and there are many reasons why she continues to have such great significance in the fashion world. Humble beginnings: Coco was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883 in the Loire Valley workhouse where her unmarried mother worked, a fact she attempted to hide in her adulthood.
When Gabrielle was six, her mother died, leaving her father in charge of five children, whom he entrusted to various family members. Gabrielle was sent to an orphanage/convent in Aubazine, and it was here that she learned the laborious technique of sewing.
She spent her holidays with relatives in Moulins, honing her dressmaking skills so that by the age of 18, she had obtained work for a tailor and was able to leave the orphanage. She liked to lie, saying she was 10 years younger and claiming that when her mother passed away, her father sailed away to America, leaving her with two evil aunts who made her life miserable. It was her way of escaping the stigma associated with ‘illegitimacy’ and poverty.
Coco the Singer: As is the case with many creative geniuses, Gabrielle took some time to settle on one of the arts. She initially took to singing in cafés and theatres. It was at this time that she changed her name to Coco, a nickname bestowed upon her by her audience (primarily comprising entertainment-starved soldiers). Coco the Lover: When Coco was 23, she met the love of her life: wealthy English entrepreneur, Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel.
Coco was dating Étienne Balsan (a friend of Capel) at the time, though she was swept away by Capel’s passion for adventure and keen sense of style. She remained Capel’s mistress for nine years, even after he married another woman. He financed her first boutiques and his blazers and jerseys provided the inspiration for her signature masculine fashions for women.
Coco’s carefree creativity met its match in Capel’s keen eye for business. In the summer of 1914, he persuaded her to open a boutique in their fashionable getaway (the chic resort of Deauville), on the swish Rue Gontaut Biron.
In the same year, war broke out and Deauville was deserted. Coco thought of shutting up shop, but Capel advised her to persist; women returning to the resort after losing their possessions during the war, he said, would need to restock their wardrobe and Chanel’s boutique would be the only one open in Deauville. Capel was right; Coco made a killing and thus began her dizzy ascent to stardom.
Capel was also responsible for the launch of one of Chanel’s most successful shops in Biarritz, where dresses were sold for 3000 francs, an impressive sum at the time. Just one year after opening the maison de couture, Coco already had 60 employees.
Words Marisa Cutillas