Who has been to the library recently? Aren’t they grand? Full of books divided by subject, with no borrowing limit and it doesn’t cost you a cent. I know all this information is quite obvious but really, libraries are awesome. I recently borrowed a book called Coco Chanel and Chanel which was about Chanel’s business, her life and how she struggled to juggle both at the same time. The interesting thing is that the book is written from a business perspective not a fashion perspective. It made me see Chanel as less of a timeless fashion icon and more of an historical pioneer of feminism and independence. Here is a time line of her life that I have devised based on the book. It highlights her achievements and her heartaches and illustrates that her talent for fashion may well have been driven by her desire to succeed in business rather than a passion for art…
1883 – Gabrielle Chanel is born in Saumur France on 19th August. Astrologically this makes her a gutsy Leo. Naturally.
1895 – Coco’s mother dies at the age of thirty-three and her father pulls a dodgy and refuses to take care of the kiddies. So Coco and her older sister Julie are shipped off to an orphanage. Coco is 12 at this stage.
1900 – At age 17 Coco leaves the orphanage and is sent to a convent in Moulins, France.
1909 – Chanel moves to Paris and starts designing hats for friends. This is when she realises that she belongs in a world of opulence and she makes friends with artists and writers living in Paris. Her hat designs are clean and simple and are favoured among young women who are rejecting the elaborate hats that are in vogue.
1910 – Chanel’s lover, Boy Chapel throws some money at her and she opens a hat shop on rue Cambon in Paris. She has a crisp white awning out the front of the shop with ‘Coco Chanel’ painted on it in black letters and this marks the beginning of the famous double ‘C’ Chanel logo.
1913 – Again with the help of Boy Chapel, Chanel opens a second store selling sportswear in Deauville France. Women are beginning to despise their restrictive under garments and Chanel begins developing clothing in new shapes that don’t require the re-positioning of a women’s internal organs.
1914 – Chanel uses her business brain to cash in on the war – Realising that women now need to work she designs simple, classic clothes that women can work and play in. She uses men’s designs and adapts them for women. Pullover tops, cardigans and sports jackets are her most popular pieces and modern young women flock to buy her comfortable, practical and stylish designs.
1915 – Chanel opens a third shop this time in Biarritz, a resort town on the coast of France. She recognises that the wealthy vacationers of this town have plenty of money to waste so she creates one-of-a-kind evening dresses that sell for exorbitant amounts. She imports trimmings and fabrics that are not available in France due to the war. The decadence and rarity of her designs are sought after amongst those that can afford them.
1916 – Chanel’s stores are so successful that by the end of the year she has three hundred staff in her employment. Her success means that she is able to pay back her loan from Boy Chapel and becomes totally and completely financially independent. For a woman in 1916, this is a remarkable achievement. Apparently Boy Chapel was surprised to get his money back as loans made to women back then were considered gifts rather than loans. She is the first designer to use jersey in outer garments as well as underwear and is fast developing a radical reputation for herself.
1918 – Chanel is devastated as after an 8 year relationship with Boy Chapel he grows tired of waiting for her to marry him. So he marries the daughter of an English pioneer, Diana Wyndham. Boy Chapel and Chanel remain close friends. Around this time Chanel takes the shape of the chemise undergarment and designs one of the first 1920’s drop-waist ‘sack’ dresses. She is becoming a fashion icon herself and young women are starting to copy her look – slim, elegant and youthful with short, neat hair and bright red lipstick.
1919 – Boy Chapel dies in a car accident.
1921 – Chanel has a new man in her life, Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich. At age thirty-eight Chanel launches her most famous perfume – Chanel No.5
1925 – Chanel meets the Duke of Westminster in Monte Carlo, marking the beginning of their 5 year relationship.
1929 – Chanel opens a boutique for her accessories and Chanel No.5 is established as the leading scent in the world. She is the first designer to make costume jewellery fashionable, even desirable. Before Chanel it was considered tacky to wear anything other than real gems.
1930 – The Duke leaves Chanel and marries Loelia Mary Ponsonby.
1931 – Chanel begins designing clothes for Hollywood films and signs a lucrative 1 million dollar contract.
1930’s – Chanel’s position as fashion leader is threatened by Italian designer Elsa Schiaperelli. Chanel’s designs are starting to be seen as frumpy and Elsa is cornering the popular youth market. Chanel’s classic designs are seen as boring and the whimsical and worldly ‘Schap’ is taking the fashion world by storm. Chanel becomes romantically involved with artist Paul Iribarnegaray. She also releases a new collection, comfortable in the knowledge that there are elegant and sophisticated women who prefer her designs. Obviously she is correct in this assumption.
1935 – Iribarnegaray dies suddenly of a heart attack which marks yet another emotional blow for Chanel.
1936 – During troubled times in France, Chanel is faced with the strike of at least a hundred of her workers. She fires them, realises she actually needs them and then hires them all back. She reluctantly concedes to their demands but builds herself a reputation as a rogue employer.
1939 – The outbreak of World War II – Chanel declared it was ‘no time for fashion’ and took a fifteen year break from her beloved business. She lives off the royalties of her famous perfume. Chanel closes her fashion houses and starts a relationship with German officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage.
1940’s – Fashion designer Chistian Dior starts to dominate the styles of the time with an exaggerated silhouette and brings back the use of restrictive corsetry. Chanel thought Dior’s New Look was ridiculous and that his large skirted, tiny waisted designs were totally unsuitable for the modern world.
1954 – Chanel, aged seventy, presents a new collection for the first time in 15 years. The reviews are quite critical and many say that Chanel should have stayed in retirement.
1971 – Coco Chanel dies, aged eighty seven.
1983 – Karl Lagerfeld becomes design director for the House of Chanel and slowly rebuilds the damaged reputation of one of the oldest fashion houses in Paris.
A few Chanel quotes from the book –
“God knows I wanted love. But the moment I had to choose between the man I loved and my dresses, I choose the dresses.”
“When I think of work, I think of the women I try to dress, not the couture house… Once I helped liberate women, I’ll do it again”
“After fifty you have to deserve your face”
“I never looked so much for someone to love, as for somebody to love me”
I also found out that she considered five to be her lucky number and presented all her collections in fives. Her collections would be shown on the fifth day of the month and her famous perfume is of course, Chanel No.5.
After reading this book I can see how much Chanel sacrificed to become the legend that she is today. She had several long love affairs which ended either with the sudden death of her partner or his sudden departure as he found another woman. It’s obvious that her top priority was her business and that she never had the time or desire for marriage and children. Something tells me that she never regretted her choices either.
For as long as I can remember I have always been more interested in the author of a book than the actual book itself. Reading Virginia Woolf at university only made me want to read her biography and I developed an unhealthy obsession with Lewis Carroll in my late teens. It’s only natural that these voyeuristic tendencies of mine would eventually lead to the manic researching of my favourite designers. Knowing the story behind the success gives Chanel’s collections new resonance and I doubt I will look at a Chanel 2.55 in the same way again…
Love Lady Smaggle
P.S For the boys who read my blog – a Chanel 2.55 is the classic quilted bag with a chain strap. Mischa Barton has one in every colour and if you love your girlfriend (or fag hag) you will buy her one immediately.