Profile Series: the Legendary Coco Chanel

This is yet another entry into the POP profile series. While this edition does highlight a famous icon, the individuals profiled will not always be well known. The primary purpose of this series is to profile figures that I believe devoted their lives to creating something special and worthwhile.

This edition will introduce you to Coco Chanel (1883-1971).

Coco Chanel’s life story is the ultimate example of making something beautiful out of very little. Originally born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in the summer of 1883, Coco Chanel’s early life in France was certainly not the dazzling experience we associate with fashion icons.

Chanel’s mother passed away, and her father placed her in an orphanage at a very young age. While living in the orphanage, Chanel was raised by nuns, who taught her how to sew. At a young age, Chanel briefly spent time as a singer, and performed in clubs under the stage name “Coco”.

When she was approximately 20 years old, Coco Chanel became romantically linked with hat designer Etienne Balsan. Even though she soon left Balsan for his wealthy friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, both gentlemen assisted Chanel with her first fashion-related business.

At the age of 27, Chanel opened her first clothing store on Paris’ Rue Cambon, where she sold hats. She later opened more stores and started selling clothing as well. Chanel attributed much of her designing success to a single jersey dress she created during this time. She was traveling to her Deauville store, and the weather was cold, so she wore a dress that she had crafted from an old jersey. Many people asked her where she bought the dress, and she offered to make them their own.

From that point on, Chanel continued to achieve accomplishment after accomplishment in the fashion industry. Her Chanel No. 5 perfume was a big success, and was the first perfume to feature the designer’s name. Considered a real trailblazer in the industry, Chanel also introduced the Chanel suit and the little black dress.

Chanel helped women feel more comfortable in formal and professional attire by borrowing elements from men’s wear, but tailoring the designs to be applicable for the female body. Coco Chanel also famously transformed black dresses from something that you wear to a funeral to the most chic form of eveningwear. Little black dresses are staples in women’s closets everywhere, just as the lessons and revolutionary visions of Coco Chanel continue to be staples in fashion design. Most of all I think she encouraged women to speak up and be heard at a time when women were starting businesses and having professional careers. Some might say that her fashion designs reflected this shift.

Her life has been captured on two films both released in 2009: Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky starring Anna Mouglalis and based on a novel of the same name, and Coco before Chanel starring Audrey Tautou.