Coco Chanel in her own outfit
On the other hand, it may not matter. She changed the world for style-conscious women. In 1910 Chanel opened a small business at 31 Rue Cambon, in Paris’ 1st arrondissement, and sold mainly hats. Within a couple of years, and still before WW1 broke out, Chanel expanded to Deauville, where she began selling casual resort outfits, jersey being an intelligent and flexible fabric for the cashed-up working women. Post-war Chanel established her fullblown couture house at the same 31 Rue Cambon, below her old flat and workshop.
Chanel’s lushly decorated flat could not have been more different from the prison-like orphanage in which she grew up. The flat is still famous today and everything is preserved just as it was left (photo below).
Chanel's shop, 31 Rue Cambon Paris
It is interesting to speculate on why Chanel never married. Not from lack of admirers. She seemed to have been attracted to people who could help her career or who were wheelers and dealers in their own lives: the Duke of Westminster, Pablo Picasso, Christian Dior, Elsa Shiaparelli, Yves Saint Laurent, Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich.
During the 1920s, Coco Chanel actively promoted further the freedom of women's fashion. She invented or popularised:
-the little black dress,
-arguably the most famous perfume on the planet,
-the rather boxy Chanel suit and jacket, made from wool,
-strings of pearls and
-the most successful fashion brand of the era.
In short Chanel was a designer and dealer of elegance, an individual who helped change the way women wanted to look.
I am not at all clear on why a seamstress and fashion designer became involved with perfume, but she did. In 1922, the Chanel No 5 perfume was launched. Soon Coco needed someone with extensive experience in commerce, international business connections, and access to large amounts of capital to market the perfume professionally. In 1924, businessmen Pierre & Paul Wertheimer became Coco Chanel's partners in the House of Chanel perfume business. During their partnership, Wertheimer owned 70% of the Chanel perfume company.
Chanel's friendships just before and during WW2 seemed rightwing and very nasty. After the Germans occupied France in 1940, Chanel lived with the Nazi officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. And she became a very close friend of Nazi General Walter Schellenberg. Chanel wanted to benefit from the law banning Jews from owning businesses, in order to take over 100% of the Chanel perfume company. She apparently forgot that the Jewish Wertheimer brothers were the very people who had saved her in the 1920s... or she did remember it perfectly well. Perhaps her friends the Duke and Duchess of Windsor encouraged her anti-Semitism.
Actually Hal Vaughan suggested that she became fiercely anti-Semitic, long before it became a question of pleasing the Germans. Chanel had become rich by catering to the very rich, and shared their dislike of Jews, trade unions, socialism, Freemasons and communism."
Like quite a number of French women, Chanel was later charged as a collaborator with the Germans, but it isn't clear why the case wasn't pursued in court. It is telling however that post-war, her new collection did not have much success in Paris. Presumably this was explicitly because of her war-time relationship with the Nazis. The British and American public didn't care; they continued to buy up her new range with fervour.
The world was a different place in the 1950s and 1960s, so my story would have stopped here. But I want to mention two more Chanel success stories. In 1953 she collaborated with French jeweller Robert Goossens to design a special line of jewellery to go with the Chanel suits. He successfully blended artificial jewels with semi-precious gems, and made the outfits look splendid.
And in 1957 Chanel visited Dallas and whilst there, won the Award for Distinguished Service in the Field of Fashion given by Stanley Marcus, owner of Texan retailer Neiman Marcus. Karl Lagerfeld thought the French press had treated Chanel's WW2 activities abominably and was delighted when her career kick started in the USA.
In Dec 2013 there are some reminders of Chanel's happy connection with Dallas - Karl Lagerfeld is showing the latest Chanel Metiers d'Art collection at Dallas' Art Deco exhibition venue Fair Park. It begins with the premiere of a film written and directed by Lagerfeld titled The Return, that retraces the steps of Coco Chanel as she reopened her Paris couture house in the 1950s.
There are many beautiful photos throughout the book, images which told a great deal about the life and times of Coco Chanel. It is difficult to imagine how one scared, lonely 12 year old girl, abandoned in an austere and very tough orphanage, turned into to leading designer of the fashion world and a companion of the rich and famous. But the book and the photos managed the task very well.
Lounge room, Chanel's own beautiful design
At 87 Coco Chanel was still working as normal, preparing for the spring collection. She died in harness in January 1971.
Read Sleeping With The Enemy: Coco Chanel's Secret War by Hal Vaughan (Knopf 2011).