The story of the French fashion designer Coco Chanel is quite remarkable. She can be credited with making a significant impression on female fashions and is treated as an icon in the industry. She continued to innovate and contribute all the way up to her death at the age of 88.
Born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France, Chanel – whose given name was Gabrielle – endured a troubled childhood. She was placed in an orphanage by her deadbeat father and was raised by nuns. However, as the nuns taught her how to sew, this paved the way for significant achievements ahead. Trying to find her way in life she briefly became a club singer and this is where she assumed the name "Coco." This name was a "shortened version of Cocotte, the French word for "kept woman"" according to Chanel.
As she passed from her teen years, Chanel became involved with a couple of wealthy society figures in Paris. This association allowed her to start a millinery business and achieve reasonable success, expanding to other cities. She soon started making clothes and her offbeat style became an instant hit.
It was in 1922 that Coco Chanel introduced one of her iconic products — the perfume, Chanel Number 5. This was indeed the first product to ever feature a designer’s name and it is popular even to this day. Perfume "is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion… that heralds the arrival and prolongs your departure," she explained. It was around this time that she met her business partner, Pierre Wertheimer, whose family still has an element of control in the perfume company today.
Revolutionary designs continued through the 1920s, including the legendary Chanel suit, which borrowed elements from men’s wear and helped liberate women from the restriction of corsets. "Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury," she once said. The black dress, once reserved for mourning, was developed for evening wear and became very chic within society. Chanel had a natural eye and an entrepreneurial touch. "Fashion is not simply a matter of clothes. Fashion is in the air, born upon the wind. One intuits it. It is in the sky and on the road."
The devastation of World War II had a significant impact and Chanel closed her business. A controversial affair with a Nazi officer heralded a very negative period during her life. Indeed, after the war ended, Chanel was interrogated about her affair and it is rumored that only the intervention of her friend Winston Churchill saved her from serious repercussions.
After living a relative life of exile in the postwar period, Coco Chanel emerged back into the public eye at the age of 70. Once again, her natural and casual clothing became a hit with women and she’s credited with introducing bell bottom pants and pea jackets into common culture.
Whilst she passed away in 1971, her legacy lives on to this day. Chanel never married, saying that "I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird."
The accomplished designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins of the company in the ’80s and the organization honoring her name continues to thrive today. Numerous biographies have been written about her life. Katherine Hepburn starred in a 1969 Broadway musical "Coco" and in more recent times the acclaimed actress Shirley MacLaine starred in a television production focusing on Chanel’s career resurrection.