The stories behind the brands
What we wear is not always just a matter of beauty, or at least it shouldn’t be. Fashion has to do with how clothes make us feel, how they represent ourselves and the time we live in and what it says to the world about us and our choices.
Most times we consume brands and designers without knowing much about them beyond the specific items we acquire. This is true for Fast Fashion, but many times also for luxury brands that are considered trendy and aspirational. If we do matter, getting to learn about the history of the people behind this giants, about their lives and stories, might give us some clues about how they became so iconic and which were their values and ideals.
Chanel Fashion House Today
Even after Coco Chanel’s death in 1971, Chanel is today one of the biggest fashion houses around the globe. Its designs include garments, accessories, perfumes, and jewelry which are a symbol of luxury, distinction and elegance. The elements of the brand’s signature are easily recognizable: the pearls, the quilted chain bag, the little black dress, the tweed jacket, the N°5 Perfume and the stripy tops, among others.
A whole fashion empire has been built under the name of just a single woman. But who was Coco Chanel? How did she start? Which were the social and contextual conditions in which she lived and developed her outstanding career?
The Person Before the Icon
Coco Chanel’s life is far from being a fairy tale. It is the story of a girl’s rise from an obscure beginning to the heights of the fashion world. Gabrielle Chanel, known as Coco, was born in 1883 in a provincial French poorhouse and was abandoned by her father to an orphanage.
As we can see in the movie Coco before Chanel, several years after leaving the orphanage, she works in a provincial bar as a seamstress and a singer, earning the nickname ‘Coco’ from the song she used to sing nightly with her sister. There she meets Baron Balsan and become his mistress. It is him who gives her an entry into French high society, and the opportunity to develop her gift by designing hats.
After she fell in love with English businessman Arthur Capel (“Boy”), new opportunities came up and she succeeded in opening her own shop, which was the beginning of her ascending career.
The elements in the essence of Coco Chanel’s style are not by chance, they have their origin and are deeply connected to her life story, struggles and relationships:
- She transforms the black, a color that symbolizes mourning and suffering (what she had to go through as a child), into a symbol of female independence.
- The pearls, so characteristic of her outfit, are inspired in the rosary beads of the nuns that raised her and taught her to sew.
- The chain of her bags have a reminisce of the type of belts worn by the nuns as well.
- It’s said the choice of tweed is related to the sporting garments of her lover, the Duke of Westminster.
- The usage of sailor stripes was inspired by the escapades with her lover at the beach, as a young woman.
All of these elements have become iconic for the fashion world, but it is good to learn and remember where they came from since they are traces of a person’s past.
Chanel closed her couture house in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Several biographies have been written about her life, and most writers agree on the fact that during Nazi-occupied France, she cooperated with the enemy. Also, she had a long love affair with Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, a Nazi spy.
But as some believe that she was an opportunist, others think that it is arguable how much she knew or did. It’s the degree of her collaboration that is on debate.
Her associations with the Germans during the Nazi occupation somehow affected her reputation, and she did not return to fashion until 1954.
A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took charge of the fashion house, and has continued the Chanel legacy until today.
Chanel’s life has been intriguing and adventurous and that has inspired numerous biographical books, films, and plays. The complexity of this character combines the opposites. Controversy (because of the way she achieved her goals) on one hand, and inspiration on the other:
- Her entrepreneurism and will, made her rise from a dark childhood to become one of the most recognized designers until today. Though some of her methods might be questioned and questionable.
- She had a deep understanding of women’s fashion needs: her clean classic look inspired women to abandon the uncomfortable and restraining clothes characteristic from the 19th-century, such as petticoats and corsets. Her flags were simplicity and comfort.
Through hard work, talent and a series of affairs with powerful men, Chanel achieved to be remembered as one of the most important fashion designers of all times. Fascinating, ambitious and complex, the traces of her life are embedded in the brand’s style. This is not only interesting at the least, but something we might find relevant at the moment of deciding what to wear.
If you would like to know more about Coco Chanel’s life, here are a series of recommended sources that you might find interesting:
Movies and shows:
- Coco Before Chanel (2009) – watch the trailer here
- Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky (2009) – watch the trailer here
- Coco Chanel (2008) – watch the trailer here
- Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel’s Secret War By Hal Vaughan
- Coco Chanel: An Intimate Life By Lisa Chaney
- Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life By Justine Picardie
- Chanel: The Enigma By Isabelle Fiemeyer