Chanel is a global phenomenon: a brand with origins in early 20th century France that is arguably the world’s most famous fashion and fragrance house, retaining its classic sophistication while remaining on trend with its new innovations.
The Chanel brand is synonymous with timeless, sophisticated designs – such as the little black dress and trademark classic suit – and of course famous fragrances, including the iconic Chanel No 5 associated with glamorous celebrities like Marilyn Monroe.
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It all started in Saumur, France in 1883, when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel, one of five children, was born into a family described as being of a modest background. Her father, Albert Chanel, was a vendor of work clothing and her mother, Eugénie Jeanne, was a laundry worker. Albert’s nickname for young Gabrielle was ‘my little Coco’.
She learned how to sew as part of her education at the Aubazine in Corrèze – a convent which Coco and her two sisters attended following their mother’s untimely death from TB at the age of only 32. Coco learned needlework for six years at the convent. Her skills helped her to open her first shop at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris, called ‘Chanel Modes’, in 1910. It was financed by her boyfriend, Captain Arthur Edward Capel, who was a wealthy English military man. Chanel’s simple elegant styles were an instant hit throughout Paris. She unveiled her first fragrance, Chanel No 5, in 1921, establishing the brand as a leading creator of perfumes as well as designer fashions.
Many years later, when Chanel perfumes had grown into an international brand, actress Marilyn Monroe when speaking in an interview in 1960, was asked about her night-time attire. She famously replied, “What do I wear in bed? Why, Chanel No 5, of course!”
In 1913, Chanel opened a second boutique in Deauville, France, again financed by Capel. She sold luxurious casual garments for leisure and sport that were manufactured from jersey and tricot. Tragically, Capel was killed in a car accident in 1919.
After purchasing the whole building at 31 Rue Cambon in 1921, Chanel launched a fashion boutique featuring garments, hats and accessories. The range later expanded to include more fragrances and jewellery and by 1927, Chanel had purchased five retail properties on Rue Cambon.
The Chanel brand truly went global in 1931, when Samuel Goldwyn personally invited Gabrielle to Hollywood to design outfits for the major film stars at the studio. By 1935, she employed 4,000 workers and owned five boutiques.
Although World War II had a detrimental effect on the business, in 1954 Chanel was relaunched – and at the age of 71, Gabrielle’s creations inspired a new generation. Celebrities who favoured Chanel designs included Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, Grace Kelly, Jackie Kennedy and Jeanne Moreau.
Some of her legendary creations include the famous Chanel tweed suit and the two-tone sling-back shoe in 1957 that were said to shorten the appearance of the feet and lengthen the legs.
Following Gabrielle’s death in 1971 at the age of 87, her posthumous collection enjoyed success and the brand has continued to grow and prosper into the 21st century. German fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld is now the creative director of Chanel’s fashion house. He took over the role in 1983 and rejuvenated the brand’s image, enabling it to again reign supreme in the world of luxury fashion.
Actor Johnny Depp’s daughter, the stunning Lily Rose Depp, was named as the new face of Chanel in 2016 at the age of just 16. She has modelled some of their largest campaigns to date, including the designer’s Pearl eyewear in 2016 and the latest Chanel No 5 campaign.
Today, Gabrielle’s life story continues to generate as much interest as her fashions – there have been a number of biographies written about her life and world and there was also a television biopic in 2008, Coco Chanel, starring Shirley MacLaine as the famous designer.
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