Coco Chanel was determined to turn heads and turn the world on its head.
As one of the most famous fashion designers in the world, she built her empire on designs that ran counter to every rule society set. She dressed the rich in the styles of the poor, created the iconic “little black dress” when black was known only as a color for mourning. She bent gender rules and styled her designs after men’s clothing, often wearing her lovers’ clothing herself and completely reinvented the world’s ideas of luxury. In her own words, "If it's not comfortable, it's not luxury."
Coco would be focused on that idea of comfort her whole adult life. And while she may have developed a taste for the finer things by rubbing elbows with the rich and famous—dressing stars and befriending Winston Churchill and the Duke of Westminster; having flings with Picasso and others—her taste for life's riches was heightened by early years spent without anything even remotely like them.
In her childhood, Chanel had nothing. Not even parents. Stating at age 11, she was sent to live at an orphanage. As impressive as the iconic brand Chanel built is, her greatest creative project might have been the image she built for herself out of that humble beginning.
It was an image that Chanel crafted for herself out of whole cloth. She found her way into the world of the elites through the back door and, once there, she reimagined how it had happened. A master of pithy quotes with an air of mischief and a commitment to the finer things, Chanel frequently embellished her own origin story or outright made parts of it up.
But, with her fashion, she sought to give that gift of liberation from constraints to all women, freeing them from the stiff and uncomfortable corseted styles of the day by creating clothing that was meant to let women move, create and dare—just as she did.
From Poverty to the Nunnery
Coco Chanel came into the world with just as little respect for societal norms as she showed later in life. She was the illegitimate daughter of a laundrywoman, born in a poorhouse in Saumur, France. Her father was a street vendor who sold clothes and undergarments and traveled between towns trying to sell his goods, while the family lived in a one-room house.
But Chanel's early experiences with clothing would inspire her designs later on, when she used humble working-class references like a ditch digger’s scarf and mechanic’s blouse to create a new look for wealthy customers known as genre pauvre—“the poor look.”
As bad as the poverty of Chanel's early years was, the end to it came at an even higher cost. When Chanel was 11, her mother died and her father sent all of the children away—her two brothers to work as farm laborers and Chanel and her two sisters to an orphanage at the convent of Aubazine. There, the strict rule of the nuns chafed against Chanel’s creative spirit for years. But just as she took inspiration from her years of poverty, Chanel managed to learn two lessons at the convent that would change her life.
First, Chanel learned to sew—a skill that earned her early jobs as a seamstress and opened the door to creating clothing. And, second, as much as she disliked the strictness of the nuns, spending days surrounded by their plain, black habits gave her the inspiration, some say, for her rebellious creation of the Little Black Dress years later.
Getting a Taste for High Society
When Chanel turned 18, she was finally able to leave the convent and her flair for glamor began to show itself. She dreamed of fame on the stage and began singing in a cabaret as an entertainer who worked between acts. It’s there that she earned her nickname, Coco, some say from singing songs like Ko Ko Ri Ko, and Qui qu'a vu Coco, and others say from an abbreviation of the French word coquette, meaning “kept woman.”
The second would be the more appropriate nickname.
Throughout her career Chanel used her lovers to open doors to opportunities that someone of her background would never otherwise have had, using the shrewd survival skills she learned as a child to climb her way into the upper echelons of society.
The first such relationship came just when Chanel was realizing her stage career was going nowhere. She had returned to her old cabaret in Moulins after a summer in the resort town of Vichy and met a man in the city who was the combination of the two things she loved most in life—fashion and horses. Not only was he a textile heir, but he was also an ex-cavalry officer. His name was Étienne Balsan.
I decided who I wanted to be, and that is who I am.-Coco Chanel
Over the next three years as his mistress, Chanel got her first taste of the finer side of life. Her days revolved around a social world dominated by luxury and decadence—pearls, parties and all the rest. It would not only shape Chanel’s social circle, but it would give her access to the people who would eventually become her customers and catapult her to fame of her own.
Seizing Her Opportunity
Needing a diversion to give to Chanel to occupy her, Balsan set Chanel up with a common trade of the day—hat-making—and helped her open a shop in 1910. But while it was meant to only be a hobby, Chanel's ambition and skill took the opportunity and turned it into much more, with the help of two pieces of long-overdue luck
First, a famous French actress stumbled across one of Chanel's hats and began wearing it, suddenly turning it into a trend. As her hat business began to take off, a second piece of luck came along that launched her expansion into clothing. On a cold day, Chanel cut the neck of an old jersey to make a dress out of it to keep herself warm. When she wore it out, people kept stopping her to ask where she had bought it. Ever-industrious, Chanel's response was that she could make them their own.
That first dress made of jersey set the tone for everything that Chanel would make going forward. At the time, jersey was a material used mainly for men’s underwear, but the looseness of it allowed her to create clothes for women that fit in a new way. Jersey removed the restrictions that had long kept them from doing simple but freeing things like crossing their arms and legs.
It was a fitting choice for a woman who refused to be bound by people’s limited expectations for her. And just as quickly as Chanel had expanded from hats into clothing, she grew her business into more and more categories with a shrewd business sense and fierce spirit of competition. She added jewelry and handbags to her hats and clothing, eventually leading to her most iconic innovation, Chanel No. 5. It was the first fragrance ever released by a designer and, to this day, is still one of the most famous.
The design of its iconic bottle is said to be based on the glass of one of her lovers’ shaving kits—a lasting legacy of her determination to blur the lines between genders and follow wherever her passion led.
Closing Down for a Comeback
At the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops and left the fashion world, living in Switzerland for several years. But if it was a surprise that Chanel ever became famous in the first place, she still had one more trick up her sleeve.
In 1954, after 15 years spent away, Chanel returned to the world of fashion with a new collection at the age of 71. In the years of her absence, male designers had risen to prominence, and she believed that women would rebel against the stiff and uncomfortable clothing the same way they had when she started her career. She was right. Her new designs were seen as revelatory and received with acclaim around the world.
The story of Coco Chanel is more than just a rags to riches tale—literally. It’s a lesson in the power of trueness to yourself and your story. The power of Chanel’s fashions came from their origins in her own lived experience, offering the world something it could get from no one else. That originality is what made Chanel an icon—and what makes her someone who creators all over the world still look up to today, hoping to capture a little bit of her fiery spirit and maybe even a little bit of her success.