All Hail the Queen Mademoiselle Coco Chane

“In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.”
-Coco Chanel


No Influential Women Who Changed Fashion History” tribute would be complete without paying homage to the queen bee of them all, Coco Chanel. As we sing her praises, please forgive us if we sound a little giddy and star struck over her unparalleled influence on our industry. In this, we are not alone. In fact, Mademoiselle Coco is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.

An account of her early childhood and young adulthood is worthy of a Dickens’ novel. Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel was born on August 19, 1883 to Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, a laundry woman, in a charity hospital for the poor run by the Sisters of Providence in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire. Her father, Albert Chanel, was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life as he traveled to and from market towns. 

He married Eugénie a year after Gabrielle’s birth, after being persuaded to do so by her family who had “united, effectively, to pay Albert” to marry Gabrielle’s mother.

When Gabrielle was only 11, her mother died at the age of 32. Her father sent her and her younger sisters to the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, which was “founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls”. It’s interesting to note that young Gabrielle never received any formal education of any kind.

Her Dickensian upbringing did have a silver lining however. It was at the orphanage where Gabrielle Chanel learned to sew. And the rest is fashion history.

Fashion Fun Fact #1: Chanel was never comfortable with the real facts of her childhood, and in later years “adjusted” her early history to fabricate a more genteel and publicity-worthy upbringing.

31 rue Cambon, Paris

In Chanel’s young adulthood she worked as a poseuse, a performer who entertained the crowd between star turns at a Moulins pavilion, La Rotonde. The pavilion attracted wealthy playboys, and they bestowed upon the young Gabrielle the nickname, “Coco.” Various well-to-do men vied for the affections of the coquettish, vivacious Coco.

One of these men was textile heir, Étienne Balsan. For the next three years, Coco lived with Etienne in his château Royallieu near Compiègne, but apparently the life of a “kept” mistress bored the creative and ambitious Coco, and she began designing hats as a diversion. This diversion eventually evolved into her first commercial enterprise. 

In 1910 –  at the height of “the Gibson Girl” look and its penchant for outrageous hats – Coco became a licensed milliner and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris, named Chanel Modes. Her millinery atelier was a success.

Never one to rest on her laurels, in 1913, Coco opened a second boutique in Deauville, where she designed and offered elegant casual clothing constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot (fabrics which were, at the time, primarily used for men’s underwear); chosen mostly due to the fact that these fabrics were affordable. 

The location was a prime one, and here Chanel sold her hats, her simple but elegantly constructed jackets, jersey sweaters, and the marinière, Chanel’s interpretation of a sailor blouse. Her sister, Adrienne and her aunt, Antoinette were recruited to model Chanel’s innovative designs; on a daily basis the two women paraded through the town and on its boardwalks, advertising the Chanel creations. Maybe the first outdoor runway show, as it were.

By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturière and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, Paris. The ever-enterprising and business-minded Coco eventually purchased the building and in 1921, she expanded her boutique to offer jewelry and fragrances (did we just catch a whiff of Chanel No. 5?). 

Fun Fact #2: By 1927, at the age of 44, Chanel owned five properties on the rue Cambon, buildings numbered 23 to 31. At that time in history, this would have been considered an impressive and extensive real estate portfolio for a woman.

Hollywood Calls, Coco Answers

It was only a matter of time before Hollywood would take notice of Chanel’s extraordinary taste and abilities. In 1931, while in Monte Carlo, Chanel met movie studio owner Samuel Goldwyn.

 Goldwyn offered Chanel a tantalizing and lucrative proposition. For the sum of a million dollars (approximately US $75 million today), he would bring her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for his stars. Chanel accepted the offer (did we mention that she was no fool, our Coco?). 

In Hollywood, Chanel designed the clothing worn on screen by Gloria Swanson, and for Ina Claire. Both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich eventually became private clients.

However, not everything she touched turned to gold, and Hollywood was possibly the only business venture that did not work out to Coco’s liking. Her experience there left her with a distaste for Hollywood’s film business and its culture, of which she pronounced “infantile” and that “Hollywood is the capital of bad taste…and it is vulgar.”  

Fun Fact #3: The New Yorker speculated that Hollywood rejected Chanel (and not the other way around) because “her dresses weren’t sensational enough. She made a lady look like a lady. Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies.” (As an aside, we’re not really sure what that statement even means.)

Her Unparalleled Creative Legacy

Chanel’s legacy is so much more than simply releasing women from the confines of early 20th century fashion with its corseted bodices and rigid fabrics. 

Ever the tomboy, Coco enthusiastically embraced the horse culture and penchant for hunting so passionately pursued by the European upper class. She also loved being on the water, often participating in sailing and yachting excursions. Her adventures required clothing that was comfortable, loose and allowed her to move with ease. She adopted this as her personal style and “Chanel” look was born. 

Harper’s Bazaar raved over Chanel’s designs: “The woman who hasn’t at least one Chanel is hopelessly out of fashion…the name Chanel is on the lips of every buyer.” Wikipedia goes on to say, “Her design aesthetic redefined the fashionable woman in the post World War I era. The Chanel trademark look was of youthful ease, liberated physicality, and unencumbered sportive confidence.”

So it would seem we have Mademoiselle Coco and her penchant for outdoor pursuits to thank for wardrobe staples such as horizontal striped shirts, bell-bottom pants, crewneck sweaters, and espadrille shoes—all traditionally worn by sailors and fishermen. But as any fashion history aficionado knows, there is so much more:

  • Jersey fabric. As one of those “right place at the right time” sensations, Chanel’s introduction of jersey to high-fashion worked well for two reasons: First, the WWII had caused a shortage of more traditional couture materials, and second, women began desiring simpler and more practical clothes.

  • The Chanel suit. What can we say? Meticulous attention was placed on detail during fittings. Chanel conducted tests with fit models, having them walk around, step up to a platform as if climbing stairs of an imaginary bus, and bend as if getting into a low-slung sports car. 

  • Camellia. Coco herself loved the camellia flower and eventually it came to be identified with The House of Chanel; the designer first used it in 1933 as a decorative element on a white-trimmed black suit.

  • Little black dress. This enduring wardrobe choice is often cited as another Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon. In 1926, Vogue predicted that Chanel’s “simple yet chic design would become a virtual uniform for women of taste”.Again, Vogue was right.

  • Costume Jewelry. As an antidote for vrais bijoux en toc (an obsession with costly, fine jewels) Chanel turned costume jewelry into a coveted accessory—especially when worn in grand displays, as she did.

  • The Chanel bag. The bag’s design was informed by Chanel’s early convent days and her love of the sporting world. The chain used for the strap echoed the chatelaines worn by the caretakers of the orphanage where Chanel grew up, whilst the burgundy lining referenced the convent uniforms. The quilted outside was influenced by the jackets worn by jockeys. Now you know.

  • Suntans. Chanel took in the sun, making suntans not only acceptable, but a symbol denoting a life of privilege and leisure. By the mid-1920s, the Chanel influence made sunbathing fashionable.

As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old and was carrying out her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. She had gone for a long drive on the afternoon of Saturday, January 9. Soon after, feeling ill, she went to bed early. She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years. She announced her final words to her maid which were: “You see, this is how you die.” 

From tweeds, stripes, and soft jersey dressing to  jackets weighted with chains sewn into hemlines, and the best-selling perfume of all time, Coco Chanel left behind a fashion legacy that is without equal. All in all, a pretty impressive career for an uneducated daughter of a washerwoman and a traveling salesman.

Coco’s career proves it takes more than talent to make your mark on our industry. It also takes an unwavering creative vision and dogged determination. If you’d like to discuss your plans to be the next big thing, feel free to give us a call at 800-916-0910 or reach out to us at

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