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Coco Chanel

Early years

Designer Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883, although she would often claim that her real date of birth was 1893, making her ten years younger. Her place of birth was also something that she sought to disguise. Coco was born in the workhouse where her mother worked, although she asserted that she was born in Auvergne.

Her mother died when she was six years old, leaving her father with five children, whom he quickly farmed out to various relatives. Gabrielle adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a singer in cafes and concert halls, between 1905-08.

The nickname Coco was evidently acquired at La Rotonde, a cafe frequented by members of a French cavalry regiment and many of the artists who flocked to Paris ' Montparnasse section at the turn of the 20th century. It was there that Chanel, then a cabaret singer, performed a song called "Qui qu'a vu Coco," and the name stuck. (Other sources state that her audiences cried " Coco " when they wanted an encore, while further sources state that the song was called "Ko Ko Ri Ko," French for "Cock-a-doodle-do".)

First business steps

In 1910, Coco moved to rue Cambon in Paris. Coco became the mistress of a rich military officer, and then a wealthy English Industrialist, and the patronage and connections that these men provided her with enabled her to open her own millinery shop in Paris. She opened her shop at number 21, and crowds soon began to flock to it. Only a few years later, she took over numbers 27, 29 and 31 of the same street. She then opened a shop in Deauville, where she designed a few accessories inspired by workmen's and sailor's clothes. Her easy-fitting and flowing designs could be worn for exercise or sport. "Chanel preferred getting a sun tan exercising in the fresh air and bathing in the sea, to perspiring in ostentatious dresses at balls and casinos in spa towns."During this time she saw herself "rubbing shoulders with the men," and ready to surpass them.

During the First World War, there was quite a shortage of fabric, so Chanel in turn designed "sophisticated, yet minimalist garments for women that were in the direct opposition to the frilly Belle Epoque style so popular before the war." During the Second World War, Chanel's business was interrupted by the German occupation of Paris. She closed her shops in 1938 and didn't reopen until 1954.

Chanel Style

The Chanel style was very simple and straightforward. She believed that, "how clothes are worn is much more important than what is worn; that a good line is worth more than a pretty face; that well dressed is not the same as dressy, and that the acme of social cachet was to be proletarian. Youth should not have to declare itself, is should be obvious all the time; in sitting down, getting into a car, walking down the street, stretching out a leg or raising an arm." Chanel fashion is about ideals rather than outfits. Her fashion is functional and practical that keeps the pace of the contemporary life. Chanel's designs were firstly to please herself, and secondly to please the people. She transformed wool jersey, which was previously only used to make underwear and made dresses. She launched the "garcon" or "soup kitchen" look, which became popular in the 1920s, "with its flattened bosoms, cropped hair and dresses with dropped waists."

In 1920, the scent Chanel No. 5 was created by Ernest Beaux. In a small square bottle, over eighty ingredients were mixed to create this amazing perfume. The fragrance was launched in 1921 and named No. 5, after her lucky number. All perfumes before this one had immediately become old-fashioned and outdated, and Chanel No.5 became the popular new trend. What was even more amazing about this perfume was that this was the first time that a designer mixed with the perfume business. In the past it was very unusual for a designer to advertise with a perfume, and yet again Chanel became a new trendsetter. This perfume was referred to by Marilyn Monroe when she claimed it was the only thing she wore to bed.

Season after season, Chanel continued to shock and amaze the people with her designs. Her logo was known all over the world and she had created and established a name for herself.. The most important of all her accomplishments has to be the famous Chanel suit. The classic Chanel suit had boxy lines, a braided trim and slim skirt lined with gold link chain. The buttons look like coins with the Chanel "CC" logo. The skirts were designed for practicality. There was a ribbon sewn into the waist of the skirt to prevent the blouse from becoming untucked and the zipper was always on the side for comfort. "In a sense, wearing a Chanel suit is like wearing a customized ornate costume, made to fit so that when the wearer moves, the suit still maintains perfect grace and elegance."

Traditional accessories to accompany a suit would generally be many pearls and gold chains, real and faux gems mixed together, two-toned shoes and quilted handbags with chain shoulder straps. In addition to the skirt suit, she bravely introduced fashionable pants for women as well. Pants were never an option for women in this age, yet Chanel made it possible. Today, you can purchase a Chanel suit for about $5,000. This unique and stylish suit can only be bought at Chanel boutiques worldwide or at upscale department stores. Most agree that the price of these chic suits were often too high, but "Chanel was a firm believer that if the costs of her products was high, then her obsessively perfect designs would truly be valued."

During World War II, Coco was a nurse, although her post-war popularity was greatly diminished by her affair with a Nazi officer during the conflict - he later turned out to be an intelligence agent. However, she made her comeback in 1954, her style much unchanged, apart from the introduction of pea jackets and bell-bottoms for women.

Gabrielle watched in dismay as male designers such as Dior began to dress women in figure restricting clothes once more. She had spent so many years designing easy fitting styles, which flattered the female figure. In 1953 she could no longer stand the inactivity and began to design a new collection. On the 5th of February 1954, at the age of seventy one, she once more opened her Paris salon with a collection based on her previous best selling styles; the simple, collarless Chanel suit with skirt just skimming the knee, nothing frivolous or fussy. The press were cruel in their castigation, but Gabrielle was not to be beaten, she continued to design, and little by little she made her mark once more on women's fashion, helped by increased sales in the United States.

Last years

She carried on, working herself to exhaustion, going across the road to her room at the Ritz for a few hours troubled sleep, then returning to her cutting and fitting with renewed vigour. But on January 10, 1971, she went to her room and, lying on her single bed, with her maid beside her, she quietly died, at the age of eighty eight.

She never married. For more than 30 years, Gabrielle Chanel made the Hotel Ritz in Paris her home. She maintained an apartment above her Rue Cambon establishment and also owned Villa La Pausa in the town of Roquebrune on the French Riviera. However, she spent her latter years in Lausanne, Switzerland and is buried there in a tomb surrounded by five stone lions.

For about a decade afterwards, her studio and fashion house were put on a hold. It wasn't until 1983, that Karl Lagerfeld took control and revived the Chanel empire. Lagerfeld worked by the slogan he borrowed from Goethe, which said, "Make a better future by developing elements from the past." With his genius and mindset, he has continued to carry out the Chanel tradition long after her death. Along side of him, Jacques Helleu and Jacques Polge, maintain the Chanel tradition through new perfumes and beauty products launched by the company.

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