Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel (1883 –1971), the founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, was a French fashion designer and businesswoman. She is credited with liberating women from the constraints of the "corseted silhouette" and popularised a sporty, casual style. TIME magazine listed her as the only fashion designer as one of the most influential people of the 20th century.
Her mother died when Gabrielle was 12 and her father sent his three daughters to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage that cared for “poor, rejected and orphaned girls". Despite the tragedy of this, being placed in the orphanage may have been the best thing for Chanel’s future because it is where she learned to sew. Later in her life, Chanel claimed she was a decade later than she actually was and her childhood to be a lot more glamorous including stories of her father sailing for America to seek his fortune after the death of the mother.
In 1918, Chanel purchased 31 rue Cambon, in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris and in 1921 opened an early incarnation of the fashion boutique. In 1924, Chanel made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume and cosmetics house Bourgeois, in which the Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5 and therefore receive seventy percent of the profits. Chanel agreed to license her name to Parfums Chanel for a 10% share and withdrew from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel then fought for more than twenty years to regain full control of Parfums Chanel referring to Pierre Wertheimer as "the bandit who screwed me".
There is an apocryphal story in circulation that Chanel who had by 1935 become a habitual drug user was called Coco because she threw the most fabulous cocaine parties in Paris. After an exemplary career in fashion, Chanel died in January 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years.
As early as 1915, fashion experts said "The woman who hasn't at least one Chanel item is hopelessly out of fashion”. Chanel ended the corseted female silhouette with all its frills, fuss, and constraints. Her trademark look was one of youthful ease, a liberated physicality, and sportive confidence. Her own enthusiasm for sports led to clothing designs inspired by activities such as yachting leading to the horizontal striped shirt, bell-bottom pants, crewneck sweaters, and espadrille shoes.
Several films have been made about Coco including “Chanel Solitaire” (1981), “Coco Chanel” (2008) as well as the French-language films “Coco Before Chanel” (2009) and “Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” (2009).
Douglas Kirkland took this photo of Chanel when she was 79 years old after Americans had heard of Chanel for the first time after it emerged that Jackie Kennedy had been wearing her dresses and suits in the White House. He found her age hard to believe as she was very hands-on and would never stand back and just point at things. Watching her work surrounded by her assistants in absolute silence was like watching a surgeon in an operating room or an artist sculpting in clay. Kirkwood described Chanel, who wanted to be called Mademoiselle, not Coco or Madame, which you would expect to call someone of her age in France as warm and generous despite her tough reputation, and remembers she was always wearing a hat and smoked constantly.
In 1983, Karl Lagerfeld took over as chief designer for Chanel. He incorporated the Chanel fabrics and detailing such as tweed, gold accents, and chains as well as the interlocked "CC" monograph of Coco Chanel. Lagerfeld kept what was signature for Chanel but also helped bring the brand into today. Today, Chanel is a privately held company owned by Alain and Gérard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer, the "perfume bandit".