Coco Chanel - Unapologetically herself
Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel is a woman I’ve admired since my very first encounter with her sharp tailoring and even sharper wit. She was a woman well ahead of her time, and one who was not afraid of her own femininity – in a period when these traits were traditionally hidden and repressed.
Coco’s life is brimming with adventure and profound events. She lived through a destitute childhood, spent her early 20s performing at the Cabaret, and then witnessed the German invasion of France. Her life experiences instilled her with spirit and independence, and this is what intrigues me the most about her. Coco’s story is not what you would expect from the woman best known for pioneering women’s casual fashion.
Her early life was extremely challenging. After her mother’s death when she was just twelve years old, she was sent by her father to live in a convent. This was a stark and disciplined upbringing, but it was at the convent she learned to sew –perhaps the most impactful period on her later career.
In her early life, Chanel loved many art forms, not just fashion. After leaving the convent at 18 and working as a seamstress in Moulins, France, she started performing at the Cabaret, singing and dancing every night to enraptured French soldiers. This is where she earned her nickname ‘Coco’ Chanel. Although beautiful and popular, she came to realize that despite her talent, her singing career would not bring her fame and fortune. However, it was here that she met the textiles heir, Etienne Balsan –who quickly became her lover.
Over the next three years, her life with Balsan exposed her to the luxury and decadence she had only ever dreamed of. He showered her with gifts, from exquisite dresses to diamonds, and what would later become her statement style: pearls. Later, with the support of another friend, Captain Capel she opened her first store; first a millinery and then her own boutique. A store in Biarritz followed, which was so successful that she was able to purchase her most famous address: 31 Rue Cambon, in one of Paris’s most fashionable districts. She later went on to employ over 4000 women in her stores and factories and was one of the largest employers of female workers in Paris.
Chanel’s was unapologetically herself, in a time where women were expected to fit in, keep quiet and toe the line.
She later acted as a patron for many artists, including the composer Igor Stravinsky, and the Ballet Russes –later costume designing for them, as well as funding their production with a 300,000 Franc insurance policy. Her associations were broad, ranging from Parisian Bohemians to members of the English aristocracy, most notably, Winston Churchill, Prince Edward and the Duke of Westminster. In her later life, when asked why she didn’t marry the Duke, she is reported to have quipped: “There have been several duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.” I love this about her –not only was she fiercely independent, she knew who she was and was truly a tour de force, deferring to no-one.
Her influence on modern fashion stands the test of time. She is the only fashion designer on Time Magazine’s list of the most influential people of the 20th century, and 50 years after her death, Chanel is still one of the most influential fashion houses in the world. Her design aesthetic shaped the fashions of the post World War I era. The Chanel trademark look was one of youth and one that liberated physically from the confines of the Victorian era. Her designs were ambitious and influential, leaving echoes of her style throughout the 21st Century.
The house of Chanel has set up ‘Fondation Chanel’ in her memory, empowering women and girls in 35 different countries with education, healthcare, as well as mentorship and support to female entrepreneurs. To learn more about Coco Chanel’s impact, or visit her haute-couture workshop, join us on one of our exclusive, curated Fashion Week trips to Paris.
Michelle Sitbon is an Art Travel Curator and founder of the MIRIAM Giving Circle Tours program. She is regularly hosting exclusive-access Fashion Week tours to Paris including haut-couture behind the scenes experiences.