Coco Chanel Biography - Quotes, Fashion & Facts

Coco Chanel developed classic designs that are still fashionable today with her characteristic suits and tiny black dresses.

Coco Chanel: Who Was She?

Coco Chanel is well-known for her timeless designs, signature suits, and little black dresses. She developed her first perfume in the 1920s and later introduced the Chanel suit and the little black dress, with a focus on designing garments that were more comfortable for women. She became a fashion star recognized for her basic yet classy ensembles mixed with wonderful accessories, such as many strands of pearls.

Early Years

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. Her early years were far from glamorous. Chanel was placed in an orphanage by her father, a peddler, when she was 12 years old, following the death of her mother.


Chanel was reared by nuns who taught her how to sew, which became her life’s job. Her moniker stemmed from a very different job. Chanel had a brief career as a singer, performing in bars in Vichy and Moulins as “Coco.”

Some attribute the term to one of her songs, while Chanel herself stated that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for kept woman,” according to an article in The Atlantic.

The Birth of a Fashion Empire

Chanel met Etienne Balsan, who promised to help her establish a millinery company in Paris when she was about 20 years old. She soon abandoned him in favor of one of his wealthy pals, Arthur “Boy” Capel. Both men played important roles in Chanel’s first fashion endeavor.

Chanel began selling hats in her first boutique on Paris’s Rue Cambon in 1910. She then expanded her business to include stores in Deauville and Biarritz, as well as clothing manufacturing.

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On a chilly day, she fashioned a garment out of an old jersey for her first taste of fashion triumph. In response to the numerous inquiries about where she obtained the outfit, she volunteered to make one for them. “My fortune is built on that old jersey I’d put on because it was cold in Deauville,” she told author Paul Morand once.

Chanel rose to prominence in the intellectual and artistic communities of Paris. She made costumes for the Ballets Russes and Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and she was acquainted with both Cocteau and the artist Pablo Picasso.

The First Perfume

Chanel expanded her profitable firm to unprecedented heights in the 1920s. Chanel No. 5, her debut perfume, was the first to have the designer’s name. Perfume “is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion… that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure,” Chanel famously said.

In truth, the scent was supported by department store owner Théophile Bader, as well as industrialists Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, with Chanel forging a strong connection with Pierre.

An agreement was eventually reached in which the Wertheimer company would receive 70% of Chanel No. 5 earnings for creating the perfume at their factory, with Bader receiving 20% and Chanel receiving 10%. With No. 5 being a huge source of cash, she regularly sued to have the terms of the arrangement renegotiated over the years.

Chanel Suit and Little Black Dress are two iconic designs

Chanel developed the now-famous Chanel suit with a collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt in 1925. Her designs were groundbreaking at the time, taking aspects from men’s apparel and emphasizing comfort above the limits of mainstream trends. She assisted ladies in saying good-by to corsets and other restricting clothes.

Chanel’s little black dress was another groundbreaking design of the 1920s. She chose a color that was formerly linked with sadness and showed how stylish it could be for an evening dress.

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Shop Is Closing

Chanel’s firm suffered from the international economic downturn of the 1930s, but it was the beginning of World War II that forced her to lock her doors. She dismissed her employees and closed her stores.

Chanel departed Paris after the war, spending several years in exile in Switzerland. She also spent some time at her rural estate in Roquebrune.

Back to Fashion

Chanel made a victorious return to the fashion world at the age of 70, in the early 1950s. Critics were harsh at first, but her feminine and easy-fitting designs quickly won over customers all over the world.

Marriage Proposal and Relationships

Chanel had a brief romance with composer Igor Stravinsky beginning in 1920. Chanel had attended Stravinsky’s infamous global premiere of “Rite of Spring” in 1913.

She met the affluent Hugh Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster, aboard his boat in 1923. They began a long-term romance. “There have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!” she allegedly exclaimed in response to his marriage proposal, which she declined.

The Life of a Nazi Agent

During the German occupation of France, Chanel became engaged with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a Nazi military commander. She obtained special permission to stay in her Paris flat at the Hotel Ritz, which also served as the German military headquarters.

Chanel was probed about her relationship with von Dincklage after the war, but she was not indicted as a collaborator. Some have speculated that Chanel’s buddy Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on her behalf.

Chanel suffered in the court of public opinion despite the fact that she was not legally accused. Some saw her affair with a Nazi commander as a betrayal of her nation.

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Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at her Hotel Ritz suite. She never married because “I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird.” Hundreds gathered at the Church of the Madeleine to say goodbye to the fashion star. Many of the mourners donned Chanel suits as a tribute.

Karl Lagerfeld took over Chanel’s firm a little more than a decade after her death to carry on the Chanel tradition. Today, her namesake firm is privately held by the Wertheimer family and continues to prosper, generating hundreds of millions of dollars in sales each year.

Chanel shows films, books, and plays

Chanel’s interesting life story inspired the Broadway musical Coco, which starred Katharine Hepburn as the iconic designer. Alan Jay Lerner authored the song’s text and lyrics, while Andre Prévin created the music. Cecil Beaton was in charge of the production’s set and costume design. The musical got seven Tony Award nominations, including Best Costume Design for Beaton and Best Featured Actor for René Auberjonois.

Chanel and Her World (2005), authored by Chanel’s friend Edmonde Charles-Roux, is one of several biographies of the fashion innovator.

Shirley MacLaine played the famed designer at the period of her career revival in the 2008 television film Coco Chanel. The actress told WWD that she has always wanted to portray Chanel. “What’s wonderful about her is that she’s not a straightforward, easy-to-understand woman.”

In the 2008 film Coco Before Chanel, French actress Audrey Tautou portrayed Coco Chanel from childhood until the establishment of her design company. Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky, published in 2009, highlighted Chanel’s friendship with the composer.