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Coco Chanel (Gabriel Bonheur)

Gabriel Bonheur (Coco) Chanel (1883 – 1971) was probably one of the least likely to become a world famous designer. Motherless at 12 and abandoned to an orphanage shortly thereafter by her father, Chanel lived in a convent until she was 18. She then moved to the Notre Dame boarding school in Moulins where she became shop girl to a local milliner.

Coco’s first attempts at design were hats that brought her to the attention of women who attended nearby racing events. It was not long before they asked her to create custom hat designs to complement the outfits they wore to the races.

Coco also aspired to the stage and often entertained at Moulins and Vichy. It was during this time that she met a young French ex-cavalry officer, Étienne Balsan, whose wealth came as an heir to a family involved in textiles. Chanel became Balsan’s mistress. She lived in his chateau for three years and reveled in a life of self-indulgence that Balsan’s wealth allowed. It also enabled Coco to become acquainted with a social set accustomed to indulging in all manner of gratification. Balsan spared no expense to lavish Chanel with a life that included diamonds, dresses, and pearls.

In 1908, Chanel began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel who was a wealthy Englishman. He installed Chanel in a Paris apartment and financed Chanel’s first shops. These included the millinery store “Chanel Modes” in Paris and Deauville.

It was in these stores that she made and sold hats, blouses and chemises. In 1916, Coco begins to make garments from jersey, a fabric previously used only for underwear, and begins what would become, “the little black dress.” By 1918, Chanel was producing cardigans and twinsets. She adapted men’s sweaters to be worn over plain, straight skirts and by 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturiere with an established Maison de couture at a fashionable Paris address.

In the 1920s Chanel gained international recognition with the launch of Chanel No. 5, one of the most famous names in perfume and, surprisingly, also design. For the perfume, she employed famous chemist Ernest Beaux who used at least one hundred and twenty-eight ingredients to eventually create a fragrance that met Chanel’s approval.

The bottle design for Chanel No. 5 is said to incorporate the design sensibilities of Capel. It is believed Chanel adapted either the rectangular, beveled lines of Charvet toiletry bottles Capel carried when traveling and/or the design of the whiskey decanter Capel used and Chanel admired and wanted to reproduce in “exquisite, expensive, delicate glass.”

The combination of fragrance and design proved irresistible. Over time, Chanel No. 5 became a key source of Coco’s fortune and fame.

In the mid1920s, Chanel’s designs employed an English style. She made fashions from black sleeved waistcoats and berets pulled down flush with the eyelids. She also introduced wide-legged pants for women, based on sailors’ bell-bottoms, that she called, “yachting pants”. The pants and the sportswear fashion she created during this time is said to be the biggest innovation brought about by Chanel.

She begins to wear evening jewelry with her daytime outfits most notably, long strings of pearls that inspire her to produce costume jewelry. In the 1930s, her Maison produces colorful necklaces, bracelets, lapel pins and earrings crafted from glass beads. She commissions designs for elaborate custom jewelry that use fake and semi-precious stones in flamboyant settings. The most famous of these are enameled and jeweled cuffs with Maltese cross motifs. They prove so popular that they are still made and sold in Chanel boutiques today although the original designs are very hard to find. Chanel made it “chic” to wear fake jewelry.

Chanel’s jewelry designs also incorporate advances made by the house of Gripoix. Maison Gripoix perfected a method of pouring glass into slender brass frames that created a look of large, sumptuous, and natural precious stones set in Indian and Renaissance styles. These designs, sometimes called bijoux de couture, are intended to complement certain outfits and came to represent the ultimate in elegance in the first half of the 20th Century.

In the 1950s Chanel collaborated with Robert Goossens, a skilled metal worker and trained goldsmith to produce some of Chanel’s most important jewelry, including well-known barrettes sets with faux pearl or glass stones and triple ring earrings in gilded metal.

Chanel jewelry features large stones, classical inspiration and an emphasis on authenticity. In her later years, her designs included multi-colored glass stones, faux pearls, and rhinestones in necklaces, bracelets, pins/broaches, pendants and earrings with gold plated metal. Still actively producing jewelry at the time, Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the age of eighty-eight.

Chanel’s life has been the source of books, movies and even a Broadway musical. In 1969, “Coco” with music by André Previn, book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner, presented a largely romanticized version of her life during 1953 to 1954 when Chanel was reestablishing her Maison. Chanel was originally played by Katharine Hepburn and then by Danielle Darrieux during a disappointing ten-month run.

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