The Story Of Coco
The Couturier who left behind a fashion legacy
She never told anyone who she was except that she was French. Her past remained unknown, hidden in shadows whilst her work spoke for her. From an orphanage, a convent at that, she came and changed the meaning of style and chic. She was a true couturier and a perfumer.
She was Gabrielle Chanel.
Gabrielle Chanel in her early days sang for the troops. Her famous words ,”Who has seen Coco?” got her the nickname of Coco.
Coco Chanel was a rebel- She made style and swept the world into the next era of fashion.
What did Coco do? Ask me what she didn’t do.
The Chanel brand is a class in itself today. The entwined C’s stand out along with Cara Delevingne, don’t they?
The story of Chanel commenced when Boy Capel told Chanel to pursue her dreams. Boy Capel was Coco’s love for life. She believed and trusted him enough to go into fashion. Coco was not educated in fashion although she had good taste in it. Her idea of chic was “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” The fashion and early 1920s was far too elaborate to be elegant. Hats were topped with feathers. Woman’s waists were bound with corsets. Black was the colour for servants and mourning. And jackets on women, who ever heard of such a thing!
In 1910, Coco set shop on 31 Rue Cambon in Paris. The hats that she had designed were put on display. And how outrageous they were! They had almost only one plume each! No cartloads of feathers to make them heavy. Some hats had ribbons around with no feathers! Nobody visited her shop. Who would dare to defy society and wear a hat with no feathers? Criticism was all that was there.
Now take note that Paris is not just the city of love but the heart of the fashion world. Hats with no feathers got the eye of young coquettish beauties. They preferred elegance; “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” The once criticised shop became a hit amongst those keen on style.
Did Coco stop at hats? Certainly not. She set on the next chic thing.
The fashionistas who loved the chic Chanel style often wore men’s jacket. Observing them, Coco got the next trend. She set her eyes on masculine attire for women. She believed that “masculine attire makes women look more feminine.’
10 years after her first shop, in 1919 in a happy life, tragedy struck. Boy Capel died in a car accident. Coco said, “Either I die as well, or I finish what we started together.”
In 1920s, Coco Chanel came to be known as Mademoiselle.
Going to Venice to sorrow in peace, Coco found her gem- Ernest Beaux. Ernest Beaux was a perfumer. Beaux and Coco delved into building something Boy Capel would have wanted Coco to do- Make A Perfume.
Never before had a perfume been invented with a mixture of fragrances. You had rose scents, sandalwood but not a mixture of both. Ernest Beaux set to work for Mademoiselle Chanel. He made a masterpiece by mixing different scents. The quantities and proportions were put together in a complex formula, to this day it lies undeciphered. But more so Mademoiselle Chanel liked the fifth sample presented it to her by Beaux. It was also her lucky number.
They had indeed created something unprecedented.
The No.5 perfume by Chanel still is one of the most famous ones worn and adored by many celebrities. No.5 rose to tremendous fame when Marilyn Monroe said she wore No.5 to bed.
After the liberation of Paris, American troops purchased No.5 to take it back to their wives or fiancées waiting back at home. No.5 had now crossed over the continent to America. And Mademoiselle’s Chanel was simply everywhere.
The next masterpiece after Chanel No.5 was the black dress.
Dressing in Black
Till that time, black was the colour worn by servants. It was worn for mourning. Mademoiselle Chanel changed that. She designed a black dress, made it short along with a more liberal waist. Soon the world picked up this fashion and evening dresses turned into black.
1945 came with War, loss and grime. Mademoiselle was convinced that now was not the time for fashion. She closed her shop and moved to Switzerland for the war.
But this was hardly the end of a legend.
The Chanel Jacket
15 years later, Mademoiselle returned at 70. Her spirit was unhindered. Now she thought, was the time to rise again. In the span of 15 years, she had experienced so much of inspiration. Over the years, Scottish Tweed had caught her fancy.
Back in her hat shop, Coco remembered her previous thoughts- “Females looked more feminine in masculine clothing.” Mademoiselle took her two fancies and made the tweed jacket called The Chanel Jacket.
At 71, on 5 February 1954 Mademoiselle sat quietly on the stairs in her boutique overlooking the small runway show. There down below, sat people from high society and top fashionistas in complete silence. It was Mademoiselle’s runway show at 71!
The next day, the French media tore her apart. They said she was too old and had lost her touch. Tweed jacket! Ah, they would never work. However the American Life magazine had a different story to tell. They praised Mademoiselle. And Coco knew in her heart, whatever the media might say, she had hit bull’s-eye yet again. Life magazine’s positive testimony was enough for people to demand Chanel jackets. Who listen to the French media anyway?
When Mademoiselle made a comeback runway show sometime later, there was a loud applause. She had indeed struck gold.
The Chanel jacket was elegant and chic, the chain on the inside made it fall precisely, showing its accurate cut. Furthermore the Jacket freed women from tight corsets and gave a better free movement.
Without ever deliberately asking for it, a small girl from humble beginnings had created a worldwide brand.
Gabrielle Chanel who was Coco for some and Mademoiselle to others had contributed her creativity in jewellery, haute couture, perfume. She did all this while drawing on an unyielding inspiration from her orphanage. The orphanage was sombre but it offered her inspiration. The ceremonial objects, religious robes found in the convent and the love for black and white all stemmed from her past.
The No.19 perfume was Mademoiselle Chanel’s closing act.
On a Sunday on 10 January 1971 Coco embraced death in the Ritz hotel where she had lived close to her work for 30 years.
This is a special blog celebrating our first woman on the first day of Navratri. We’ll be sharing the inspirational life stories of 9 women in 9 days so stay tuned. Our Second Woman is the one known as the ‘Most Dangerous of All Indian Leaders’ Rani Lakshmibai. Click here to read her story.
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Want more stories about enterprising women and fashion? How about the post: How Women’s Fashion Changed To Be More Like Today After WW2 ?
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