by Marianina Patsa
Her customers were princesses, but she dressed them like secretaries, with faux pearls, simple knits and little black dresses. She’s known throughout the world as Coco Chanel, but that wasn’t her actual name. Gabrielle Chanel became “Coco” during her short career as a singer, when she given the nickname by soldiers who sat the audience at a pub while she was on stage.
Coco Chanel became rich and famous during her lifetime, but her childhood was quite humble. She was the daughter of a peasant, and after her mother’s death went to live in a monastery orphanage until the age of 18, where she learned to embroider and sew. She started her fashion career by designing hats and with the help of an admirer, opened her first store in Paris in 1913. When her hats became popular, she started to design clothes.
The 1920, she introduced the little black dress to fashion. Affordable and easy to wear, Vogue Magazine rightly predicted that it would be worn throughout the world. Her revolutionary designs are elegant, yet comfortable and practical. They freed women from corsets and she dared to shorten skirts so that ankles were visible. However, Chanel didn’t just influence fashion. In 1921, she created her first fragrance, Chanel No 5. It was the first fragrance to be named after a designer, and five was her lucky number. She appeared at the opera with a boyish haircut, which inspired many women to adopt the “garçon” look. Chanel spent time with members of an exclusive art clique of that era, became friends with Picasso and designed costumes for the Russian Impresario ballet Sergei Diaghilev and French filmmaker Jean Cocteau
Inspiration by her lovers, she would frequently borrow their clothes. She used masculine materials in her women’s collections, and the garments quickly sold out. Her love life was also plentiful. She had a relationship with Igor Stravinsky and lived with the Duke of Westminster for two decades. When the Duke proposed marriage, she replied: “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel.”
In 1954 Chanel reopened her fashion house after it had been closed for 15 years during the war and told actress Marlene Dietrich that she did it because she was “dying of boredom.” In 1971, Coco died in her room at the Ritz Hotel. But the little black dress, her boldness and her innovative ideas will live on forever.