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Coco Chanel
Coco Chanel in Los Angeles, 1931 (cropped).jpg
Chanel in 1931
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel

(1883-08-19)19 August 1883
Saumur, France
Died 10 January 1971(1971-01-10) (aged 87)
Paris, France
Resting place Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland
Known for
  • Double-C logo
  • Chanel suit
  • Little black dress
  • The Chanel bag
  • Chanel No. 5
Awards Neiman Marcus Fashion Award, 1957

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel ( SHƏ-nel 19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer and businesswoman. She founded the Chanel brand. She popularized a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style.

She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine's list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Chanel also designed jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product, and Chanel herself designed her famed interlocked-CC monogram, which has been in use since the 1920s.

Her couture house closed in 1939, with the outbreak of World War II. Chanel stayed in France and was criticized during the war for collaborating with the Nazi-German occupiers. Chanel fell in love with a German diplomat, Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklage. After the war, Chanel was interrogated about her relationship with Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator due to intervention by British prime minister Winston Churchill.

When the war ended, Chanel moved to Switzerland, returning to Paris in 1954 to revive her fashion house.

Chanel logo-no words
Chanel "interlocking C" logo

Early life

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 to Eugénie Jeanne Devolle Chanel, known as Jeanne, a laundrywoman, in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire. She was Jeanne's second child with Albert Chanel; the first, Julia, had been born less than a year earlier. Albert Chanel was a street vendor who sold work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, travelling to and from market towns. The family resided in run-down lodgings. In 1884, he married Jeanne Devolle.

At birth, Chanel's name was entered into the official registry as "Chasnel". Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as "travelling". With both parents absent, the infant's last name was misspelled, probably due to a clerical error.

She went to her grave as Gabrielle Chasnel because to correct, legally, the misspelled name on her birth certificate would reveal that she was born in a poorhouse hospice. The couple had six children—Julia, Gabrielle, Alphonse (the first boy, born 1885), Antoinette (born 1887), Lucien, and Augustin (who died at six months)—and lived crowded into a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.

When Gabrielle was 11, Jeanne died at the age of 32. The children did not attend school. Her father sent his two sons to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. Its 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 life, demanding strict discipline. Her life in the orphanage may have contributed to Chanel's future career, as it was where she learned to sew. At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.

Later in life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently; she would often include more glamorous accounts, which were generally untrue. She said that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune, and she was sent to live with two aunts. She also claimed to have been born a decade later than 1883 and that her mother had died when she was much younger than 11.

Personal life and early career

Aspirations for a stage career

Having learned to sew during her six years at Aubazine, Chanel found employment as a seamstress. When not sewing, she sang in a cabaret. Chanel made her stage debut singing at a cafe-concert (a popular entertainment venue of the era) in a Moulins pavilion, La Rotonde. She was a poseuse, a performer who entertained the crowd between star turns. The money earned was what they managed to accumulate when the plate was passed.

It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name "Coco" when she spent her nights singing in the cabaret, often the song, "Who Has Seen Coco?" She often liked to say the nickname was given to her by her father. Others believe "Coco" came from Ko Ko Ri Ko, and Qui qu'a vu Coco.

Balsan and Capel

At Moulins, Chanel met a young French ex-cavalry officer and textile heir, Étienne Balsan. For the next three years, she lived with him in his château Royallieu near Compiègne. Balsan showered Chanel with the baubles of "the rich life"—diamonds, dresses, and pearls.

Chanel had begun designing hats while living with Balsan, initially as a diversion that evolved into a commercial enterprise. She became a licensed milliner in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris, named Chanel Modes. Chanel's millinery career bloomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat wore her hats in Fernand Nozière's play Bel Ami in 1912. Subsequently, Dorziat modelled Chanel's hats again in photographs published in Les Modes.

Deauville and Biarritz

In 1913, Chanel opened a boutique in Deauville, financed by Arthur Capel, where she introduced deluxe casual clothing suitable for leisure and sport. The fashions were constructed from humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot, at the time primarily used for men's underwear. The location was a prime one, in the center of town on a fashionable street. Here Chanel sold hats, jackets, sweaters, and the marinière, the sailor blouse. Chanel had the dedicated support of two family members, her sister Antoinette, and her paternal aunt Adrienne, who was of a similar age. Adrienne and Antoinette were recruited to model Chanel's designs; on a daily basis the two women paraded through the town and on its boardwalks, advertising the Chanel creations.

Chanel, determined to re-create the success she enjoyed in Deauville, opened an establishment in Biarritz in 1915. After one year of operation, the business proved to be lucrative. In Biarritz Chanel met an expatriate aristocrat, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. They maintained a close association for many years afterward. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturière and established her maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon, Paris.

Established couturière

Sem Chanel 1919
Chanel (right) in her hat shop, 1919. Caricature by Sem.

In 1918, Chanel purchased the building at 31 rue Cambon, in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris. In 1921, she opened an early incarnation of a fashion boutique, featuring clothing, hats, and accessories, later expanded to offer jewellery and fragrances. By 1927, Chanel owned five properties on the rue Cambon, buildings numbered 23 to 31.

Designing for film

Dmitri pavlovich 1920s
Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich Romanov in exile in the 1920s

In 1931, while in Monte Carlo Chanel became acquainted with Samuel Goldwyn. She was introduced through a mutual friend, the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, cousin to the last tsar of Russia, Nicolas II. Goldwyn offered Chanel a tantalizing proposition. For the sum of a million dollars (approximately US$75 million today), he would bring her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for his stars. Chanel accepted the offer. Accompanying her on her first trip to Hollywood was her friend, Misia Sert.

Chanel designed the clothing worn on screen by Gloria Swanson, in Tonight or Never (1931), and for Ina Claire in The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932). Both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became private clients.

Chanel went on to design the costumes for several French films, including Jean Renoir's 1939 film La Règle du jeu, in which she was credited as La Maison Chanel. Chanel introduced the left-wing Renoir to Luchino Visconti, aware that the shy Italian hoped to work in film. Renoir was favorably impressed by Visconti and brought him in to work on his next film project.

World War II

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 said that it was not a time for fashion.

During the German occupation, Chanel resided at the Hotel Ritz. During this time, she had a romantic relationship with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a German aristocrat and member of Dincklage noble family. He served as diplomat in Paris and was a former Prussian Army officer and attorney general who had been an operative in military intelligence since 1920, who eased her arrangements at the Ritz.

Post-war life and career

In 1945, Chanel moved to Switzerland, where she lived for several years, part of the time with Dincklage.

At more than 70 years old, after having her couture house closed for 15 years, she felt the time was right for her to re-enter the fashion world. The revival of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by Pierre Wertheimer. Chanel came out with her comeback collection in 1954. The American and British press saw it as a "breakthrough", bringing together fashion and youth in a new way.


As 1971 began, Chanel carried out her usual routine of preparing the spring catalogue. She had gone for a long drive on the afternoon of Saturday, 9 January. Soon after, feeling ill, she went to bed early. She announced her final words to her maid which were: "You see, this is how you die."

She died on Sunday, 10 January 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years.

Her funeral was held at the Église de la Madeleine; her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony and her coffin was covered with white flowers—camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses. Salvador Dalí, Serge Lifar, Jacques Chazot, Yves Saint Laurent and Marie-Hélène de Rothschild attended her funeral in the Church of the Madeleine. Her grave is in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Most of her estate was inherited by her nephew André Palasse, who lived in Switzerland, and his two daughters, who lived in Paris.

Although Chanel was viewed as a prominent figure of luxury fashion during her life, Chanel's influence has been examined further after her death in 1971. When Chanel died, the first lady of France, Mme Pompidou, organized a hero's tribute. Soon, damaging documents from French intelligence agencies were released that outlined Chanel's wartime involvements, quickly ending her monumental funeral plans.

Legacy as designer

Gabrielle Chanel en marinière
Chanel wearing a sailor's jersey and trousers, 1928

Jersey fabric

Chanel jersey casual wear 1917,
Three jersey outfits by Chanel, March 1917

Chanel's early wool jersey travelling suit consisted of a cardigan jacket and pleated skirt, paired with a low-belted pullover top. This ensemble, worn with low-heeled shoes, became the casual look in expensive women's wear.

1965 Chanel suit and silk blouse
Chanel suit and silk blouse with two-tone pumps, 1965

Chanel suit

First introduced in 1923, the Chanel tweed suit was designed for comfort and practicality. It consisted of a jacket and skirt in supple and light wool or mohair tweed, and a blouse and jacket lining in jersey or silk. Chanel did not stiffen the material or use shoulder pads, as was common in contemporary fashion. This allowed for quick and easy movement. She designed the neckline to leave the neck comfortably free and added functional pockets.

Hanel's little black dress (6330181828)
Chanel's timeless little black dress modeled, 2011

Little black dress

After the jersey suit, the concept of the little black dress is often cited as a Chanel contribution to the fashion lexicon, a style still worn to this day. In 1912–1913, the actress Suzanne Orlandi was one of the first women to wear a Chanel little black dress, in velvet with a white collar. In 1920, Chanel herself vowed that, while observing an audience at the opera, she would dress all women in black.

The Chanel bag

In 1929, Chanel introduced a handbag inspired by soldiers' bags. Its thin shoulder strap allowed the user to keep her hands free. Following her comeback, Chanel updated the design in February 1955, creating what would become the "2.55" (named for the date of its creation). Whilst details of the classic bag have been reworked, such as the 1980s update by Karl Lagerfeld when the clasp and lock were redesigned to incorporate the Chanel logo and leather was interlaced through the shoulder chain, the bag has retained its original basic form. In 2005, the Chanel firm released an exact replica of the original 1955 bag to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its creation.

Depictions in popular culture


  • The Broadway production Coco, with music by André Previn, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, opened 18 December 1969 and closed 3 October 1970. It is set in 1953–1954 at the time that Chanel was reestablishing her couture house. Chanel was played by Katharine Hepburn for the first eight months, and by Danielle Darrieux for the rest of its run.


  • The first film about Chanel was Chanel Solitaire (1981), directed by George Kaczender and starring Marie-France Pisier, Timothy Dalton, and Rutger Hauer.
  • Coco Chanel (2008) was a television movie starring Shirley MacLaine as the 70-year-old Chanel. Directed by Christian Duguay, the film also starred Barbora Bobuľová as the young Chanel and Olivier Sitruk as Boy Capel.
  • Coco avant Chanel (Coco Before Chanel) (2009) was a French-language biographical film directed by Anne Fontaine, starring Audrey Tautou as the young Chanel, with Benoît Poelvoorde as Étienne Balsan and Alessandro Nivola as Boy Capel
  • Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) was a French-language film directed by Jan Kounen. Anna Mouglalis played Chanel, and Mads Mikkelsen played Igor Stravinsky. The film was based on the 2002 novel Coco and Igor by Chris Greenhalgh, which concerns a purported affair between Chanel and Stravinsky. It was chosen to close the Cannes Film Festival of 2009.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Coco Chanel para niños

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