While many will be familiar with the fabulous fragrance and fashion label known as Chanel, few know any meaningful details from the life of the designer behind the brand. Here we take a look at the lasting legacy of Coco Chanel.
- 5 minute read.
FRANCE - CIRCA 1937: Coco Chanel, French couturier. Paris, 1937. (Photo by Lipnitzki/Roger Viollet/Getty Images)
Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel
Early Life and Influence
Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel was born in 1883, in a small but striking town called Saumur, located in Western France. Following a humble childhood marred by her father’s alcoholism, she was sent to an orphanage aged 12 after her mother’s death.
It was here, under the strict watchful gaze of monastery nuns, that Chanel first learned to sew. Keen to distance herself from her estranged family, she adopted the name Coco and fell in love with a well-heeled gentleman named Étienne Balsan. Together with him, she launched her first collection of millinery hats.
It wasn’t long before she opened a store in Paris, attracting the attention of many young women with her elegant, informal, and unorthodox styles. This astonishing style movement coincided with a poignant period for women’s history, with loose designs that veered away from the restrictive styles which had so long been in vogue. At the same time, activists such as Emmeline Pankhurst were desperately fighting for their rights.
Chanel did more than emancipate women from corsets and frills. She popularized the concept of women’s pants, with elegant free-flowing fashion inspired by sailors from the French Riviera. While risque for the time, it wasn’t long before the palazzo style pants were a permanent fixture in fashion houses worldwide.
Not content with pioneering a new style era in its entirety, Chanel went on to come up with an emblematic design that has influenced designers since its inception and continues to do so today. Her ‘Little Black Dress’ was so-named in a 1926 issue of Vogue, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Courtesy of Chanel "The Little Black Dress"
Chanel Classic Tweed Jacket
Chanel was always pushing the envelope. One of her most recognizable designs is her classic tweed jacket. Tweed, which originated in Scotland and was a fabric usually worn by men, symbolized Coco's unwavering disregard for cultural norms. She fell in love with the material after borrowing her boyfriend's sportswear. Tweed was already attributed to the elite, so it also made perfect sense cohesively.
Chanel structured this jacket to be less restrictive than other pieces available for women at the time. Elite fashionable women at the time raved about how essential her piece was.
“The Chanel jacket is a man’s jacket which has become typically feminine. It has definitely come to symbolise a certain nonchalant feminine elegance that is timeless, and for all times,” said Karl Lagerfeld, creative director of Chanel from 1983, until his untimely death in 2019.
The Iconic Chanel tweed jacket
Competing With Coco
Of course, crafting a fashion house from the ground up was not without its perils. Chanel often found herself competing among the likes of other famous luxury brands, from Italian powerhouses such as Prada and Gucci to fellow French brands like Louis Vuitton.
Such staunch competition in the world of clothing could be what led to the launch of Chanel No 5, a revolutionary fragrance that epitomized flirtatious femininity. When the couture house was forced to close during WWII, a small boutique selling Chanel perfumes and accessories was able to remain open. By the 50s, Marilyn had become an enthused ambassador for the sought-after scent.
At the age of 71, Chanel finally reopened her fashion brand, which launched to worldwide acclaim. Many other famous women of the time were regularly seen sporting Chanel clothes and accessories. Despite her death in 1971, the legacy of Coco Chanel lives on. It can be seen in all of her notable creations, from the original LBD and fragrance line to the quilted 2.55 handbag and Haute high jewelry collection.
Coco Chanel working in her Paris atelier in 1962. Photograph: Douglas Kirkland