Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to an unmarried mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle – known as Jeanne – a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, France and Albert Chanel, an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns, while the family resided in rundown lodgings. In 1884 Albert married Jeanne Devolle, enticed perhaps by the offer of money from Jeanne's family.
At birth, Chanel's name was entered into the official registry as "Chasnel" probably due to a clerical error. Her mother was too unwell to attend the registration, and her father Albert was registered as "travelling". The family soon grew to 7 and they lived crowded into a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.
When Gabrielle was 12, her mother died of bronchitis at the age of 31. Gabrielle's father sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, whose religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was "founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls". It was a stark, frugal life, demanding strict discipline. It was there that Chanel learned the art of sewing. Later in life Chanel would embellish her childhood with stories of glamour and overseas travel, perhaps in a bid to overcome the stark realities of her impoverished upbringing.
At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Chanel went on to forge a career in a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Chanel made her stage debut singing at a café-concert (a popular entertainment venue of the era) in a Moulins pavilion, "La Rotonde". It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name "Coco", possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, "Ko Ko Ri Ko", and "Qui qu'a vu Coco", or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte.
At the age twenty-three, Chanel met the young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan, she became his lover and for the next three years, she lived with him in his chateau Royallieu near Compiègne, an area known for its wooded equestrian paths and the hunting life. It was a lifestyle of self-indulgence; Balsan's wealth and leisure allowing the cultivation of a social set who reveled in partying and the gratification of human appetites with all the implied accompanying decadence.
In 1908, Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan's friends, Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class. He installed Chanel in an apartment in Paris, and financed Chanel's first shops. The affair lasted nine years, but even after Capel married an English aristocrat, Lady Diana Wyndham in 1918, he did not completely break off with Chanel. His death in a car accident, in late 1919, was the single most devastating event in Chanel's life.
Chanel began designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner (hat maker) in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes. In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauville financed by Arthur Capel where she introduced deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport. The fashions were constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot, primarily used for men's underwear. The location was a prime one.
In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi, (born Sarah Gertrude Arkwright), reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, afforded Chanel entry into the highest levels of British aristocracy. It was an elite group of associations revolving around such people as Winston Churchill, the Duke of Westminster, Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, known to his intimates as "Bendor" and royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales. The Duke of Westminster and Chanel embarked upon an affair that lasted ten years. He lavished Chanel with extravagant jewels, costly art, and a home in London's prestigious Mayfair district. When asked why she did not marry the Duke of Westminster, she is supposed to have stated: "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel."
Chanel's philosophy was to emphasize understated elegance through her clothing. Her popularity thrived in the 1920s, because of innovative designs. Chanel's own look itself was as different and new as her creations. Instead of the usual pale-skinned, long-haired and full-bodied women preferred at the time, Chanel had a boyish figure, short cropped hair, and tanned skin. She had a distinct type of beauty that the world came to embrace. She launched her trademark perfume,, Chanel No. 5, in 1923. It was the first to feature a designer’s name. Always in favor of comfortable clothing, she released the corsets and stifling clothing of the time. The classic Chanel suit was introduced in 1925: a collarless cardigan jacket made of woven wool, with tight fitting sleeves, braid trim and gold buttons and matched to a plain graceful skirt. In 1926 she created the “little black dress”. She is also known for rows of pearls, “With a black sweater and 10 rows of pearls Chanel revolutionized fashion” Dior. Coco and Thé House of Chanel also helped pioneer the bias cut dress, shoe string shoulder straps and the floating evening scarf.
Chanel was the mistress of some of the most influential men of her time, but she never married. She had significant relationships with the poet Pierre Reverdy and the illustrator and designer Paul Iribe. After her romance with Reverdy ended in 1926, they still maintained a friendship that lasted some forty years.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops, maintaining her apartment situated above the couture house at 31 Rue de Cambon. She claimed that it was not a time for fashion and 3,000 female employees lost their jobs. The advent of war had given Chanel the opportunity to retaliate against those workers who, lobbying for fair wages and work hours, had closed her business operation during a general labor strike in France in 1936. In closing her couture house, Chanel made a definitive statement of her political views, most notably her dislike of Jews.
In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland, eventually returning to Paris in 1954. In 1953 she sold her villa La Pausa on the French Riviera to the publisher and translator Emery Reves. Five rooms from La Pausa have been replicated at the Dallas Museum of Art, to house the Reves's art collection as well as pieces of furniture belonging to Chanel. Now over seventy years old, after a fifteen-year absence, she felt the time was right for her to re-enter the fashion world. The re-establishment of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by Chanel's old nemesis in the perfume battle, Pierre Wertheimer. Her new collection was not received well by Parisians who felt her reputation had been tainted by her wartime association with the Nazis. However, her return to couture was applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.
In her last years she had become tyrannic and extremely lonely and was sometimes accompanied by Jacques Chazot and her confidante Lilou Marquand. A faithful friend was also the Brazilian Aimée de Heeren who lived in Paris four months a year at the nearby Hotel Meurice. She was also a love interest and one stage of the Duke of Westminster and the former rivals shared happy souvenirs of times with the Duke and they used to walk together around central Paris.
As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing, but nonetheless stuck to her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday January 9 and feeling ill went to bed early. She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than 30 years.
Her funeral was held at the eglise de la Madeleine, her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony, her coffin was covered with white flowers - camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses.
Her grave is located in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland.
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On 30 Oct 2018 at 19:32 GMT Isabelle Rassinot wrote:
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