On the 19th of August, 1883, in a charity hospital in Saumur, France, a baby girl was born into a poor family. Jeanne, a laundrywoman, and Albert, a street vendor, named their 2nd child Gabrielle Bonheur.
Tragically, at the tender age of 12, Gabrielle lost her mother to tuberculosis. Not being able to care for her and her siblings, her father ultimately put Gabrielle in an orphanage. It was that every orphanage is where little Gabrielle learned how to sew, thus sparking her interest in fashion.
Gabrielle worked briefly as a seamstress, and then as a cabaret singer! One of her favorite songs to perform was “Who Has Seen Coco?” and that is exactly what inspired the legendary icon’s nickname.
From Rags to Riches
Coco worked as a cabaret singer for a few years until she developed romantic relationships with an array of wealthy men. One of them, Arthur Capel, financially aided her into opening a millinery shop in Deauville, France. Along with headpieces, Coco also sold casual sportswear using jersey fabric. and as they say, the rest is history.
Coco’s creativity in using jersey fabric in her clothing pieces had attracted so much attention from socialites who are tired of wearing the ever uncomfortable petticoats and corset dresses. Coco maintained designs that are both elegant and comfortable, faithfully adhering to her principle that, “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury”.
In a span of a few years, Coco became a renowned French fashion designer who revolutionized the fashion industry. You would not see an influential woman around who did not own a Chanel suit, a quilted purse, or of course, the famous “little black dress”.
The million-dollar success of Coco Chanel is so massive that her stores had reportedly more than 2,000 employees. Among these stores, aside from her couture house, were a textile mill, a jewelry workshop, and a perfume laboratory, where the phenomenal Chanel no. 5 was born.
Did you know that every 30 seconds a bottle of Chanel No. 5 is purchased somewhere around the world? That is exactly how successful this bottle of perfume was, and still is. In fact, this tiny bottle was said to finance the whole Chanel empire. The scent was created especially for Coco by perfume creator Ernst Beaux in 1922. It was the fifth among the set of scents that Coco sampled, hence the name.
Chanel no. 5 is a mixture of jasmine and other floral aromatic scents. It was a refreshing elevation from the usual single-scented perfumes available in the market. Its simple and sleek bottle alone is renowned around the world which attributes to the perfume’s massive success.
In 1922, Coco allowed Theophile Bader and Pierre Wertheimer to create a corporate entity for the perfume called Parfums Chanel. While the two financed the production, marketing, and distribution of the perfume, they together received 70% of all the perfume’s profits, leaving only 10 percent of the royalties to Coco.
Realizing how she was taken advantage of by the two, Coco decided to fight legally to get sole ownership of her brand. While she was never able to increase her royalties, Chanel made a considerable profit from the perfume.
The German Invasion
In 1939, with the outbreak of World War II, Coco had no choice but to close her business. People were not happy with her friendly relations with a German diplomat and that badly affected her reputation. But all’s well that ends well. She would eventually re-open her couture house in 1954, and while people were initially cautious and hesitant about it, her youthful fashion sense was seen as a genius breakthrough.
Her Legacy Lives On
Chanel’s success continued despite her passing in 1971. Her couture house scrambled initially, with a bunch of different designers managing the business. Thankfully, in 1983 Karl Lagerfeld came to the rescue and successfully sustained the empire.
Up until today, many people are in awe of her rags to riches story. Her controversial romantic affairs have also been the subject of many books, films, and plays. In 1970, the Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn was created in her honor.
With her ambition, talent, and determination, Coco Chanel’s life is truly an inspiration.