There are fewer fashion designers more legendary than Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. The French-born businesswoman created one of the most famous fashion houses the world has ever seen, defining the very essence of elegance and grace with her work.
While her creations would make her revered in the industry, her personal life would also cause quite the stir. From her tragic love affairs to secret Nazi associations, join us as we dive into the glamorous, and complicated, life of Coco Chanel.
For a woman synonymous with glamour and sophistication, Coco Chanel came from humble beginnings. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883, her early life was marred by scandal.
Her mother, Eugenie Jeanne Devolle was an unmarried laundrywoman. Her father, Albert Chanel, was a street vendor who sold work clothes. He was reluctant to marry Eugenie, with whom he had two children out of wedlock. Eventually, the couple did wed, but only when the bride’s family pulled together to provide a dowry that Albert was happy with. They went on to have three surviving children, living together in a cramped one-bedroom home.
For a young Gabrielle, life wasn’t pleasant. Both of her parents often left the children to their own devices as they struggled to make ends meet. Neither Eugenie or Albert were present at their daughter’s birth registration, which meant that her name was incorrectly recorded as “Chasnel” instead of Chanel. But the worst was yet to come.
When Gabrielle was 12, her mother died of tuberculosis. Albert, unable to cope with raising the children alone, sent all three girls to a convent orphanage. Gabrielle’s two brothers were set to work on farms.
Sewing Seeds of Success
Although life at the orphanage was largely joyless and stark, it’s where Gabrielle learned to sew. When she turned 18, she went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins. It wasn’t long before she found employment as a seamstress, but Chanel had higher hopes for herself. She wanted to be on the stage.
When she wasn’t sewing, the blossoming young woman captivated cavalry officers by performing in a cabaret. It was here that she was given her nickname, Coco, as she frequently sang a song titled, “Who Has Seen Coco?” Although, some would dispute this explanation.
Hopes Dashed, Love Found
Although Coco enjoyed singing and wanted to make a serious go of it, her voice wasn’t strong enough for her to find work. Those she auditioned for appreciated her beauty and charm, but wouldn’t employ her. After a brief spell working at the Grande Grille in Vichy, Coco returned to Moulins, where a different venture was waiting for her.
She soon became involved with Etienne Balsan, a wealthy textile heir. For three years, the pair lived together in his chateau, indulging in all the spoils of his situation. Coco, then 23, was given expensive gifts including diamonds, pearls, and dresses.
Arthur Chapel and Coco’s Hats
Coco’s head had been turned by one of Balsan’s friends, Captain Arthur Edward “Boy” Capel. The affair began in 1908 and would mark the beginning of Chanel’s business endeavors. Chapel, an English nobleman, had his new mistress installed in an apartment in Paris.
By this time, Coco had started designing hats, initially as a hobby. Encouraged by her lover, Chanel became a licensed milliner in 1910. She soon opened her first store, Chanel Modes, on rue Cambon, Paris. When actress Gabrielle Dorziat began to wear her creations on the stage and in magazines, business soon took an unprecedented turn.
From Hats to Dresses
Dating an Englishman with a plentiful supply of both power and money had many advantages for the young designer. Capel was more than happy to finance the opening of her first clothing boutique in Deauville, where Chanel branched out from hats to casual leisure and sportswear made from simple materials.
With the help of some family members who modeled her creations and the prime location of the store, the boutique was a success. Now an experienced businesswoman with an ambitious streak, Coco knew she couldn’t stop there. With plenty more ideas under her belt, she turned her sights to the coast.
She Was Able to Reimburse Capel With the Profits From Her Biarritz Boutique
In 1915, Coco opened another boutique, this time in the fashionable town of Biarritz on the Cote Basque. Chanel carefully picked the location as it was close to wealthy Spanish clients. Biarritz was famous for being a playground for Europe’s elite, but the store location had to be perfect.
Rather than open her next venture on the seafront as expected, it was placed in a villa opposite a casino. The boutique did so well that after its first year, Chanel was able to reimburse Capel for his investment. A wise choice, as their relationship was coming to an undignified end.
Arthur Capel Died In a Tragic Car Accident
Coco and Arthur Capel had enjoyed nine years together, but Capel wouldn’t commit to her. Chanel wanted to cement their relationship, but Capel, under pressure from his family, married another member of the English aristocracy, Diana Wyndham.
Chanel went on to have a dalliance with the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia, but neither her or Capel could stay away from each other. It was on a secret trip to see her at Christmas time in 1919 that Capel died in a car accident. “His death was a terrible blow to me,” Chanel would later say. “In losing Capel, I lost everything. What followed was not a life of happiness, I have to say.”
Personal Lows, Business Highs
Just prior to the death of Capel, Coco had purchased her first building, 31 rue Cambon. Situated in one of the most fashionable Paris districts, it would later go on to become a boutique unlike anything of its kind to date.
By 1921, the store featured clothing, hats, accessories and a few years later, fragrances and jewelry. Her work was heavily inspired by her time with Capel, from the cuts of his blazers to the shape of his toiletry bottles. With her reputation growing, things were on the up for 38-year-old Chanel, who was about to take things to the next level thanks to a chance encounter.
Coco Initially Made Just 10% of the Profits of Chanel No. 5
In 1922, Chanel was introduced to the founder of the famous Galeries Lafayette, Pierre Wertheimer, by a mutual acquaintance, Theophile Bader. Bader wanted to sell Chanel No.5 in his stores, so a deal was struck…but it wouldn’t have the outcome Chanel had hoped for.
Wertheimer created Parfums Chanel, providing full financial backing for the enterprise that would see Chanel perfumes become a household name. While the venture was a success, Wertheimer took 70% of the profits, Bader another 20% and Chanel just 10%. It wasn’t long before the designer realized she was getting a rough deal, but it took her 20 years to gain control of the company. She would later refer to Wertheimer as “the bandit who screwed me.” Despite her financial losses, the partnership did help Chanel become a household name.
Her Friendship With Bohemian Misia Sert Influenced Her Greatly
Coco founded a number of important relationships in her life, but her friendship with bohemian Misia Sert would be one of the longest lasting – and most influential. Both of the women became enamored with each other, drawn together by their shared sense of humor.
Just like Coco, Misia had been schooled in a convent. This shared experience gave the pair much to discuss, becoming the basis of their enduring bond. Sert, a painter’s wife, represented an entirely different side of Paris for Chanel, away from primped perfection of the noblemen and high-society she knew well. At the same time, Coco became involved with the British aristocracy.
She Caught the Attention of the British Upper Class
Coco Chanel, thanks to her growing reputation and abundance of wealth, caught the attention of the British upper classes. She would dine with key figures like Winston Churchill and royals like Edward, Prince of Wales – with whom she reportedly had a brief love affair. However, it would be the Duke of Westminster that would snag her.
The Duke spared no expense in wooing Coco, sending her jewels, expensive art and even buying her a home in London’s upscale Mayfair. The affair would go on to last until she hit her fifties – but once again, would fizzle out before marriage. When asked years later why she didn’t tie the knot with the Duke, Chanel said, “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel.”
MGM Films Made Her an Incredible Offer
By this point, Coco Chanel was well-known as the owner of one of the biggest fashion houses in the world. It was only a matter of time before she was snagged by Hollywood. In 1931, while in Monte Carlo, Chanel crossed paths with Samuel Goldwyn of MGM.
He offered Coco a staggering one million dollars (the equivalent of roughly $75 million dollars today) to travel to Hollywood twice a year and design costumes for the stars in MGM films. Curious, Chanel said yes and packed her bags, not knowing what to expect from her latest foray into the unknown.
Coco Chanel Didn’t Care Much for Hollywood
Although her stint in Hollywood gained her two prestigious private clients (Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich), it was otherwise a disaster. Chanel disliked the film business, calling it “infantile.” What’s more, the movies disliked her in equal measure.
Her simple designs didn’t pack the punch Goldwyn had hoped they would on screen. According to The New Yorker, Chanel threw in the towel because “they told her her dresses weren’t sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady.” Although she left Hollywood in her rear-view mirror, Coco did go on to work on several French movies such as La Regle du jeu.
Coco Chanel Was Addicted to Morphine
By the mid-’30s, Coco Chanel was no stranger to drugs – in fact, she was now injecting herself with morphine on a daily basis. Both she and her confidant and close friend, Misia, had the same penchant for the drug. Witnesses even reported seeing the pair inject through their clothes.
Another theory to how Chanel gained her nickname was shared by author Chandler Burr, who claimed she was “called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris.” Chanel would never get over her relationship with morphine and continued to inject it nightly until the day she died.
Anti-Semitism and World War II
Coco Chanel had long since held a disdain for Jews by the time World War II rolled around. She closed her fashion house when the war started, putting 4,000 women out of work in an already difficult time. Some believe Chanel acted out of spite following on from a 1936 staff strike which forced her to close her business, but she maintained it simply “wasn’t a time for fashion.”
When the Germans occupied Paris, she chose to stay at the Hotel Ritz, where high-ranking German military staff also resided, thus making her allegiances quite apparent. Chanel had a romantic tryst with Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German diplomat, which made her situation easier.
Winston Churchill Freed Her From Interrogation
The Nazi’s soon realized that they had a friend in Coco, who, like many of her elite contemporaries, believed Jews were a threat to Europe. She was given a code name and worked closely with officers close to the Gestapo. When the war ended, she fled to Switzerland to avoid criminal charges.
It was claimed by her niece that Winston Churchill freed her from interrogation, as British officials worried about what secrets she could divulge about them. Without Churchill’s intervention, Chanel would’ve been imprisoned and her reputation entirely destroyed. After the war, she continued her love affair with Dincklage and continued to live in Switzerland for several years.
She Reopened Her Fashion House After 15 Years
Now in her 70s and having kept her fashion house closed for 15 years, Coco Chanel wanted to come back with a bang. In 1954, she reopened her doors and released a new collection, financed entirely by Pierre Wertheimer after the messy conclusion of the perfume battle. The world, having known about her Nazi involvement, was dubious.
Thanks in large to Bettina Ballard, the editor of Vogue, the collection sold well. Ballard highly praised Chanel for creating a bridge between fashion and youth. Despite her actions some years prior and her advancing age, Chanel was back, bigger and better than before.
A Lonely End to a Long Life
After her triumphant comeback, Chanel continued to be active in the fashion world, but was largely depressed and lonely. According to author Edmonde Charles-Roux, Chanel was often angry in her later life and didn’t hold the same social standing she once did.
The only people she did see were socialites Jacques Chazot and Aimee de Heeren, the latter being a former rival. The pair would often sit and reminisce about happier times with the Duke of Westminster, taking walks together through Paris. Now moving into her final years, Chanel never stopped designing. In Spring of 1971, she continued with her routine, but it would be her last catalogue.
“You see, this is how you die.”
Now 87 years old, it was no secret that Chanel was becoming frailer by the day, thanks in part to her morphine habit. On Saturday, 9 January 1971 she went for a long drive before falling ill on her return.
The following day, she died in her suite at the Hotel Ritz, which had been her home for the last three decades. Her last words were, “You see, this is how you die.” The funeral took place at the Eglise de la Madeleine, with her fashion models sitting in the front row. Her coffin was covered with beautiful white flowers before the legendary fashion icon was laid to rest in Switzerland.