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
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
Use the table of contents to skip to a section or read it in chronological order.
History of Coco
Chanels’ life and career were a true “Rags-To-Riches” story!
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.
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:
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
Eiffelwere building the Statue Of Liberty in Paris when Chanelwas born.
Born in a charity hospital for the poor:
On the day Gabrielle was born, her father, Henri Albert
Chanel often embellished, hid and altered her life story
It was difficult for historians to trace Coco
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
Edmonde was a longtime editor of French Vogue and
This beautiful pictorial biography contains a staggering collection of photographs, amassed by the author and tells the life story of Chanel.
Claude Delay, another close friend of
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.
Some examples of discrepancies about
- 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.
Chanel:1882-1910 (28 years old, Chanelclaimed she committed suicide).
- Julia had a son named André Palasse, whom
Chaneladopted and cared for after Julia died.
- Julia had a son named André Palasse, whom
- 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
Chanel1885-1953 (67 years old)
- Lucien Albert
Chanel1889-1941 (51-52 years old Heart attack)
- Died as an infant: Augustin Julien
Chanel1891 – 1891 (died at 6 months)
1895 Coco’s mother died, and her father abandoned all five children
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,
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
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 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.”
Chanel leaves the orphanage to live in a Catholic finishing school
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
1903 Coco gets a job working as a seamstress
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).
1907-1908 Gabrielle earns her nickname “Coco”
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.
- 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
Two of the songs the
- “Ko Ko Ri Ko” (an onomatopoeia for cock-a-Doodle-Doo)
- “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
This is a movie starring Audrey Tautou as
The beginning of the House of
It’s well documented that
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
Chanelsinging 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:
Chanelsupported a Russian-born composer when he was destitute. He moved in with Chanelto 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
Chanelbut 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
Chaneland 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
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.
Today anyone can stroll around the estate which is now a park “Parc de l’Abbaye de Bayser.”
At 25 years old,
Some of the wealthy women that came to Royallieu liked her hats and asked
Chanel Moves to Paris
In 1909, Balsan lent
Chanel falls in love with the love of her life, “Boy Capel.”
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
(source from the book: Mademoiselle: Coco
Chanel opens her first shop: A hat shop, “Mode Chanel.”
With the help and financial backing of Boy Capel,
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
Gabrielle Dorziat was a famous French stage entertainer, film actress and Paris fashion trendsetter who helped popularize the designs of Coco
Chanel opens her second store in Deauville, “Gabrielle Chanel.”
In 1913, Capel encouraged
Her shop sign is simply “Gabriell
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
André Palasse (Coco’s nephew) comes to live with her
By 1913, Capel and
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
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.
For a third time, Capel encourages
By this time,
This is where she presented her first couture collection.
Chanel is featured in Harpers Bazaar
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,
1919 is also the year that Boy Capel is killed in an automobile accident.
1921 Coco launches
In 1921, Coco launched her most famous
It’s rumoured that five was
Ernest Beaux was the Russian-born French perfumer who compounded
1922 Coco launches
Coco hires Ernest Beaux again to create another
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)
Théophile Bader, a co-founder of the Galeries Lafayette Paris department store, wanted his stores to be the first to offer
In 1922, Bader set up a meeting at the Longchamps horse races between
3 years later, in 1924, Pierre Wertheimer and
- Pierre Wertheimer and his brother get 70 percent of “Parfums
- Théophile Bader receives 20 percent of “Parfums
Chanellicenses 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 creates the iconic logo of Interlocking C’s
Possible inspirations for
- Chanel claimed her logo was inspired by the shapes she saw in the stained glass windows at the Aubazine orphanage.
- The double C’s could be her Initials.
- Others say that the interlocking C’s are
Chaneland Capels’s initials forever linked. (supposedly Capel was the love of her life.)
- It could be that
Chanelcopied Catherine de Medicis Monogram which also happens to be interlocking C’s.
- 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.
Chanel launched the tweed Chanel: Something no one had ever seen women wear.
At a diner party in Monte Carlo in 1923, Coco
Although the Duke was still married to Violet Mary Nelson (his second wife), the Duke pursued
The two spent many summers at Hugh “Bendor’s” 22 room, 700-acre summer home, Rosehall Estate near Lairg, which
The duke introduced
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
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.
Rosehall, Coco’s lovenest with the Duke, has been abandoned for decades in ruins.
Urban foragers found the abandoned Rosehall and give us a tour.
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.
Chanel introduces the LBD, Little Black Dress
In 1926 Vogue published a drawing of a simple black dress and called it “The
Before the 1920s, a black dress was mainly something a woman wore in mourning.
Chanel goes to Hollywood
Samuel Goldwyn wanted to capitalize on fashion, add more class and attract more women to the movies. He offered “Coco”
In February of 1931, at 47 years old,
Chanel returned to costume making but for French films
- 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.
Chanel (possibly fiancé) Paul Iribe dies in front of Coco
The two were romantically involved from 1931 until Iribe’s death in 1935 when
Her custom-built home “La Pausa” was recently purchased by the House of
If you’re not familiar with La Pausa, it was
1939 Due to the war,
Chanel closes her shops
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.
Chanel takes a new lover during the war: A German Nazi
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.
Chanel used Nazi laws to try and regain control of her company from Jewish partners
During the war, Coco
Under the Nazi regime (Nuremberg Laws), Jews could not own property.
At the end of the war, Amiot returned control of
I don’t think
Chanel questioned and thought to be a German spy
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
Hal’s book relies heavily on the recently declassified French and German documents stating that intelligence had a File on
It’s not clear if
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.
Chanel self exiles to Lausanne, Switzerland, to escape prosecution and persecution
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,
While in Switzerland, Coco established a Swiss perfumery to create and sell “Chanel perfumes.”
While in exile in Switzerland,
She must have been bored or still bitter about the deal she made with the Wertheimer brothers because
Although the Wertheimers’ had control of
Rather than drag the
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 returns to Paris after 15 years but loses ownership of her company
By 1954, most French people didn’t care about who did or didn’t collaborate with the Germans.
And the Wertheimer brothers officially took control of
So at the age of 71, after nearly 10 years in exile in Switzerland,
It’s not clear what happened to Spatz, her Nazi boyfriend but death records show that he died in Mallorca, Spain an old man.
Chanel changes handbag history and ads a shoulder strap to her quilted flap purse
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
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
- 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
Chanelsupposedly 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.
1983 the Wertheimer brothers appointed Karl Lagerfeld as the artistic director of
Chanel‘s fashion division.
A little-known fact is that the descendants of Jewish partners Pierre and Paul Wertheimer now control the entire
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