Writing by Shanice Atkins // Illustration by Michaelanne Foster
Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was one of the most influential fashion designers of the twentieth century. Among all of the designers of the twentieth century, Chanel made a bold and lasting
impression on women’s fashion and revolutionised how we perceive a sense of style.
“Success is often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable.”
However, her early years were far from glamor and luxuries that she became known for. Her mother died when Chanel was at the tender age of six and her father sent her off to an orphanage where she learned the trade of a seamstress. At the age of eighteen, she left the orphanage and went to work for a local tailor. At the age of twenty, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan, who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. This man was instrumental in Chanel’s first fashion venture.
Chanel opened her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910; she started out selling hats. She later added stores in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes. Her first taste of success came from a simple dress she constructed out of an old jersey on a chilly day. In response to the many people who asked about where she got that dress, she offered to make one for them. She once told author Paul Morand, “My fortune is built on that old jersey that I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville”.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
In the 1920s, Chanel took her thriving business to new heights. She launched her first perfume “Chanel no. 5”, which was the first to feature a designer’s name. In 1925, she introduced the now iconic Chanel suit with a collarless jacket and smartly-fitted skirt. For that time, her designs were cutting edge and revolutionary. She incorporated aspects of men’s wear and emphasized comfort and effortless style through her designs. Another 1920s design that revolutionised the world of fashion was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a colour once associated with mourning and showed just how chic and stylish it could be for evening wear.
“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.”
In 1938, she retired from the fashion business. However, 16 years later she made a determined comeback into the fashion world after becoming fed up seeing French fashion become dominated by males. Her first post-war collection was not received well by critics, but it proved to be immensely popular with the general public. Rich and famous women once again took on the Chanel look and she proved her lasting influence on the fashion industry.
Coco Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz. Crowds flocked in their hundreds and gathered together at the Church of Madeline to bid farewell to the fashion icon. In tribute, many of the mourners wore Chanel suits. A little over a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took over the company in the hopes of continuing the Chanel legacy. Today her namesake company is held privately by the Wertheimer family and continues to grow and thrive, it is believed to generate hundreds of million in sales every year.
“Women think of all colours except the absence of colour. I have said that black has it all. White too. Their beauty is absolute. It is the perfect harmony.”
Coco Chanel, a name known and revered by anyone who knows fashion and many who don’t, made her mark in the fashion industry at a time when it was male-dominated. Even more than that, she built that success by breaking the stereotypes of fashion and society at that time. Innovations such as clothes made out of jersey, trousers for women, the timeless Chanel jacket, branded perfume, costume jewellery, and the famed little black dress have all come from this remarkable woman. By breaking the rules of fashion in the 1920s, she inspired women to break the rules in general and to not be fazed by a challenge, but to embrace it. Coco Chanel prided herself on her great taste, fashion, and practicality, combined with a heightened awareness of what people wanted. It was this that made her one of the most recognisable names in the world of fashion.”[share]