Like a tale from The Arabian Nights, Chanel's life story is one of magical transformations. She had five distinct lives (five being without a doubt her lucky number), and while each one does not spring directly from the one before, they were nevertheless connected by one continuous thread which stretched from the beginning of this century to the end style. The Chanel look was to survive all the changing dictates of fashion. Its principles were order, poise and good taste, as distinct from 'tastefulness'.
Chanel No. I came into the world by accident on 19 August 1883 in Saumur. Her father was a pedlar; her mother, a peasant woman, died young. With no identity papers to bear witness to her beginnings, the origins of this very first Chanel, Gabrielle Chanel, remain shrouded in mystery. She attended a convent in Aubazine where she was made to wear black by the nuns. Under these echoing Cistercian vaults she plied her needle and learned the ways of silence: austerity, good manners and solitude. Aubazine, in Correze, was still in the Middle Ages but the twentieth century was knocking at the door.
Chanel No. 2 started out in Moulins, a garrison town, where she sang in bars known as cafe-concerts and became known as Coco. Slight and dark, with jet black eyes, a triangular feline face and an equine nose, the young girl already stood out from the other singers around her. Now she gained a name for herself – and admirers. Some of these were wealthy, some were titled, often they were both, and they wanted fun - with a different sort of woman. Coco was twenty-five years old. She had a good figure and she wanted to get out of her situation. What other option was there? She went to live with a man called Etienne Balsan in the outskirts of Paris.
Chanel would go on to teach it to her followers. Who better than Gabrielle to observe this very masculine, very English principle, keeping company as she did then with wealthy sporting types? One of them, Boy Capel, more handsome and more brilliant than any of the others, became her lover and, more importantly, her friend. (He died young and came to symbolize for her a passion that would remain forever unfulfilled.) Capel soon realized that the only thing the wise and
beautiful Coco really loved was work - and not the kind of work she had done hitherto. What the young woman wanted was to use her hands, her head and her very definite likes and dislikes. And so it was decided: Chanel would-be a milliner. It was her road to freedom.
Etienne Balsan generously offered her his ground floor bachelor flat, which Coco transformed into a studio. To the women of the Belle Epoque who passed each other in their glittering splendour at Maxims, tarted up in feathers and weighed down with lace and pearls, Chanel's designs seemed somewhat unsophisticated. But youth was taking over, and without fully realizing it, Chanel was inventing a concept which was destined to shape the future.
When she moved to rue Cambon in Paris in 1910, the world was ready for her. Knowing she was the right person at the right time, she opened a shop at number 21. Crowds flocked to it, and in a matter of just a few years, she took over numbers 27, 29 and 31 of the same street; her original fashion house there still carries her name. After the war, haute couture was to become a major industry, catering for an affluent bourgeois clientele just as expensive ready-to-wear clothes shops do today. Chanel became the object of bitter rivalries, internecine feuding and high financial stakes.
It was now time for Chanel No. 3 to be born. Not entirely by chance the place where she was to blossom, to grow and to come into her own was one that combined sea, horses and men: Deauville on the north French coast. A few months before the First World War broke out, she opened a boutique there with 'Gabrielle Chanel' emblazoned on the awning. As well as her extremely minimal hats, the young milliner had already begun making a few discreet accessories inspired by workmen's and sailors' clothes.
She was a privileged partner of men, rubbing shoulders with them as an equal. Soon she was to prove that she could surpass them. Slight, androgynous and sun-tanned, Coco would plunder the wardrobe of the poor for ideas. She wore a college girl's gabardine raincoat or a fisherman's outfit in white twill, dark wool and chine jersey.
Her skirts were short, so that she could the more quickly run up the ladder of fashion. Nobody realized that she was inventing the style of Chanel, the elegance of Chanel, the age of Chanel.
Women had become emancipated. During the war they had replaced men in the factories, and to stop their plaits getting caught in the machinery, they cut their hair short. Society itself was increasingly industrial; speed, not sport, was the new leisure activity.
Racing cars flashed by, aeroplanes soared, steamers cut through the waves. And the epitome of this 'new man in a hurry' was Boy Capel.
The love, the life and the financial backer of the young milliner was the very antithesis of the old-style idle Parisian gentleman strolling along the boulevards and the banks of the Seine. Brought up in England, he had made his fortune selling coal for the railways to wartime France. He was to be killed at the wheel of his sportscar.
Just as the oyster's irritation secretes the pearl, so Coco came out of this ordeal all the stronger, wrenching open her shell to face her solitude once more.
Withdrawing herself (and therefore making herself all the more sought after), Chanel No. 3 gave up all hope of happiness again, and resigned herself to a life of plots and business deals. Yet shy and unsure of her powers as she was, she enchanted Paris during les annees folles. Who would have predicted the impact that her temperament and her creations were about to have?
Coco still knew only a handful of the polo playing set and had everything to learn about the world on which she was already sitting in judgment. It was Misia Sert, a sort of findesiecle muse, who was to help her break into the Parisian scene.
First she met Jean Cocteau, Raymond Radiguet, Les Six and the Boeuf sur le Toit gang. Then it was Serge Lifar, Christian Berard, Jose Maria Sert, Blaise Cendrars, Pierre Reverdy, Salvador Dali, the Bourdets, the Beaumonts, the Jouhandeaus ...
All those who had swept away the past with the creation of modern art were to meet the woman who had buried Worth, outshone Paquin and killed off the great Paul Poiret; she who had freed women's bodies from tight-lacing corsets and padding, restoring them to their natural state; who was responsible for Egyptian dancers, Ancient Greek shepherdesses and wild children roaming the countryside in schoolgirl smocks.
The Chanel look, with its lines reduced to their simplest expression, shows that how clothes are worn is much more important than what is worn; that a good line is worth more than a pretty face; that welldressed is not the same as dressy, and that the acme of social cachet was to be proletarian. Youth, according to Chanel, should not have to declare itself, it should be obvious all the time: in sitting down, getting into a car, walking down the street, stretching out a leg or raising an arm. It was about ideals rather than outfits, concepts rather then costumes.
What has made her style last is the fact that it is functional, which is in keeping with the pace of contemporary life.
But in addition to this, it was the audacity with which she used herself as the model for her own creations that allowed Chanel from the thirties onwards to impose her ideas on fashion.
What gave Chanel her image was the logo (not as yet called this): the letters, the typography, the gold, the black and the white; the use of repetition, which anticipated Pop Art; the perfecting of a grammar and a vocabulary which belonged to her alone; the expression of her masculine side and her intense femininity; her brown, angular, suntanned figure, and her lack of sentimentality. From Mademoiselle through Gabrielle to Coco, then finally becoming Chanel, she had pulled herself up to join the highest ranks of fashion personalities.
During the deep sleep of the Occupation years Chanel champed at the bit. A handsome German would meet her in secret at rue Cambon, filling her empty life and speaking English to her. Chanel got out of France and went to Switzerland. She stayed there for eight long years, interspersed with short stays in Paris and the United States. It was the success of Christian Dior that hit her most hard. She who had presided over the revolution of fashion now watched from her exile the restoration of costume. Rustling petticoats, draped fabrics, waspwaists, hems down to the ankles ...
Dior's 'New Look' in 1947 was the antithesis of the Chanel style. Now it was the eternal woman, a queen, a star, a pin-up, celebrating the return of prosp erity in a dazzling display.
After the Liberation, no one had any use for the 'little undernourished telegraph girls' of Coco's designs. The ideal woman of the Fourth Republic was definitely well-covered.
Chanel waited and kept quiet, letting men such as Dior, Cristobal Balenciaga, Pierre Balmain and Jacques Fath believe that once again they could be the ones in control of women's destinies. But surely women would not have forgotten the freedom Coco had promised them?
The New Look came and went. In 1953 the designer, coiled up on her couch like a cobra preparing to strike, felt that Chanel's time had come round again. Chanel No. 4 made her comeback on 5 February 1954 but to an icy reception. She was over seventy years old. A failure would not just be a terrible disappointment, it would also jeopardize the one remaining asset from her empire: her perfumes. To try her luck a second time at an age when most people have long been retired, required a great deal of self-assurance. But since her youth, Gabrielle Chanel had defiantly cheated time. She clung to her belief that: 'I set the fashion for a quarter of a century because I was of my time and it is important to do things exactly at the right moment. Fashions change but style remains.'
She proved it immediately. The first collection of her second career was more than a come-back, it was a veritable rebirth. True, the French press derided her and faithful supporters were thin on the ground; Dior was still the unanimous favourite. But slowly and surely, the Chanel machinery started up once again.
'What's new? Chanel,' read the cover of Elle magazine. Its founder, Helene Lazareff, who had come back from the United States in 1945 full of new ideas for women, would from now on offer unwavering support for the Chanel look in the pages of her magazine. The fashions of this famous little dressmaker now took to the streets. No imitator could ever come close to the original or to her phoenix-like ability to renew herself. This is still true nearly forty years later. The Americans were quicker than the French to realize that a real Chanel phenomenon was underway; they applauded and bought into it. From now on, they too would have their say in the fashion world.
A year after her legendary comeback, the great Coco, now restored to her old reputation, reconquered the rest of her empire. Soft jackets with no interlining, wonderfully managed sleeves, silk blouses, gold chains, wrap-over skirts, quilted shoulder bags leaving the hands free, flat shoes with a bar across and a black toe to shorten the foot, jewel-like buttons on jackets and false buttons cascading down the front of the garment ... plus a thousand other original ideas which have today been eagerly adopted by the general public. The 'Chanel Look', as it was christened by the English-speaking press, swept across both sides of the Atlantic. It was a landslide victory.
The image the public had of Chanel was of an elderly woman wearing a hat, her eyebrows pencilled in more and more heavily, arched under her dark locks, and a stern mouth, humiliating anyone who did not bow before her very upright steely figure. Or sitting on the steps of her couture house, concealed behind a forest of gold, Coromandel lacquer work and rock crystals. She was the high priestess of classicism whose judgments could not be questioned and who, right to the end, continued perfecting her profile and her style, spinning, weaving and snipping like the three Fates rolled into one.
This fearsome yet magnetic image is the one that has lasted; the dressmaking queen bee who, since her return, lived at the Ritz on the other side of the Rue Cambon. Then, one Sunday in 1971, she died. That day her hive closed down. But this was not the last of her: the memory of the woman who had rejected her own past was now to enjoy a considerable afterlife.
Coco, a key-figure of her time who had fashioned herself as well as her own style, lived on in Chanel. It is a family name which, to the detriment of the house of Chanel, and in fact illegally, has become a common noun. Six letters to sum up a legend of the twentieth century, the fifth incarnation being her most enduring perfume.
Source: Fashion Bank
Category: Fashion designers
Tags to article: Chanel