Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel

On the 29th of February Lauren Smilanich presented a detailed analysis of the life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. Lauren analyzed Ms Chanel’s entire life to include her achievements, failures, and key attributes. The highlights from Lauren’s presentation follow:

Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel – Early Life

ž Born in 1883

ž Mother was an unwed laundress, father was a street peddler

ž Couple eventually married several years after her birth

ž Several younger siblings – 2 sisters and 3 brothers

ž Mother died of tuberculosis when she was 12

ž Her father sent her and her sisters away to a convent for orphans

Early Career

ž Left the convent at 18 to work as a seamstress

ž Also worked as a cabaret singer, where she first acquired the nickname ‘Coco’

ž Met and became mistress to a wealthy textile heir, Etienne Balsan

ž Enjoyed the idle lifestyle of the wealthy, began designing hats as a hobby during this time

ž 1908 – began an affair with one of Balsan’s friends, Chapel, who financed her first shop

ž Opened her first shop in 1910 in Paris, started out selling hats

ž Added two new stores shortly after

ž In 1920, she launched her signature perfume Chanel No. 5, the first to feature a designer’s name

ž 1925- introduced Chanel suit with collarless jacket and fitted skirt

ž Revolutionary emphasis of comfort

ž also pioneered the ‘little black dress’ for evening wear

ž Had a 10 year relationship with the married Duke of Westminster

ž In response to suggestion of marriage, quoted as saying “There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Chanel”

ž In 1931 she met Samuel Goldwyn through a mutual friend – Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia

ž For 1 million dollars, he would take her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for the movies

ž Not a successful attempt – her designs didn’t translate well to film

1930’s – WWII

ž Economic depression of the 30’s had a negative impact on her business, had to lay off several workers

ž Closed her shops when WWII started, saying it was ‘not the time for fashion’

ž Had a romantic relationship with a Nazi officer

› Questioned after the war, widely suspected of working as a spy for the Nazis


ž Moved to Switzerland after the war

ž Returned to France and returned to the fashion world in 1954

› Lots of doubt about her potential for renewed success (fashion had become male dominated (e.g. Christian Dior) – back on top within 3 years

ž New collection was not received well by the Parisians due to her wartime associations with the occupying Nazis

› British and Americans celebrated her new collection

ž Continued to take and active role in each collection until her death in 1971 at 87


ž Humble background – unwed parents, peasant background

ž Minimal education

ž Ambitious

ž Opportunistic – leveraged her relationships with men to her advantage

ž Independent – never married

ž Charismatic

ž Tenacious – returned to fashion even amidst great uncertainty in her 70’s, was undaunted by failures