The Designer COCO CHANEL

She was shrewd, chic and on the cutting edge. The clothes she created changed the way women looked and how they looked at themselves

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Certainly her life was unpredictable. Even her death--in 1971, at the age of 87 in her private quarters at the Ritz Hotel--was a plush ending that probably would not have been predicted for Chanel by the nuns in the Aubazine orphanage, where she spent time as a ward of the state after her mother died and her father ran off. No doubt the sisters at the convent in Moulins, who took her in when she was 17, raised their eyebrows when the young woman left the seamstress job they had helped her get to try for a career as a cabaret singer. This stint as a performer--she was apparently charming but no Piaf--led her to take up with the local swells and become the backup mistress of Etienne Balsan, a playboy who would finance her move to Paris and the opening of her first hat business. That arrangement gave way to a bigger and better deal when she moved on to his friend, Arthur ("Boy") Capel, who is said to have been the love of her life and who backed her expansion from hats to clothes and from Paris to the coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz. One of her first successes was the loose-fitting sweater, which she belted and teamed with a skirt. These early victories were similar to the clothes she had been making for herself--women's clothes made out of Everyman materials such as jersey, usually associated with men's undergarments.

Throughout the '20s, Chanel's social, sexual and professional progress continued, and her eminence grew to the status of legend. By the early '30s she'd been courted by Hollywood, gone and come back. She had almost married one of the richest men in Europe, the Duke of Westminster; when she didn't, her explanation was, "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel." In fact, there were many Coco Chanels, just as her work had many phases and many styles, including Gypsy skirts, over-the-top fake jewelry and glittering evening wear--made of crystal and jet beads laid over black and white georgette crepe--not just the plainer jersey suits and "little black dresses" that made her famous. But probably the single element that most ensured Chanel's being remembered, even when it would have been easier to write her off, is not a piece of clothing but a form of liquid gold--Chanel No. 5, in its Art Deco bottle, which was launched in 1923. It was the first perfume to bear a designer's name.

One could say perfume helped keep Chanel's name pretty throughout the period when her reputation got ugly: World War II. This is when her anti-Semitism, homophobia (even though she herself dabbled in bisexuality) and other base inclinations emerged. She responded to the war by shutting down her fashion business and hooking up with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi officer whose favors included permission to reside in her beloved Ritz Hotel. Years later, in 1954, when she decided to make a comeback, her name still had "disgraced" attached to it.

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