February 9, 2007


And the woman behind the brand is...
Coco Chanel

Coco Chanel was ready to introduce a new perfume, an unorthodox scent created by a chemist on the Riveria. A fortune teller had once told her that five was her lucky number so she called her fragrance simply Chanel No. 5. It made Coco Chanel a millionaire many times over.

But perfume, although it made her famous across the world, was only a sidelight for Chanel. Her influential fashions freed 20th century women from rigid bone corsets with an uncluttered, casual look. Among her innovations were jersey dresses, trenchcoats, turtleneck sweaters, bellbottom trousers, bobbed hair, sailor suits and costume jewelry.

Chanel’s life, much of which couldn’t be distinguished from fact to fiction, was appropriately turned into a Broadway musical in 1969, 13 months before her death. When asked what she thought of Katharine Hepburn, then 60, in the starring role Chanel, who was herself 86, replied scathingly, “She’s too old.”

Chanel was born in a dour mountainous region of southern France in 1883.
She was baptized Gabrielle Bonheur - Gabrielle Happiness. Her mother died of tuberculosis when she was six and her father abandoned his four daughters.
Coco was sent to live with strict aunts where she helped raise horses to sell to the French army.

Before her 16th birthday Coco escaped her aunts by persuading a young cavalry officer to take her away. Chanel became swept up in a world of high society as her French officer turned out to be an heir to an industrial fortune. The two were inseparable for the next ten years.

By 1911 Chanel was ready to make her own mark on society. She started selling hats in a haphazard fashion from a tiny Parisien shop. Over the next few years she became a force in the fashion record by disdaining elaborate and grotesque hats that were in fashion for simple and attractive hats. She began to impress wealthy and influential women with her originality in her shop at 31 rue Cambon.

“Women are not flowers, why should they want to smell like flowers,” she commented when introducing Chanel No. 5. Women responded and she eventually would have 2,400 people in her workrooms. Women around the world knew her name.

It was a toss-up as to what caused more of a sensation in the 1920s: Chanel’s fashion creations or her social life. One winter she came back from Cannes with bronzed skin and other women, who had always considered paleness the mark of a lady, began to seek tans. When Chanel had her expensive jewelry copied so she could wear them without being stared at costume jewelry was born. When Chanel went to Venice she outfitted herself in comfortable slacks that bulged slightly at the bottom and the fashion world went wild for bellbottoms.

She kept a small suite at the swank Ritz hotel and one night some gas in her hot water heater exploded, spraying her with soot. An impatient woman, Chanel cut her long black hair so there would be less to shampoo. Later that night when she appeared at the opera she set off an immediate fashion craze.

In the late thirties, when the fashion world deserted Chanel for other designers and World War II broke out Chanel shut her couture house at 31 rue Cambon. She spent time at the Ritz and in Switzerland as she receded from public view for 15 years. Chanel returned, fiery as ever, on February 5, 1954, showing a heavy navy jersey and a sailor hat. Critics were lukewarm but women bought it and the suit evolved year after year with increasing success.

The suit was a hallmark of Chanel design. Although she dressed the world’s most famous women and revelled in luxury herself she was the constant democratizer of fashion. She claimed that her most important task was to make women look young. “Then,” she said, “their outlook on life changes. They feel more joyous.”

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