Chanel, one of the most distinctive brands in fashion today, owes everything to the woman who gave it her name.
Coco Chanel, tall, skinny, and impeccably dressed in her trademark suit, was as enigmatic as she was energetic. Her rise from rags to riches was fueled by her creative genius, while her personal life was characterized by her high-profile relationships and seductive power over influential men. This is the story of one woman and the eight relationships that have helped define our understanding of her.
She is known all around the world as Coco Chanel, but this wasn’t her original name. Born Gabrielle Chanel, she became “Coco” after being given the nickname by soldiers in the audience while singing on stage. After working as a seamstress and a cabaret singer – it’s thought that one of the popular songs she sang in Moulins gave rise to her nickname Coco. Either an allusion to her repertoire or a contraction of the French cocotte, meaning a kept woman.
Coco Chanel became very rich and famous during her life, but her childhood was a humble one. She was the daughter of a peasant and a street vendor and was born in a poorhouse. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel had a distinctly unglamorous start in life. Born in 1883 in the town of Saumur in the Loire Valley, she grew up poor in a one-room residence with her unstable parents and her four surviving siblings. When her mother died, Albert Chanel sent 12-year-old Gabrielle and her two sisters to a convent-run orphanage and hired out his sons as farm laborers. After her mother died, she was sent to an orphanage in a convent, where she stayed until she was 18. It was here that Gabrielle learnt to embroider, iron and sew. This story of childhood poverty and abandonment is one that would be creatively retold in her later life as one of the century’s most influential people. Despite their severity, the nuns taught the young Chanel the most valuable lesson of her life: the art of sewing.
100 years ago, if you were a lady without a husband or an inheritance, it was pretty hard to get anything done. Which is why Coco Chanel‘s journey from penniless orphan to one of the richest, most influential women of the 20th century is among the best stories from fashion history we know of. Chanel started her fashion career by designing hats. With the help of one of her male admirers, she opened her first shop in Paris in 1913. As it became more popular, she started selling clothes as well… As she said later, ‘without money, you are nothing, that with money you can do anything… I would say to myself over and over, “Money is the key to freedom.”
From an early age, the young designer knew that she would need the support of the wealthy to get anywhere in life. And, much of this support came – at least initially – from two very rich lovers. A woman’s success has been of a man’s doing. Coco Chanel was a genius. At a time when there was no such thing as bank loans or women’s rights, this was a terrible background for someone of so much ambition.
But it also gave her the ability, the grit maybe, to elbow her way into French aristocracy. While she was a cabaret singer, she met the first of her many lovers, an ex-cavalry officer of enormous wealth named Etienne Balsan. Balsan was attracted to the quirky Chanel.
So, Chanel met Etienne Balsan, heir to a textile fortune, who established her as his mistress in his chateau at Royallieu. It was Balsan who, in 1908, introduced Coco to her English lover, the polo-playing playboy Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel. She boldly displaced his “courtesan” lover and moved into his “chateau” where she lived for three years learning the ways and manners of the upper class. But it also gave her the ability, the grit maybe, to elbow her way into French aristocracy. There are rumors that Chanel had a child with Balsan which she gave to her sister and referred to as her nephew.
‘He was my father, my brother, my entire family,’ Chanel later said of him. Chanel had affair – with one of Balsan’s friends: Arthur “Boy” Capel (who the “Boy Bag” was named after). Capel put Chanel up in a Paris apartment and financed her first stores. As the story goes, he was Chanel’s greatest love, though their relationship was, by all accounts, pretty torrid. He was never faithful to her, eventually married an aristocrat and died quite young. Chanel, according to biographers, said she never recovered..
Educated at Beaumont College, Berkshire, and then Stonyhurst, Lancashire, Capel was the dashing son of a rich shipping merchant. ‘He was one of the most important people in her life, if not the key person,’ says Chaney, who was the first biographer to have access to Capel’s personal papers. It’s generally accepted that the inspiration for many of Chanel’s most iconic designs – including the CC logo, the design of the No. 5 perfume bottle and her use of unconventional fabrics such as jersey (previously used for men’s underwear) – all had their roots in her affair with Capel. Her lover channelled money into Coco’s first shop selling hats and within months Chanel’s exquisitie creations were being featured in national magazines. Soon, Chanel opened a boutique, again financed by Capel, in the fashionable resort of Deauville, followed by one in Biarritz and then a store on Rue Cambon, in Paris. She was successful because she was a woman designing for women: simple, practical forms and comfortable fabrics like jersey afforded wearers freedom unimaginable in the recent days of corsets. By 1919, she purchased the entire building at 31 rue Cambon, Paris, which to this day serves as the Chanel headquarters.
Chanel was close in age to Boy; she was a Leo, he a Sagittarius—a perfect match. It was infatuation, obsession; he was her muse. She saw things in Capel that drew her to him both physically and quixotically—his look, his style, his flair—and she began adopting some of his sartorial sense as her own.
Capel fully financed Chanel’s first shops and his own clothing style, notably his blazers, inspired her creation of the Chanel look. The couple spent time together at fashionable resorts such as Deauville, but he was never faithful to Chanel. Their relationship lasted nine years.. It would have been particularly easy for Chanel to lose herself in parties after the breakdown of her relationship with Boy Capel – in 1918 he married Diana Wyndham, a daughter of Lord Ribblesdale. And even after Capel married he continued his affair with Chanel until his death in late 1919. At Christmas the following year, 1919. Capel was riding in the back of his chauffeured Rolls-Royce en route from Paris to Cannes to see Chanel for the holiday, when a tire burst suddenly. The chauffeur was seriously injured; Boy was killed.
A roadside memorial was placed at the site of the accident, consisting of a cross bearing the inscription. ‘His death was a terrible blow to me,’ she said later. ‘I lost everything when I lost Capel He left a void in me that the years have not filled.’In the 1920s she introduced the Little Black Dress to fashion. Intended to be affordable and easy-to-wear, Vogue rightly predicted that it would be worn around the world. Maybe it is because Chanel never did the proverbial “settling down” – i.e. marriage and children – that so many rumors have always swirled around her. The world has forever been interested in single women – those who seem to choose fame, wealth or glamor over the ‘chains’ of matrimony, children and domestic existence. But, the truth is she was probably a woman of great ambition and no means. She needed money to start a business that eventually changed the world, that allowed her to surpass even her lovers in fame and wealth. Her only choice was to build relations with people who could help her get there. Soon the world’s smartest women flocked to Rue Cambon, the iconic Parisian atelier where Chanel conjured magic from such humdrum materials as jersey, rabbit fur and huge paste jewels. A canny marketer, she used penniless Russian aristocrats as seamstresses to add cachet to her brand of democratic chic. Some asked why she dressed rich women in drab colours or everyday fabrics, but those who recognised the pared-down simplicity hailed her genius.
During the first three decades of the 20th century, the French capital found itself at the epicentre of a creative explosion. Chanel witnessed a number of key cultural moments and counted many of the modernists as friends or lovers. ‘My work came about as a reaction to my times,’ she explained. She was in the audience at the first night, in May 1913, of Diaghilev’s shocking new ballet The Rite of Spring, starring his lover, Vaslav Nijinksy. Chanel had first met Misia, a pianist whose third husband was the Spanish painter Josep Maria Sert, in 1916. ‘She was two-faced, conniving and manipulative,’ says Chaney, ‘and they loved and hated each other.’ Many have assumed that it was Misia who was responsible for introducing Chanel into the rich diversity of the Parisiain scene. After all, Misia said, referring to Chanel: ‘One could say that it is easy to help a beautiful diamond to shine. Still, it was my privilege to help it emerge from its rough state, and – in my heart – to be the first person dazzled by its brilliance”‘Misia was a patron of the arts and, yes, she was frightfully sophisticated and gifted, but she never did anything with it,’ she says. ‘She was not driven in an artistic sense and, in the end, she could not bear it that Chanel outshone her.
It was also obvious that Misia had a very serious issue with drugs. One day the two women were walking down the street and Misia took a syringe from her handbag and injected herself in the leg. Chanel was appalled”…
Chanel had, according to Chaney, ‘the character of an artist’, and as such she felt at ease with the general spirit of bohemianism that infused her social circle. Sexual boundaries were fluid. Chanel also struck up a friendship with Count Etienne de Beaumont and his wife, Edith. Around the couple – who were both gay – flitted a heady crowd of artists, among them Satie, Braque, Cocteau and Picasso, with whom Chanel had an affair. ‘He was wicked,’ she said of him. ‘He fascinated me the way of hawk would – he filled me with fear. ‘Each spring, Etienne de Beaumont organised a month-long series of parties spread across Paris. In addition to the sumptuous dinners, the well-known ‘fiendish social tyrant’ hosted an extravagant costume ball. In 1919, the theme for the ball dictated that each guest should arrive in costume but ‘leave exposed that part of one’s body one finds the most interesting”. Her influence wasn’t just on clothes. At night, she appeared at the opera house with short hair, inspiring many women to adopt the new “garçon” (boyish) style.
Yet Chanel busied herself with work and, after several months in mourning and then a trip to Italy with Misia and her husband, she returned to Paris ready to live again. Following an affair with Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich – who introduced her, in 1920, to Ernest Beaux, the man who helped her create Chanel No. 5 – she embarked on a long relationship with the 2nd Duke of Westminster. So In 1921, she created her first perfume, Chanel No 5. It was the first fragrance to bear the name of a designer, and was accompanied by the number five because Chanel had been told by a psychic a fortune teller that this was her lucky number. No. 5—her favorite number, for good luck. One must imagine that every time she looked at that exquisitely designed bottle thereafter, perhaps dabbing perfume on wrists exposed below the sleeves of her little black dress, she was reminded, once again, of the Boy.
Justine Picardie, author of new Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel biography, “Chanel: Her Life” has a deep connection to the designer: “It all goes back to my mother’s Chanel N°5.” Her recently released book brought Picardie on a series of adventures as she explored previously unstudied areas of Chanel’s life including a fishing trip to Scotland with Winston Churchill and the Duke of Westminster, her cross-country trip from New York to Los Angeles and the Aubazine orphanage where Chanel grew up.
The Secret Love Life of Coco Chanel was definitely complicated. Coco Chanel was in relationships with Luchino Visconti (1936), Igor Stravinsky and Jacqueline Susann.Over the next two decades, Chanel enjoyed continued success. In 1921, she extended into accessories, jewelry, and fragrance. The following year, she created her signature Chanel No. 5. and in 1926 came the ‘little black dress’. During this period, she had high-profile liaisons with British royalty, including the controversial Duke of Westminster and the Prince of Wales, Edward VIII. However, at the outbreak of World War II, Chanel shut down all of her operations, putting 4,000 employees out of work. She continued to live in Paris throughout the Nazi occupation. Indeed, her relationship with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer, significantly damaged her reputation. Coco Chanel’s perfectly set hair, manicured hands, plucked eyebrows and hard stare are as recognisable as some of her enduring designs. Less well known are allegations of drug use, Nazi dealings and even homophobia – something that contradicts the widespread acceptance of her lesbian relationships. “And the question about Chanel’s German lover during World War II (was he a spy for the Nazis?) is definitively answered.’ WWD goes one step further, saying the book is able to prove that the lover in question, Hans Günther von Dincklage, did indeed spy for the Nazis throughout the Second World War.
Quoting en email from Ms Chaney’s Viking publicist, WWD cites: ‘Whether Chanel was aware of this is unknown, but after that war she lived in neutral Switzerland for a while, to avoid any proceedings against her.’ In the book, due for release in November, Ms Chaney uses the newly discovered letters as well as documents from the Swiss Federal Archives to quell any doubt as to the truth of some of the less palatable aspects of Ms Chanel’s colourful lifestyle. Proof, indeed: Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life claims to prove that Ms Chanel relied on opiates, enjoyed lesbian dalliances and had a Nazi spy lover. Anyway: after the war, she and Dincklage had to run off to Switzerland for a few years in a sort of “exile,” but then she went back to Paris at age 70 and revamped her personal brand to become a successful fashion person. Chanel’s bisexuality and multiple affairs. “Drawing on newly discovered love letters and other records, Chaney’s controversial book reveals the truth about Chanel’s drug habit and lesbian affairs”.
Now, a new book claims to have concrete proof of the fashion icon’s dalliances and vices. A story less told: Elegant and poised, popular images of Coco Chanel rarely touch upon the lesser-known side of the designer’s ‘stuff of legends’ life Lisa Chaney’s forthcoming biography, Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life, lays bare hard evidence of the fashion maven’s use of opiates, as well as new insights into Gabrielle ‘Coco’ . The re-released biography, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie, which includes illustrations by Karl Lagerfeld, has drawn attention to Ms Chanel’s reliance on opiates before, saying the designer saw morphine as a ‘harmless sedative.’
Successful 2009 movie, Coco Before Chanel, drew criticism for playing down some of Ms Chanel’s less savoury antics, while Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, also released in 2009, throws a spotlight onto the designer’s love affair with the Russian composer.
Designs on Dali: Ms Chanel had many affairs including one with then-married Salvador Dali. Born in a poorhouse, hers is a true rags-to-riches tale.
They says of the 20th Century’s most famous fashion designer: ‘Her numerous liaisons, whose poignant and tragic details have eluded all previous biographers, were the very stuff of legend. ‘Witty and mesmerizing, she became muse, patron, or mistress to the century’s most celebrated artists, including Picasso, Dalí, and Stravinsky.’ Ms Chanel’s infamous life has inspired many a graphic recounting of her rags-to-riches story.
Chanel didn’t have it all her own way. Her affair with Britain’s richest man, the Duke of Westminster, foundered on her inability to give him the male heir he so needed. By the mid-Thirties, her style began to look a bit tired: there is a limit to how many times you can reinvent the little black dress. Her “less-is-more” aesthetic looked dull compared with that of surrealist designer Elsa Schiaparelli, who dressed the Duchess of Windsor in a skirt with a life-size print of a lobster.
‘Society people amuse me more than others,’ Coco Chanel once said. ‘They have wit, tact, a charming disloyalty, a well-bred nonchalance, and an arrogance that is very specific, very caustic, always on the alert; they know how to arrive at the right time and to leave when necessary.”What really interested Chanel was influence,’ says Chaney, author of Chanel: An Intimate Life. ‘She wanted power, but not for power’s sake. She wanted what power brought, which was independence.’
The designer met Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor in Monte Carlo, after an introduction by Chanel’s friend and public-relations adviser, the socialite Vera Bate. Although Chanel was rich in her own right, this was nothing compared to the vast wealth of the 2nd Duke of Westminster, one of Europe’s richest men and known to his friends as Bend’Or (from the family coat of arms). His seduction techniques included sending salmon, which he had caught in Scotland, by plane to be delivered to Coco in Paris, together with fresh flowers and fruit grown at his house, Eaton Hall. But she was far from intimidated by his wealth or social connections, and her insouciance attracted him even more. Chanel’s relationship with the Duke of Westminster ended when his head was turned by a series of younger women, including Loelia Mary Ponsonby, whom he married in 1930. When asked why she did not marry him, she is supposed to have said: ‘There have been several Duchesses of Westminster – there is only one Chanel.’ She went on to have relationships with the designer/illustrator Paul Iribe, who died while staying at La Pausa
The Duke introduced her to Winston Churchill, who regularly went salmon fishing with the couple at his friend’s vast estate, Reay Forest, in Scotland. ‘She [Chanel] fishes from morn till night, & in two months has killed 50 salmon,’ Churchill wrote to his wife in 1927. ‘She is agreeable – really a great& strong being fit to a rule a man or an Empire. Bennie very well & I think extremely happy to be mated with an equal.’
The couple created two houses together – Rosehall House, in Sutherland, and the celebrated La Pausa, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. The house, near Monaco, was described by US Vogue editor Bettina Ballard as ‘the most comfortable, relaxing place I have ever stayed in’. The routine was always the same: Chanel would remain in her own quarters during the morning, when she expected the villa to be bathed in silence, and she would emerge in time for lunch. ‘No one missed lunch – it was far too entertaining,’ wrote Ballard…
In 1954, aged 71, Chanel reopened her fashion house after it had been closed for 15 years during the war. She told the actress Marlene Dietrich it was because she was “dying of boredom”.
In the 40 years since her death, there have been scores of biographies that claim to have the last word on the woman behind the myth. According to which version you choose, “Coco” Chanel was a French patriot, Nazi spy, doting aunt, cruel sister, opium addict, fine athlete, predatory lesbian or lover of handsome men. Still, one thing everyone agrees on is that she revolutionised the way women dressed. Out went the fussy frills and loud colours of the Belle Epoque; in came the pared-down lines and monochrome palette that exactly suited liberated young women in the Jazz Age.
And that’s the Coco Chanel success story… She is most remembered for Chanel Maison. Her zodiac sign is Leo.
On 10 January 1971 aged 87 Coco die . After returning from a walk with her friend Claude Baillen, Coco Chanel died on her bed in the Hotel Ritz, which to this day has been perfectly preserved. Her assistants continued her work until Karl Lagerfeld took over as creative director in 1983. Though the House of Chanel has evolved under his leadership, the muted color palette, quilt-stitched leather, gold chains, and the interlinked Cs of the logo remain the hallmarks of the brand, all of these conceived by the great woman who gave it her name.
Her last words to her maid Celine were, “You see, this is how you die.”
Today she is remembered not only for her style revolution – she gave the world the little black dress, the quilted handbag, the fashionable suntan – but also for a lifestyle from a lost, gilded age. ‘I am not a heroine,’ she once said. ‘But I have chosen the person I wanted to be.’
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