“A women who doesn’t wear perfume has no future.” – Coco Chanel
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and businesswoman. The founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, she was credited in the post-World War I era with popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style, replacing the “corseted silhouette” that was dominant beforehand. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, realizing her aesthetic design in jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product, and Chanel herself designed her famed interlocked-CC monogram, which has been in use since the 1920s.
Brought up in a religious orphanage, Gabrielle Chanel turned into a seamstress in Moulins at the age of nineteen and promptly became acquainted to the young soldiers she would meet in the garnison town. Earning a new nickname, Coco, and becoming the protégé of Etienne Balsan, she promptly escaped poverty and, defining her own modern and boyish style, inspired the ‘grandes horizontales’ such as Liane de Pougy, she would meet and design hats for.
When she fell in love with Boy Capel, she turned into a self-supporting businesswoman, establishing boutiques in fashionable Paris and Deauville where her sportswear aesthetic met with huge success and liberated a whole generation of constricted women. Fueled by her own strong personality and taste, she gave birth to an understated style dominated by black, white and beige jerseys adorned with costume jewelry. She highly epitomized the little black dress that suited her petite figure and reigned on fashion and Paris until the late 1930s as ‘a miniature female Stalin’ according to Elsa Maxwell.
During the German occupation of France during World War II, Chanel was criticized for being too close to the German occupiers to boost her professional career; one of Chanel’s liaisons was with a German diplomat, Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklage. After the war, Chanel was interrogated about her relationship with von Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator due to intervention by Churchill. After several post-war years in Switzerland, she returned to Paris and revived her fashion house. In 2011, Hal Vaughan published a book about Chanel based on newly declassified documents, revealing that she had collaborated directly with the Nazi intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst. One plan in late 1943 was for her to carry an SS peace overture to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to end the war. She who had been such an avant-garde observed social and cultural changes as well as the liberation of women with disdain. Before her death, she had declared ‘I…am an odious person’ and rare are those who would have contradicted such words but that is surely what helped her establish not only an empire but also her legend.