Although she was born at the end of the nineteenth century, Chanel was to become one of the most influential designers of the twentieth century. She was not influenced by previous fashion, but had entirely new ideas on how to make a woman look feminine. Dispensing with the frills and furbelows of the Edwardian era, she brought in a clean, uncluttered look that was to become the basis for much of the haute couture design in the following decades.
Her father, Albert Chanel, was an itinerant market trader, moving from place to place as the fancy took him. In the winter of 1881 he found lodgings in Courpiere, France and soon began paying attention to Jeanne Devolle the younger sister of his landlord. However, in the spring of 1882 Albert once more felt the urge to travel and left the area, leaving behind the nineteen year old Jeanne who was by now pregnant.
Jeanne eventually tracked Albert down in Aubenas and gave birth, in a public tavern, to Julia, Gabrielles older sister. Albert would not marry Jeanne, but she stayed with him and they were soon on the move again, this time to Saumur in the Auvergne. It was here, on August 19th, 1883, that Jeanne Gabrielle Chanel was born. She was christened by the hospital chaplain, and, years later, told the story that a nun at her christening named her Bonheur, though there is no documentation to prove this.
Gabrielles parents were at last married in July 1884, and continued their wandering life, sometimes with the children and sometimes leaving them behind with anyone who was willing. By now there were several more children and, after many years of ill health due to asthma, her mother became very ill in the spring of 1895 and died at the age of thirty three.
Until she was seventeen in 1900 Gabrielle was educated at a convent orphanage run by nuns at Aubazine and she spent a further two years at another convent school at Moulins. During her years at the convent Gabrielle became accomplished at sewing, and during holidays spent with her aunt Julia, who had a passion for hats, she learned the art of millinery.
Keeping her eyes and ears open she began to form her own opinion of the sort of styles she preferred. At twenty she began work as an assistant in a shop selling trousseaux and layettes (wedding outfits and baby wear) and everyday clothes for girls and ladies. Moulins was a garrison town and the tailors' shops were always busy. Gabrielle found a job in one of these as a seamstress, but her evenings were spent enjoying life with the officers, who showed her the sights and took her to nightclubs.
Always on the look out for something different, Gabrielle became a singer at La Rotunde, where, in her husky voice, she sang Ko Ko Ri Ko and Whos seen Coco in the Trocadero?. From that time she became know as Coco, which remained with her throughout her life.
In 1906 she moved to Vichy, hoping to establish a singing career there, but her voice did not suit the owner of the biggest nightclub and all she could do was to sew the dresses for the other artistes such as Mystingette. Disillusioned, she returned to Moulins.
She found nothing here for her either and later that year eagerly accepted the suggestion by Etienne Balsan, an old admirer, that she live with him in his Chateau de Royallieu. Although not yet accepted by the society ladies who visited the chateau, Gabrielle became an accomplished horse rider and was one of the first women to wear riding breeches. In order not to give the appearance of being a kept woman she always wore very plain, strictly tailored clothes, with a boater. Soon becoming bored with a life filled with horses and card playing, she began to create hats for her friends.
At this time in 1909, at the age of 26, she became friendly with an Englishman Arthur Capel, nicknamed Boy, who was one of Etiennes friends. He encouraged her to extend her expertise and, at Etiennes suggestion, Gabrielle was installed in the ground floor apartment at 160 boulevard Malesherbes in Paris where Etienne had conducted his liaisons. Here she made and sold millinery to society women and soon had a staff of three.
It became clear in 1910 that the premises were much too small and Gabrielle tried to persuade Etienne to give her a loan to buy her own premises, but he refused. Arthur Capel had, by this time, become very important to her and he lent her the money to buy a shop at 21 rue Cambon. Her fame was spreading and photographs of her creations were appearing in the fashionable magazines. Little by little Arthur introduced new interests into her life. She became interested in dancing, meeting Isadora Duncan and her bohemian friends. But Gabrielle never really enjoyed their way of life and she soon abandoned them. She became more fond of Boy Capel and her circle of friends became more cosmopolitan, with singers, artists and actors all being part of the set who regularly visited Etiennes chateau de Royallieu. It was here, in 1911, that she met Gabrielle Dorziat, a well known actress. The two became friends and in 1912 Coco Chanel made two hats for Dorziats appearance in Maupassant's play "Bel Ami" at the Vaudeville theatre in Paris. The hats were of straw, with wide brims turned up on one side. Dorziat later modelled the hats for photographs in Les Modes.
Everyone spent the summer in the fashionable resort of Deauville. In the summer of 1914 with talk of war in the air the atmosphere was more hectic than ever, and Gabrielle took advantage of this by opening a shop on the rue Goutaut, once more financed by Arthur Capel. Her logo was painted on a white awning above the shop, the word Chanel in black lettering. This time she was selling clothes as well as millinery and could be seen around town in her masculine, tailor made clothes, setting the trend for the future. The unusual couple captured the imagination of the caricaturist Sem who illustrated several publications with models by the very chic Chanel. Gabrielle had by now discovered that displaying clothes on a live model had many advantages, and could be seen with her aunt Adrienne promenading on the pier, displaying her designs for all the fashionable ladies to see.
Arthur Capel was a very successful businessman and a keen polo player. Gabrielle hoped to settle down with him, but he was often away on business and was usually seen in the company of other women. Immersing herself in her work, Gabrielle launched her first Chanel suit. A sailor blouse in tricot material over an open necked shirt and a skirt which was straight but loose enough to walk in and just showing the feet. A plain straw hat completed the outfit, a combination that she had been wearing for some time, but which everyone now wanted to wear as a change from the figure hugging fashion of the day.
At the outbreak of war in 1914 Deauville became deserted as everyone rushed back home. Capel, ever the businessman, persuaded Gabrielle to stay. His hunch was correct as, on returning to the resort having lost their clothes in the war, customers found that Chanel was the only shop left open. Times were changing. The society ladies decided to go bathing, dressed in bathing costumes designed by Chanel, with wide, knee length bloomers.
Capel had been posted to London but still lived in Paris. Before his departure he took Gabrielle to Biarritz, another very fashionable resort. Seeing the potential for a much larger business he advanced the money for yet another new venture. This time they opened a maison de couture in a villa near the Casino, the Villa Larralde on rue Gardères, selling dresses for 3000 francs.
By July 1915 the Biarritz house had more than sixty employees and, leaving her sister Antoinette in charge, Gabrielle returned to Paris. Here they made the clothes for Biarritz and, when necessary, sent personnel to help with the extra work. With three hundred people working for her in 1916 she found that she was able to repay her debts to Arthur Capel, much to his surprise.
Whilst looking for a new knitted fabric to resemble tricot, Gabrielle found a manufacturer who had made a knitted, woollen material called jersey. This material was generally used for gentlemen's underwear but he found that his clients did not like the beige colour. To his surprise she bought his entire stock and made herself an unfitted redingote reaching halfway down the skirt. It was an immediate success.
Meanwhile Chanels fame was spreading. One of the dresses from her Biarritz collection was copied in America and appeared in Harper's bazaar in 1916. In France it was to be 1920 before anyone made a copy of any of her clothes. They did, however, copy her hair style which she had cut short in 1917.
That year was to prove a difficult one for Gabrielle as Arthur Capel decided that the time had come for him to marry into the English aristocracy. She pretended not to mind, but was deeply unhappy about it. To cover her distress she rented a villa where she spent her time with her men friends.
When she was 36 years old, in October 1919 Chanel became registered as a coutourière and moved further along the same street in Paris; 31 rue Cambon was to remain the House of Chanel for the rest of her life.
Even though he was married Capel still sought out Gabrielle when he was in Paris. But all this was to come to an abrupt end. On December 21st, 1919 Arthur Capel was driving to Cannes for Christmas when he was involved in a fatal accident. As soon as she heard the news Gabrielle insisted on being driven to the scene of the accident to pay her last respects. For a while she was inconsolable, but she had the businesses to run and life must go on. © GMH