Secret Facts, History & Timeline Of COCO CHANEL: Life & Brand

Here’s the fascinating history of Chanel’s life in a timeline: starting with her birth, her rise, her Nazi period to her death and everything in between

By Annie André ⦿ updated January 10, 2024  
YouNg coco chanel before she was Coco
YouNg coco chanel before she was Coco

CHANEL the brand and person: From her birth to her Nazi period, to her death in 1971 and everything in between.
I originally wanted to write a quick inspirational article with some of my favourite Coco Chanel Quotes for kick-ass girls, which I did.

But then, I got sucked into Chanel‘s life story and couldn’t stop reading. The more I learned, the more freaking fascinated I became. She lived a life full of twists and turns that seemed more like fiction than fact.

She just might be the embodiment of a renaissance woman, except for that Nazi period during World War II and that part about her being anti-Semitic. 

In any case, I’ve conveniently listed out the major events of Coco Chanel‘s life, a sort of mini-biography.

Use the table of contents to skip to a section or read it in chronological order. 

Free printable wall art of coco chanel quote: I regret nothing but the things I have not done

History of Coco Chanel:

Chanels’ life and career were a true “Rags-To-Riches” story!

Chanel was born in France in the late 1800s during La Belle Époque (French for The Beautiful Era: “1871” to the start of World War I “1914”.) 

In the UK and United States, this period overlapped with the late Victorian Era (1837 – 1901) and Edwardian Era (1901 to 1910).

It was a time when women wore restrictive clothing and corsets, didn’t have careers or financial independence, had few legal rights to property, money, children, or even their own bodies after marriage. And unless a woman came from a wealthy family, her best chance in life meant marrying well, performing on a stage or having an affair with a wealthy man.

Belle Époque woman's clothing
Examples of woman’s clothing during the time Chanel was born (Belle Époque )

Although Coco had a string of male lovers, she never married and came from a very poor family, so her rise was truly amazing. 

So how did a French girl from a destitute family abandoned by her father become a world-famous Parisian fashion designer and one of the most iconic women of the 20th century?

Let’s find out!

The Early Years:

Saumur France outdoor market, possibly the late 1800's
Saumur France outdoor market, possibly the late 1800’s

Jump to section ↓

1883 Gabriel “Coco” Chanel is born

Before she became known as “Coco,” she was just Gabrielle born in 1883 on August 19th (or 20th), in Saumur, France, a market town looking over the Loire river.

Auguste Bartholdi and Gustave Eiffel were building the Statue Of Liberty in Paris when Chanel was born. 

Saumur France, birthplace of Gabrielle Coco Chanel 1883
Saumur France, the birthplace of Gabrielle Coco Chanel 1883

Born in a charity hospital for the poor:

Gabriel Chanel was the second child of 20-year-old Jéanne Eugénie and was born in a local hospice for poor people in Saumur, France. 

On the day Gabrielle was born, her father, Henri Albert Chanel, was not present, presumably off working somewhere.

He was possibly a “Marchand forain” or “Marchand ambulant” (a type of street peddler). 

Marchand forain / ambulant
Marchand forain / ambulant (travelling street sellers, possibly in Paris)

A Street peddler was a common occupation during this period and a familiar sight in the 1800s and early 1900s. They often pushed their products in carts or carried them on their backs pedalling anything and everything from bananas and flowers to underwear and shoes. Chanel‘s father supposedly pedalled women’s undergarments

Today’s market sellers “les Marchands ambulant” are less nomadic. Instead of pushing their cart, they usually drive up in their cars or vans and set up at local markets. 

Outdoor market in Montpellier
Outdoor market in Montpellier with my daughter

Chanel often embellished, hid and altered her life story

It was difficult for historians to trace Coco Chanel‘s family roots for a long time because of a simple clerical error. Her family name was recorded as “Chasnel” rather than Chanel.

Coco Chanel Birth Certificate, last name misspelled as Chasnel
Gabriel Chanel Birth Record N# 1883 Saumur, #212, Archives du Maine-et-Loire.

This hidden birth certificate, suited Coco just fine because she liked to change or rather remake the story of her youth.

She worked tirelessly to conceal, distort and embellish her biography, often giving alternative facts to suit the narrative she wanted to portray about her life, according to Edmonde Charles-Roux.

As a result, there are many mysteries in the myth of Coco Chanel.

Edmonde was a longtime editor of French Vogue and Chanel‘s personal friend who published two biographies about Chanel. When Chanel discovered that Edmonde was writing a biography about her, she was furious and never spoke to Edmonde again according to an article in the Guardian. 

Even without Chanel‘s help, Edmonde uncovered many things about Chanel‘s life. Her books include “Chanel and her World,” published in 1981. 

Chanel and Her World
$75.00 $41.49

This beautiful pictorial biography contains a staggering collection of photographs, amassed by the author and tells the life story of Chanel.

Author: by Edmonde Charles-Roux
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02/19/2024 12:16 pm GMT

Claude Delay, another close friend of Chanel also wrote a biography about Chanel and confirmed that she was very secretive about her past. Claude may have been the last living close friend of Chanel‘s and was with her a few days before her death. You can watch an impromptu interview of her talking about Chanel here (in French.)

Amazingly, Chanel willingly told her life story to Paul Morand. The two travelled in the same social circles. He became her friend and confidant and wrote a biography about Chanel after her death called “The Allure of Chanel. A must-read if you want to know Chanel‘s story from the horse’s mouth. 

The Allure of Chanel

Chanel invited Paul Morand to visit her in St Moritz at the end of the Second World War to write her memoirs. His notes of their conversations were put away in a drawer and only came to light one year after Chanel's death. This biography is the story of Coco Chanel s life, as told by her to Paul Morand.

Author: Paul Morand
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02/19/2024 07:56 am GMT

Some examples of discrepancies about Chanel‘s life

  • Chanel’s elaborate embellishments. Bonheur means happiness.
  • Chanel also claimed that her father sailed to America to seek his fortune, but there is no record of this. 
  • Chanel also claimed her sister Julie-Berthe committed suicide by rolling in the snow, but death records show she died in Paris in May in a hospital. There’s no snow in Paris in May. 
  • Another discrepancy was her birthdate which shows she was born on the 20th of August, but most sources say she was born on the 19th and I’m not sure why. 

Not much is known about Coco Chanel‘s family, especially her brothers

She had 2 brothers and 2 sisters. 

I tried to find information about Coco’s brothers but couldn’t find any mention other than on genealogy sites most likely updated by distant relatives or like this one. 

  • Mother: Jeanne Eugénie (Devolle) Chanel: born in Courpière dept. Puy-de-Dôme 1863-1895 (Died 33 years old) 
  • Father: Henri Albert Chanel:  Born in Nîmes dept. Gard: 1855-1895 (died 40 years old in Brive la Gaillarde)
  • Aunt: Adrienne Chanel: 1882-1956 (Died 74 years old). Coco’s aunt and father’s sister who later Married to Barron de Nexon.


  • Julia-Bertha Chanel:  1882-1910 (28 years old, Chanel claimed she committed suicide).
    • Julia had a son named André Palasse, whom Chanel adopted and cared for after Julia died.
  • Antoinette Julia (Chanel) Fléming 1887-1921 May have died in Buenos Aires, Argentina (of poisoning or Spanish flu)
    • Antoinette married Canadian-born airman, Oscar Edward Flemming in 1919. The witnesses on their marriage certificate were listed as Boy Capell (Chanel’s future husband). They moved to Canada but must have divorced because Oscar remarried a few years later and had a daughter. 


  • Alphonse Adrien Chanel  1885-1953 (67 years old)
  • Lucien Albert Chanel  1889-1941 (51-52 years old Heart attack)
  • Died as an infant: Augustin Julien Chanel  1891 – 1891 (died at 6 months)

1895 Coco’s mother died, and her father abandoned all five children

Sacré-Cœur-Aubazine-where Chanel lived from 11-18 years old

In 1895, when Coco was almost 12 years old, her mother Jeanne tragically passed away at 33 of Tuberculosis or Bronchitis. At the time they may have been living in the town of Brive la Gaillarde. 

A mere few days after her mother’s death, Chanel‘s father, unable to support his five children or, perhaps unwilling to care for his five children, abandoned them, never to be seen again. 

He left his three daughters, Julia, Antoinette and Gabriel at the gate of a convent run by nuns in Aubazine who cared for children and the poor, especially orphans. It was called Congrégation du Sacré-Cœur de Marie and at the time, it was the largest orphanage in the area. Some say this period was a fabrication made up by Chanel. There are no official records of her stay there because the records were lost or destroyed.

The two Chanel brothers aged 10 and 6 had it even worse. Albert Chanel had his two sons declared “enfants des hospice” (children of the poorhouse). Peasant families took in these children in exchange for a fee; in essence, it was a little like a forced labour market for children. 

Nothing is known about the boys after this other than their birth and death dates. 

The Orphanage shaped Coco’s future.

For six years, Chanel lived a simple, disciplined life with the nuns, which affected her view of family life.

Chanel once said to her friend Claude Delay

“I don’t like the family. You’re born in it, not of it. I don’t know anything more terrifying than the family.”

Although Chanel was deeply unhappy at the orphanage, it was her first real home.  This is where Chanel supposedly started to learn to sew. 

1901 Chanel leaves the orphanage to live in a Catholic finishing school

YouNg coco chanel before she was Coco

When Gabrielle was 18 years old, she went to Moulin to attend a school for ladies– the Notre Dame school in Moulins, where she continued to hone her skills as a seamstress for a few more years. She didn’t have enough money to pay the tuition so she was accepted as a charity student.

Her father’s sister, aunt Adrienne Chanel, who was only one year older than Chanel, was already studying at the school in Moulins. The two became very close and acted more like sisters than aunt and niece.

1903 Coco gets a job working as a seamstress

la Maison Grampayre in Moulins where Coco and her aunt Adrienne work for 2 years
la Maison Grampayre in Moulins, where Coco and her aunt Adrienne work for 2 years

When coco was around 21 years old, the Mother Superior at Notre Dame found a job for her and her 22-year-old aunt Adrienne as shop assistants and seamstresses at la Maison Grampayre in Moulins, a drapers store. Draper stores were popular before and around the middle of the 20th century and dealt with fabrics, sewing items and clothes.

On Sundays, the girls would return to the convent to sing in the church choir.

The girls lived in the attic above the shop and also worked at a nearby tailor on the weekends altering breeches for cavalry officers. (The photo above is the shop where they worked and lived).

Gabriel Becomes Chanel

1907-1908 Gabrielle earns her nickname “Coco” 

Le Grand café in Moulin France where Chanel sang and may have earned her nickname Coco
Le Grand café in Moulin, France, one of the places where Chanel frequented.

While working at the nearby tailor shop, the girls met some men who started taking them out to “La Grand Café”, a type of “singing café” that cavalry officers liked to frequent. These musical entertainment venues called “Café chantant” or “Café-concert” were typical during the Belle Époque in France and offered food along with live entertainment like singing, music, magic etc.

A Café Chantant at Chalons

  • The first Café-chantant was established in 1789 on the Champs-Élysées.
  • The famous Bataclan in Paris (oringally called Grand Café Chinois) originated as a large café-concert , with the café and theatre on the ground floor and a large dance hall at first-floor level. Bataclan is where the infamous theatre massacre occurred in 2015. The year of Je suis Charlie.
  • The café-chantant was the precursor that led to what we know as cabaret today, such as the famous Moulin Rouge 

The music at these singing café’s was usually lighthearted, funny, and sometimes risqué. The atmosphere was like a music hall and saloon. Later on, these singing-cafés attracted intellectuals and artists and became more gentrified, like a modern-day dinner and a show venue. 

For six euros you can get a guided tour of Chanels life in Moulin

Chanel must have been enchanted by the hubbub because she and her aunt got a gig at “La Ratonde” (no longer exists), another café-concert. The duo entertained the crowd between the main act by singing but weren’t paid by the cafe. They had to pass around a plate to earn money for singing. They were “Les poseuse”.

The Chanel duo sang two comical songs at the café chantant La Rotonde:

Qui qu'a vu Coco Poster: one of the songs sung by Chanel in the cabarets in Moulin France
Qui qu’a vu Coco Poster: one of the songs sung by Chanel in the cabarets in Moulin France

Two of the songs the Chanel girls sang were:

  1. “Ko Ko Ri Ko” (an onomatopoeia for cock-a-Doodle-Doo)
  2. “Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro” (Who’s Seen Coco at The Trocadero?), a song about a little girl looking for her lost dog named Coco.

When patrons wanted an encore, they would chant “Coco, Coco, Coco,” and supposedly, the nickname stuck.

Watch the French movie “Coco Before Chanel“:

This is a movie starring Audrey Tautou as Chanel sing “”Qui qu’a vu Coco dans l’Trocadéro”. Audrey Tautou also starred in the cult French film Amelie. I think she kind of looks like Audrey Hepburn. So beautiful. 

Coco Avant Chanel - Qui qu

The beginning of the House of CHANEL

Chanel‘s rise to become one of the most famous French fashion designers started around 1908.

It’s well documented that Chanel was an ambitious, hard worker, but she was also crafty and beautiful. A combination that she used to her advantage. 

Chanel had a knack for entrenching herself in a slew of Europe’s wealthiest high-profile men who were key to her successful rise in Paris’s high society and in helping her build her fashion empire.  – but one relationship with a Nazi soldier nearly destroyed her reputation.

This is a partial list of some of her lovers and high-profile male friends in her life. 

  • 1908-1909: Étienne de Balsan: a wealthy playboy who discovered Chanel singing in a cabaret café in Moulins.
  • 1909-1919: Boy Capel: Wealthy English aristocrat, a good friend of Balsan and the love of Chanel‘s life who died in a tragic car accident at 38.
  • 1920: Grand Duke Dmitry Pavlovič: nephew of Tsar Nicholas II and cousin to Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (the husband of Queen Elizabeth II)
  • 1921: Igor Stravinsky’s: Chanel supported a Russian-born composer when he was destitute. He moved in with Chanel to work unencumbered and is rumoured to have had an affair with Chanel.
  • 1923-1929: The 2nd Duke of Westminster: Hugh “Bendor “Grosvenor was one of Britain’s (and the world’s) richest men and friend of Winston Churchill. Bender’s fishing and hunting outfits inspired Chanel‘s iconic tweed suits. 
  • 1930-1935: Paul Iribe: Famous French illustrator and designer from Basque. Rumoured to be engaged with Chanel but died of a heart attack.
  • 1941-1953 Baron Hans Gunter von Dinklage: known as Spatz, a leading figure in Nazi counterintelligence.
  • Ernest Beaux: a Russian-born French perfumer, best known for compounding the fragrance Chanel No. 5.
  • Churchhill: Chanel and Churchill were friends and travelled in some of the same circles. 

1908 (Étienne Balsan) Chanel is a Kept woman and starts selling hats from her lover’s apartment

Chanel with Étienne Balsan possibly when she was a shop girl in Moulin France
Chanel with Étienne Balsan, possibly when she was a shopgirl in Moulin, France.

Chanel was a beautiful young woman in her early 20’s. She caught the eye of many Cavalrymen singing at the café clubs in Moulin, where she performed with her aunt Adrienne Chanel.

One of those men was Étienne Balsan, a wealthy French socialite, horse aficionado and heir to a fortune. His family-owned Balsan Company. His family business mainly produced fabric for making the Armed Forces uniforms, including the famous cloth known as “blue horizon uniforms” worn by the French infantrymen during the First World War.

Balsan invited Chanel to live with him at his Royallieu estate, a renovated 14-century monastery near Paris, also known as château de Bayser.

Royallieu estate where Chanel lived with Etienne Balsan for a while
Royallieu estate where Chanel lived with Etienne Balsan for a while

Today anyone can stroll around the estate which is now a park “Parc de l’Abbaye de Bayser.

Parc de l'Abbaye de Bayser (Royallieu)

Avenue des Martyrs de la Liberté

60200 Compiègne

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At 25 years old, Chanel’s lifestyle changed overnight.

Etienne Balsan and Chanel
Etienne Balsan (centre) and Chanel

Chanel went from poor working girl barely getting by to living a lavish life, days spent in equestrian pursuits and nights socializing with Balsan’s famous and wealthy friends. Balsan pampered Chanel and showered her with beautiful dresses, jewelry and gifts. 

With all this free time, Chanel started creating hats. The hats she wanted to wear but couldn’t find. Something she would do throughout her fashion designer career.

Some of the wealthy women that came to Royallieu liked her hats and asked Chanel to make some for them, including Émilienne Marie André, known as Émilienne d’Alençon, a famous comedian and French courtesan.

Chanel‘s aunt Adrienne Chanel also met her future husband Maurice de Nexon at Etienne’s estate. 

Chanel Moves to Paris

160 Boulevard Malesherbes Pairs: where Chanel stayed on ground floor of Etienne Balsan bachelor pad
160 Boulevard Malesherbes Pairs: where Chanel stayed on the ground floor of Étienne Balsan’s bachelor pad

In 1909, Balsan lent Chanel his Parisian ground floor apartment at 160 Boulevard Malesherbes in the 17th arrondissement. Chanel started buying hats and remodelling them to suit her tastes and selling them to wealthy clients. 

1908 Chanel falls in love with the love of her life, “Boy Capel.”

Boy Capel with Chanel in Biarritz

Soon after Chanel moves to Paris, she starts dating Étienne Balsan’s good friend, Captain Arthur Edward Capel, a dashing wealthy English military officer, known affectionately as “Boy Capel” or “Boy,”

Chanel eventually falls in love with Boy Capel and starts a 9 year-long love affair with him. Chanel is 25, and Boy is 35, British and perfectly bilingual in French and English thanks to his French mother and English father. 

While Chanel fashioned her hats in Etienne’s Paris Bachelor pad, Boy Capel lived nearby in his apartment at 138 Malsherbes.

Business is going well, and Coco asked her sister Antoinette, who was trying to become a cabaret singer in Vichy, to come to Paris and help her with her hat business, which she does. Together the sister lives in Etienne’s apartment, making and selling hats. 

 Capel was never fully faithful to Chanel. Even after Capel married, the two carried on an affair until he died in 1919. Capel was allegedly on his way to meet Chanel for a Christmas rendez-vous when he was killed in an automobile accident on December 22, 1919. 

(source from the book: Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History)

1910 Chanel opens her first shop: A hat shop, “Mode Chanel.”

Gabrielle Dorziat wearing a Gabriel Chanel Hat
Gabrielle Dorziat wearing a Gabriel Chanel Hat

With the help and financial backing of Boy Capel, Chanel opens a millinery shop (shop with women’s hats) at 21 rue Cambon. She calls it “Mode Chanel.” 

Her hats were popular and worn by well-known French actresses of the era, which helped build her reputation.

Her big break came in 1912 when French actress Gabrielle Dorziat, whom Chanel had met at Royallieu, wore a Chanel hat with a single feather in the 1912 adaptation of “Bel Ami.” 

Gabrielle Dorziat was a famous French stage entertainer, film actress and Paris fashion trendsetter who helped popularize the designs of Coco Chanel.

1913 Chanel opens her second store in Deauville, “Gabrielle Chanel.” 

Gabrielle CHANEL boutique in Deauville France: with Adrienne Chanel possibly

In 1913, Capel encouraged Chanel to expand her business and open up a branch in Deauville, a fashionable French seaside resort where the two spent their summers.

Her shop sign is simply “Gabriell Chanel,” and it’s located on rue Gontaut-Biron where French aristocracy often went. Coco, her younger sister Antoinette and her aunt Adrienne spent time together as well as worked together. Dressing in Chanel‘s Casual designs and stylish but simple hats. 

She sells mainly sporty women’s clothing using jersey material which was unheard of at the time. Jersey was mainly used for men’s underwear.

There is a lot of mystery behind many of Chanel‘s iconic designs. Many believe that some of her designs had their roots in her affair with Capel- including the design of the No. 5 perfume bottle, which may have been inspired by his toiletry bottle. The use of jersey, and maybe even her logo of the double C’s. We’ll never know for sure. 

André Palasse (Coco’s nephew) comes to live with her

By 1913, Capel and Chanel were pretty much living as a domestic couple, and in 1913, Coco’s nephew André, who was then 9 years old, came to live with them. André had been living with a priest after the death of his mother, Chanel’s older sister.

Very little is known about Coco’s older sister, Julia-Berthe, after leaving the Aubazine orphanage other than she was a single mother and may have died around 1912 when her son was 8 years old. Perhaps by suicide, according to Chanel

Soon after, Coco sent André to Beaumont College, the same school Capel attended to shape him into a gentleman. Apparently, her nephew had terrible manners. 

1915 Opens third boutique in Biarritz.

Chanel opens her third shop in Biarritz, calls it Chanel. It is her first haute couture boutique
Chanel opens her third shop in Biarritz, calls it Chanel. It is her first haute couture boutique.

For a third time, Capel encourages Chanel to expand, and at 32 years old, Chanel opens her third boutique in Biarritz, France.

By this time, Chanel had around 300 employees and was already becoming a household name. Her sister Antoinette is busy behind the scenes helping Coco with her business. 

This is where she presented her first couture collection. 

1916 Chanel is featured in Harpers Bazaar

By 1916 Chanel repays Boy Capel every centime he had lent her to open and expand her thriving fashion business. 

Biarritz – Inside CHANEL

1919 Opens fourth boutique in Paris


In 1919 at 35 years old, less than a decade after opening her first hat shop, she opened her flagship haute couture shop at 31 Rue Cambon. She actually bought the entire building and had a flat at the top level. 

This is where she received guests, entertained. There was no bedroom. Instead, Chanel slept nearby at the Ritz Carlton hotel. 

1919 is also the year that Boy Capel is killed in an automobile accident. 

1921 Coco launches CHANEL N°5

1937 Harpers magazine ad for Chanel no 5

In 1921, Coco launched her most famous perfume on the fifth day of the fifth month and called it CHANEL N°5, but it was only available to exclusive clientele at Chanel‘s Paris boutiques.

It’s rumoured that five was Chanel‘s favourite number and that the fifth sample was the one she chose to become CHANEL N°5.

Ernest Beaux was the Russian-born French perfumer who compounded CHANEL N°5 for Chanel. He was a big deal at the time thanks to a perfume he created in 1912,  “Bouquet de Napoleon,” which was all the rage in Russia.

1922 Coco launches CHANEL N°22

Coco hires Ernest Beaux again to create another perfume. It’s called CHANEL N°22 after the year it was created. 

1924 Coco launches her first makeup collection

1924 April 4th: Coco Chanel licenses her Name and loses control of Chanel No 5 and her perfume business (but still gets rich)

Coco Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer
Coco Chanel and Pierre Wertheimer: who backed Chanel‘s perfume no5

Chanel wanted to grow her perfume line and make it accessible to more than just her exclusive clientele at her Paris boutiques. 

Théophile Bader, a co-founder of the Galeries Lafayette Paris department store, wanted his stores to be the first to offer Chanel no5 to the general public, so he arranged a meeting. 

Gallerie Lafayette in Paris circa 1900s

In 1922, Bader set up a meeting at the Longchamps horse races between Chanel and wealthy Jewish Frenchman Pierre Wertheimer. Pierre and his brother already ran their own makeup and perfumerie Bourjois, so they had the know-how and the money. 

3 years later, in 1924, Pierre Wertheimer and Chanel partner up and established “Parfums Chanel” to produce and market the Chanel No. 5 fragrance. 

In exchange:

  • Pierre Wertheimer and his brother get 70 percent of “Parfums Chanel.
  • Théophile Bader receives 20 percent of “Parfums Chanel
  • And Chanel licenses her name in exchange for 10 percent of “Parfums Chanel” and removed herself from involvement in all business operations of the perfume.

Displeased with the arrangement, Chanel worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of “Parfums Chanel.” But it never happened. (source in French)

1925 CHANEL creates the iconic logo of Interlocking C’s

Chanel logo which Coco designed
Chanel logo, which Coco designed

The Chanel logo is known the world over. There’s a lot of myth and legend behind how the interlinking double C’s became the logo. Chanel claimed that she designed the logo herself, but it’s unclear what the inspiration was. 

Possible inspirations for Chanel‘s Logo

The mysterious origins of Coco Chanel Logo

  1. Chanel claimed her logo was inspired by the shapes she saw in the stained glass windows at the Aubazine orphanage.
  2. The double C’s could be her Initials.
  3. Others say that the interlocking C’s are Chanel and Capels’s initials forever linked. (supposedly Capel was the love of her life.)
  4. It could be that Chanel copied Catherine de Medicis Monogram which also happens to be interlocking C’s. 
  5. Or maybe she copied the logo initials from the Chateau de Cremat in Nice: Coco was a frequent visitor in the 1920s when her friend Irène Bretz owned it. 

1925 Chanel launched the tweed Chanel: Something no one had ever seen women wear. 

Chanel Suit inspired by Scottish tweed
Chanel Suit inspired by Scottish tweed

At a diner party in Monte Carlo in 1923, Coco Chanel met the 2nd Duke of Westminster, Hugh “Bendor “Grosvenor (one of the wealthiest men in the world).

Although the Duke was still married to Violet Mary Nelson (his second wife), the Duke pursued Chanel for months until they began their almost 6 year-long affairs. 

2nd Duke of Westminster and CHANEL
2nd Duke of Westminster and CHANEL

The two spent many summers at Hugh “Bendor’s” 22 room, 700-acre summer home, Rosehall Estate near Lairg, which Chanel re-decorated and furnished. It’s the only known property in Britain to have been decorated by Chanel.

The duke introduced Chanel to many of his friends, including his good friend Winston Churchill: A friendship that would serve her well during WWII.

Surrounded by the Scottish highlands, the two went fishing, hunting and horseback riding. 

It was the Duke’s sportswear and menswear, especially his tweed hunting jackets, that inspired Chanel‘s next invention; the Chanel tweed suit for women. Chanel said that she enjoyed borrowing clothes from her lovers’ wardrobes. 

Vera Bate (Later Lombardi) in 1925 with Chanel left after fishing on Bendor's Scottish Rosehall Estate
Vera Bate (Later Lombardi), in 1925 with Chanel, left after fishing on Bendor’s Scottish Rosehall Estate.

Tweed originated in Scotland in the 18th century and is traditionally a coarse cloth woven from pure virgin wool. It was originally a practical peasant fabric for outdoor work like farming which protected working men and women against the cold and wet climate. Later it was adopted by the elite upper class and became associated with men’s country and outdoor wear like shooting jackets.

Chanel‘s tweed suits have stood the test of time. They have been worn by international figures, including Princess Diana, Brigitte Bardot, and Jackie Kennedy who wore a pink Chanel suit on the day US President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Texas in 1963. 

Rosehall, Coco’s lovenest with the Duke, has been abandoned for decades in ruins.

Coco Chanel Abandoned Manor
Credit: r Skin – ubx (CC BY 4.0)

Chanel‘s secret lovenest she shared with Bendor sat vacant and abandoned for more than 60 years. However, the Rosehall estate was recently sold for 3 million pounds to become a hotel.

Urban foragers found the abandoned Rosehall and give us a tour.

Urban Explorers Find Coco Chanel

A little known fact: 

Bender’s distant relative, Hugh Grosvenor, inherited the title of Duke of Westminster at 25 years old when his father died. The new heir has an older sister, but because of the “rule of primogeniture,” an archaic law that dates back to William the Conqueror, only male heirs can inherit the estate and title. 

Along with his title, he also inherited nearly 100,000 acres in Scotland, including three mountains and Rosehall Estate. Hugh is worth over £9.35billion, making him the 68th richest billionaire in the world and the third richest in the UK. 

1926 Chanel introduces the LBD, Little Black Dress

LBD: CHANEL Little Black Dress 1926
LBD: CHANEL Little Black Dress 1926

In 1926 Vogue published a drawing of a simple black dress and called it “The CHANEL Ford dress” (like the Car), claiming it would become a sort of uniform for all women of taste. It was simple, affordable, and comfortable, something that was important during the depression. 

Before the 1920s, a black dress was mainly something a woman wore in mourning.  

 1931-1932 Chanel goes to Hollywood

Chanel with Samuel Goldwyn holding a Neiman Marcus box
Coco Chanel with Stanley Marcus of the Neiman Marus department stores

Samuel Goldwyn wanted to capitalize on fashion, add more class and attract more women to the movies. He offered “Coco” Chanel, the embodiment of French new chic, a 1 million dollar contract to fly to Hollywood twice a year to create the costumes (dresses) for some of his actresses at his movie studio. 

In February of 1931, at 47 years old, Chanel left Paris for Hollywood, took measurements and returned to Paris to design costumes for Goldwyn’s films: Tonight or Never (1931) and The Greeks Had a Word for Them (1932).

Chanel Hollywood costume designs
Chanel Hollywood costume designs

Chanel‘s costume designs were very chic and flowy but didn’t translate well with Hollywood style. Chanel never worked as a costume designer in Hollywood again. (source from book Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the pulse of history).

Chanel returned to costume making but for French films

Although Chanel‘s designs didn’t work well for Hollywood, her designs went over well in French films. Here are some French films in which Chanel designed costumes. 

  • 1938 Quai des brumes (Port of Shadows), directed by Marcel Carné.
  • 1939 La règle du jeu (The Rules of the Game), directed by Jean Renoir.
  • 1961 L’Année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year at Marienbad). Chanel designed a series of  chic costumes for actress Delphine Seyrig.
Last year in Marienbrad COCO CHANEL movie costume design
Last year in Marienbad COCO CHANEL movie costume design

1935 Chanel (possibly fiancé) Paul Iribe dies in front of Coco

After Chanel‘s relationship with the 2nd Duke of Westminster, “Bendor,” ended, Chanel became involved with Paul Iribe, a French illustrator and designer in the decorative arts. 

Paul and Chanel were part of an elite bohemian group of the Parisian art world, known to be politically right-winged, sexually provocative and occasional drug users.

The two were romantically involved from 1931 until Iribe’s death in 1935 when Chanel witnessed Paul collapse and die while playing tennis at Chanel‘s summer villa La Pausa. 

Her custom-built home “La Pausa” was recently purchased by the House of CHANEL

Chanel's Summer Villa: La Pausa on the French Riviera which she had built
Chanel‘s Summer Villa: La Pausa on the French Riviera, which she had built

If you’re not familiar with La Pausa, it was Chanel‘s summer home and the only one of her houses she specially designed, built and decorated to her tastes. It’s located on the French Riviera, in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin, between Menton and Monaco. 

Chanel bought the land in the 1920s, and construction on the home was completed in 1930. She sold the property in 1953, but it was recently purchased around 2015 by the House of CHANEL

1939 Due to the war, Chanel closes her shops

WWII: American soldiers lining up outside of the CHANEL store to buy Chanel no5
WWII: American soldiers lining up outside of the CHANEL store to buy Chanel no5

In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her Couture House boutiques. The war wasn’t an ideal time for fashion.

Only the boutique on 31 rue Cambon remains opens and sells perfumes and accessories to German soldiers during the occupation.

1941 Chanel takes a new lover during the war: A German Nazi

Baron Hans Gunter von Dinklage
Baron Hans Gunter von Dinklage

During the war, with the invasion of France by Germans, most citizens of Paris fled. Hence, it was unusual that Coco chose to remain in an occupied city, living at the Hotel Ritz where German military officers moved to. 

Eventually, Chanel started an affair and lived with a high-ranking German attaché of the German Embassy in Paris, Baron Hans Gunter von Dinklage, or “Spatz,” 13 years younger than Chanel.

1941 Coco Chanel used Nazi laws to try and regain control of her company from Jewish partners

During the war, Coco Chanel used her position as an Aryan to gain full monetary control of “Parfums Chanel,” controlled by the wealthy Wertheimer brothers who were Jewish.

Under the Nazi regime (Nuremberg Laws), Jews could not own property. 

Chanel was unaware that the Wertheimers had fled France for New York in 1940 and legally turned control of the company to Félix Amiot. The Nazis decide to let Flix keep Chanel‘s company. Félix Amiot had built over 370 airplanes for the Nazis with his other company that Wertheimer helped finance years before.

At the end of the war, Amiot returned control of Chanel Perfumes over to the Wertheimers.

I don’t think Chanel was too happy. 

1944 Chanel questioned and thought to be a German spy 

Declassified French intelligence documents about Chanel and her involvement as a German Nazi agent
Declassified French intelligence documents about Chanel and her involvement as a German Nazi agent

During the war, the French secret service kept files on people, including celebrities they deemed suspicious.

The declassified top-secret documents were not available to the public until 1999. They had been stored for years with no classification system in the archives located at Chateau de Vincennes, east of Paris.

The public can access the documents, but they’re not digitized, so individuals looking to do a little research need to show up at Chateau de Vincennes physically. 

In 2011, Hal Weston Vaughan, an American author and journalist based in Paris, wrote a biography titled “Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanel‘s Secret War.” Hal was a former diplomat and was also involved with the CIA before he became a journalist.

Hal’s book relies heavily on the recently declassified French and German documents stating that intelligence had a File on Chanel. She was even brought in for questioning around 1945. According to the declassified documents, Chanel operated under the codename “Abwehr Agent F-7124, code name “Westminster” – a reference to her 5-year affair with Britain’s Duke of Westminster in the 1920s.  

Winston Churchill 

Luckily for Chanel, she had friends in high places. Churchill, the good friend of her ex, the 2nd Duke of Westminster, stepped in and had Chanel released. Not long after, Coco Fled for the hills to Switzerland. 

It’s not clear if Chanel knew that she was a source of information for the Germans or if she was a willing participant. Some informers had numbers without being aware of it. Josephine Baker, for example, the African American-born French entertainer who lived in France, also had a top-secret dossier.

If Coco did work for the Germans as an agent, some sources speculate that Coco may have done it in exchange for her nephew’s release, who was a prisoner of war.

Another theory is that she did it for her own comfort and greed.

1945 -1953 Chanel self exiles to Lausanne, Switzerland, to escape prosecution and persecution

French woman who merely slept with a German SS officer were punished, attacked, beaten and had their heads publicly shaved
French women who merely slept with a German SS officer were punished, attacked, beaten and had their heads publicly shaved

After four years of German occupation, American’s liberated Paris in August of 1944. French citizens freely roamed the streets, searching for revenge against anyone they thought were German collaborators.

Some believe over 30,000 French citizens were executed because they collaborated with the Germans.

The most likely reason Coco fled France to live in exile in Lausanne, Switzerland, for nearly 10 years was fear of what might happen to her because of her involvement with the Germans and the fact that she had a German lover.

Women who merely slept with members of the German occupation forces were accused of “collaboration horizontale “horizontal collaboration.” More than 10 thousand girl collaborators were hunted and punished. Many were dragged through the streets and beaten.

Most had their heads publicly shaved to shame them. A practice the French copied from the Germans who shaved the heads of German women thought to have slept with Jews. 

By Fleeing France, Chanel could escape persecution and continue to live in luxury with her German lover Hans Günther von Dincklage, who had fled the year before. The two lived together in Switzerland until 1953. 

Chanel with Dinklage in Switzerland Villars sur Ollon ( 'Les années Chanel' by Pierre Galante, Mercure de France, Paris Match, 1951 (b/w photo)
Chanel with Dinklage in Switzerland Villars sur Ollon ( ‘Les années Chanel‘ by Pierre Galante, Mercure de France, Paris Match, 1951 (b/w photo)

While in Switzerland, Coco established a Swiss perfumery to create and sell “Chanel perfumes.” 

Chanel no1: Chanel created a line of perfumes while in exile in Switzerland
Chanel N°1: Chanel created a line of perfumes while in exile in Switzerland

While in exile in Switzerland, Chanel waited for the German collaborator dust to settle and lived a lavish life thanks to the royalties she received from her perfume Chanel N°5 (controlled by the Wertheimer brothers).

She must have been bored or still bitter about the deal she made with the Wertheimer brothers because Chanel started a Swiss perfumery to sell a new line of Chanel perfumes.

Although the Wertheimers’ had control of Chanel‘s perfume business in France, they did not have exclusive rights to the Chanel name.

Rather than drag the Chanel name through the mud, Chanel and Wertheimer settled out of court.

Chanel received wartime profits of $400,000 (estimated at nine million dollars in today’s money) and 2% royalties from worldwide sales of Chanel No. 5 perfume.  Wertheimer also agreed to pay for Chanel’s living expenses for the rest of her life. THE REST OF HER LIFE. 

Coco always thought that Pierre Wertheimer took advantage of her, so this was her way of getting a better deal. 

This period in exile is often glossed over because not much is known about Chanel while she was in exile.

The official Chanel website jumps from 1939 “CLOSING OF THE COUTURE HOUSE” to 1954 “WELCOME BACK CHANEL, reopens her Couture house.”

1954 Chanel returns to Paris after 15 years but loses ownership of her company

Chanel 1955 with 2.55 bag

By 1954, most French people didn’t care about who did or didn’t collaborate with the Germans.

Chanel wanted to reopen her Chanel Couture boutiques, so she approached Pierre Wertheimer again and negotiated a deal to fund her comeback. In exchange for financial backing, Chanel gave Pierre and his brother full commercial rights to the House of Chanel and ALL Chanel brand products. 

And the Wertheimer brothers officially took control of Chanel perfume, clothing, and brand completely. 

So at the age of 71, after nearly 10 years in exile in Switzerland, Chanel returned to Paris to re-opened her couture fashion house without the stigma of having had a German Nazi lover.

It’s not clear what happened to Spatz, her Nazi boyfriend but death records show that he died in Mallorca, Spain an old man. 

1955 Chanel changes handbag history and ads a shoulder strap to her quilted flap purse

Classic Chanel quilted 2.55 bag with all metal long strap and mademoiselle lock

Coco is 72 in 1955 and still manages to change handbag history forever by adding a long shoulder strap to her quilted bag. This was unheard of at the time. Again she borrowed elements from men’s accessories.

Before this, women carried their purses in their hands or hanging from their arms. 

The longer strap was a feature that Chanel needed herself so that her hands could remain free, probably so she could juggle a cigarette in one hand and a glass of champagne in the other. 

She called her new handy hands-free bag the 2.55 (“2” for February and “55” for the year it was released). 

It may be part of the Chanel myth, but some of the details of the 2.55 bag are supposedly inspired by her past:

  • The lining was a brownish-red colour and represented the Catholic uniforms at the orphanage where Coco grew up from 11 years old.
  • The interior compartment beneath the outer flap is where Coco Chanel supposedly hid her love letters. 
  • The nun’s keys at the orphanage, which dangled from the waist of their habits, were the inspiration for the chains on the bag.
  • The original rectangular closure was called the “the Mademoiselle Lock,” presumably because Coco never married.

1971 At 87 years old, Coco Chanel dies in her bed at the Ritz hotel in Paris, France, on January 10, 1971.

Chanel grave Lausanne Switzerland Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery

Chanel requested that she be buried in Lausanne, Switzerland, where she spent almost 10 years in exile to escape the persecution of Nazi collaboration.

Chanel designed her own tombstone with five lions (her lucky number and astrological sign) and is buried at the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, one of the biggest cemeteries in French-speaking Switzerland with close to 24,000 graves.

Chanel Death record Paris archives
Chanel death records, Paris Archives

1983 the Wertheimer brothers appointed Karl Lagerfeld as the artistic director of Chanel‘s fashion division.

The CHANEL house currently employs over 20,000 people.

A little-known fact is that the descendants of Jewish partners Pierre and Paul Wertheimer now control the entire Chanel empire. 

Pierre Wertheimer’s grandsons, Alain and Gerard Wertheimer have a combined net worth of $30 billion and are among the richest people in the world and the 10 richest people living in France. All thanks to their Grandfather’s dealings and investments in Chanel


Chanel‘s only known living relative is her great-niece, Gabrielle Pallasse Labrunie, the daughter of her nephew André Palasse. 

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links, meaning I get a 'petite commission' at no extra cost to you if you make a purchase through my links. It helps me buy more wine and cheese. Please read my disclosure for more info.

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Annie André

Annie André

About the author

I'm Annie André, a bilingual North American with Thai and French Canadian roots. I've lived in France since 2011. When I'm not eating cheese, drinking wine or hanging out with my husband and children, I write articles on my personal blog for intellectually curious people interested in all things France: Life in France, travel to France, French culture, French language, travel and more.


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