"Coco Chanel" is a name that instantly conjures images. It may be her signature perfume, Chanel No. 5. You might see the classic Chanel suit: slim skirt, tweed fabric, collarless suit jacket and gold accents. Coco Chanel, born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883, created those items, but accomplished much more. She overcame significant obstacles to become a fashion icon and found a fashion empire still flourishing today.
She Overcame Humble Beginnings
Gabrielle Chanel was very young when her mother died and her father placed her into a convent's orphanage. The nuns who raised her taught her how to sew, which became the foundation for her career. She initially had a stage career as a singer, at which point she was christened with the nickname "Coco." She then started a millinery business and opened her first shop in 1913 in Paris, followed by stores in Deauville and Biarritz. As she expanded her offerings beyond hats, her fashions became quite popular, and by the late 1920s she employed 3,500 people.
She Made Fashion Comfortable
One of the reasons Chanel's designs were so popular was that their boxy lines made wearing a corset unnecessary, allowing women to breathe a literal sigh of relief. She also used jersey for outerwear; previously it had been used almost exclusively for men's underwear. Jersey is a comfortable fabric that drapes well and is almost universally flattering, another reason for the popularity of her styles.
She Created Fashion Essentials
The Chanel suit, first introduced in 1954, remains a popular design today. Another fashion element Chanel introduced was the now-ubiquitous "little black dress." Not only did it transform a color previously reserved for funerals into chic evening wear, it also introduced the idea of a dress that could go from day to night. Coco Chanel also created what may be the most famous fragrance of all time, and the first to be made from several different scents rather than just one: Chanel No. 5.
She Made a Comeback -- At Age 70
Chanel closed her shops in 1939 at the beginning of World War II. She stayed in Paris through the German occupation and was involved with a German officer, which made her unpopular after the war. After sitting on the sidelines while Christian Dior introduced the "New Look" of uncomfortable, pinched waists, Chanel debuted her new collection, including her now-signature suits, in 1954 at age 70. It took a few years for her to win critics over, but when she did, her suits became status symbols in their own right, and her career flourished as she introduced purses, shoes and jewelry.