Saturday, February 8, 2014

Monthly Muse: Coco Chanel

This months muse is Gabrielle Coco Chanel. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born to an unwed mother, Eugénie "Jeanne" Devolle, a laundrywoman, in "the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence" in Saumur, France on 19 August 1883. She was Devolle's second daughter. Her father, Albert Chanel, was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments. In 1884 Coco's parents married after her family persuaded (and probably paid him) to do so. The couple then had a further 5 children.

In 1895, when Coco was twelve years old, her mother died of bronchitis at age thirty-one. Coco father sent his two sons out to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the Corrèze, in central France, to the convent of Aubazine, whose religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was "founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls".

At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house set aside for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins. Coco had learned to sew whilst at Aubazine and found work as a seamstress. In her spare time she sang in a cabaret frequented by soldiers. Coco made money when a plate was passed around to the soldiers who gave donations.  It was at this time that Gabrielle acquired the name "Coco", possibly based on two popular songs with which she became identified, "Ko Ko Ri Ko", and "Qui qu'a vu Coco", or it was an allusion to the French word for kept woman, cocotte.

In 1906 Coco headed to the spa resort town of Vichy where she hoped to perform in the towns many theatres and music halls. Coco's youth and physical charms impressed those for whom she auditioned but her singing voice let her down and she failed to find stage work. Instead she took work at the "Grande Grille", where as a donneuse d'eau she was one of the females whose job it was to dispense glasses of the purportedly curative mineral water for which Vichy was renowned. When the season ended, Coco returned to Moulins, and her former haunt "La Rotonde". She now realized that a serious stage career was not in her future.

Back in Moulins Coco met he young French ex-cavalry officer and the wealthy textile heir Étienne Balsan. Coco became Balsan's lover and she  lived with him in his chateau Royallieu near Compiègne for the next three years and he lavished her with dresses, diamonds and pearls. Whilst living with Balsan Coco started making hats. It was initially a diversion but grew into a social enterprise.

In 1908 Coco began an affair with one of Balsan's friends, Captain Arthur Edward 'Boy' Capel. Capel, a wealthy member of the English upper class, installed Coco in an apartment in Paris and financed Coco's first shop which opened in 1913 in Deauville where she sold deluxe casual clothes suitable for leisure and sport made of humble fabrics such as jersey and tricot. Chanel had the support of her sister and her aunt who model her items, parading through the town and on the boardwalks.

In 1915 Chanel opened another shop in Biarritz. The Biarritz shop was installed not as a storefront, but in a villa opposite the casino. The shop was so successful that Coco was able to reimburse Boy's investment within the first year. Whilst in Biarritz Coco met the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. They had a romantic interlude and remained close thereafter. 

Coco and Boy's affair lasted 9 years but 'Boy' was never faithful to Coco and even after he married  in 191 he did not completely break it off with her. His death in a car accident, in late 1919, was the single most devastating event in Coco's life.

In 1918 Coco acquired 31 Rue Cambon located in one of the most fashionable districts in Paris. In 1921 Coco opened her fashion boutique selling clothing, hats and accessories and later expanding to include jewellery and fragrances.

In the spring of 1920 (approximately May), Coco was introduced to the composer Igor Stravinsky by Sergei Diaghilev, impresario of the Ballets Russes. Coco opened her home to the Stravinsky family after finding they needed somewhere to live and they stayed with her until May 1921. During this time it is believed that Stravinsky and Coco had an affair and the story of this has been made into the film Coco Chanel & Igor Stranvinsky . Coco also guaranteed the new (1920) Ballets Russes production of Stravinsky's Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring) against financial loss with an anonymous gift to Diaghilev, said to be 300,000 francs.

In 1924, Coco made an agreement with the Wertheimer brothers, Pierre and Paul, directors of the eminent perfume and cosmetics house Bourgeois since 1917, creating a corporate entity, "Parfums Chanel." The Wertheimers agreed to provide full financing for production, marketing and distribution of Chanel No. 5. The Wertheimers would receive seventy percent of the profits, and Théophile Bader a twenty percent share. For ten percent of the stock, Coco licensed her name to Parfums Chanel and removed herself from involvement in all business operations. Displeased with the arrangement, Coco worked for more than twenty years to gain full control of Parfums Chanel.

In 1923, Vera Bate Lombardi gave Coco her entry into the social circles of the English aristocracy. The group included  Winston Churchill and royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales. Vera also introduced Coco to the Duke of Westminster and they had an affair which lasted 10 years. It is said that the Prince of Wales (who was a notorious womaniser) also pursued Coco. In 1927, the Duke of Westminster gave Chanel a parcel of land he had purchased in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin on the French Riviera. It was on this site that Chanel built her villa, La Pausa.

In 1931 Coco met MGM head Samuel Myer who offered her a  tantalizing proposition. For the sum of a million dollars (approximately seventy-five million in twenty-first century valuation), he would bring her to Hollywood twice a year to design costumes for MGM stars. Coco accepted the offer. Coco designed the clothing worn on screen by Gloria Swanson, in "Tonight or Never" (1931), and for Ina Claire in "The Greeks Had A Word for Them" (1932). Both Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich became private clients but Coco disliked Hollywood.

The Chanel couture was a lucrative business enterprise, by 1935 employing four thousand people. As the 1930s progressed, Coco's place on the throne of haute couture came under threat. The boyish look and the short skirts of the 1920s flapper seemed to disappear overnight. Coco's designs for film stars in Hollywood had met with failure and had not aggrandized her reputation as expected. More significantly, Coco's star had been eclipsed by her premier rival, the designer Elsa Schiaparelli.  

When WWII broke out in 1939 Coco closed up her shop but maintained her apartment above the shop.  During the German occupation Coco took up residence at the Ritz Hotel where she conducted an affair with German officer Hans Gunther von Dincklage.

During WWII the Nazi seized all Jewish owned property and businesses and this gave Coco the opportunity to reclaim Parfums Chanel as the Wertheimers were Jewish. However the Wertheimers, anticipating the forthcoming Nazi mandates against Jews had, in May 1940, legally turned control of Parfums Chanel over to a Christian, French businessman and industrialist Felix Amiot. At war's end, Amiot turned "Parfums Chanel" back into the hands of the Wertheimers. Ultimately, the Wertheimers and Cococame to a mutual accommodation, renegotiating the original 1924 contract. On 17 May 1947, Coco received wartime profits from the sale of Chanel No. 5, in an amount equivalent to some nine million dollars in twenty-first century valuation. Further, her future share would be two percent of all Chanel No. 5 sales worldwide.

In 1943, Coco traveled to Berlin with Dinklage to meet with SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler to formulate strategy. In late 1943 or early 1944, Coco and her SS master, Schellenberg, devised a plan to press Britain to end hostilities with Germany. When interrogated by British intelligence at war's end, Schellenberg maintained that Coco was "a person who knew Churchill sufficiently to undertake political negotiations with him". The mission, named Operation Modellhut ("Model Hat") was ultimately a failure. In September 1944, Coco was called in to be interrogated by the Free French Purge Committee, the épuration. The committee, which had no documented evidence of her collaboration activity, was obliged to release her. According to Coco's grand-niece, Gabrielle Palasse Labrunie, when Coco returned home she said, "Churchill had me freed"

In 1945, Coco moved to Switzerland but she returned to Paris in 1954 when she launched her comback collection to rival Dior's New Look which Coco called illogical design that upholstered women .The re-establishment of her couture house in 1954 was fully financed by Chanel's old nemesis in the perfume battle, Pierre Wertheimer. Her new collection was not received well by Parisians who felt her reputation had been tainted by her wartime association with the Nazis. However, her return to couture was applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.

As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing, but nonetheless stuck to her usual routine of preparing the spring catalog. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday January 9 and feeling ill went to bed early.  She died on Sunday, January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she had resided for more than 30 years. Her funeral was held at the eglise de la Madeleine, her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony, her coffin was covered with white flowers - camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses. Her grave is located in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Although Coco Chanel was a controversial character her legacy lives on in fashion today. Any woman who has a 'little black dress' hanging in her wardrobe has Chanel to thank. Chanel is also renowned for the Chanel suit, the rise of costume jewellery, the camellia (which was a Chanel trademark found decorating many of her suits) and the Chanel bag with a shoulder strap which helped free up women's hands.

Chanel's designs liberated women from the constraints of the corset and fussy frilled design. Her designs showed a simple elegance and a look of youthful ease.

Chanel quotes:
♥ A girl should be two things: classy and fabulous.
♥ In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different
♥ A woman who doesn't wear perfume has no future
♥ Fashion fades, only style remains the same
♥ Luxury must be comfortable otherwise it is not a luxury

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