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About Coco Chanel
Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel, Coco Chanel pioneered French fasion design with her modernist philosophy, menswear-inspired fashions, and pursuit of expensive simplicity. She was the founder of the famous fashion brand Chanel and an important figure in 20th-century fashion. Her extraordinary influence on fashion was such that she was the only person in the field to be named on Time 100: The Most Important People of the Century. Coco Chanel spent her later childhood in an orphanage and because of her poverty was very determined to make something of herself. She learned to sew in the orphanage and took it from there, with help from a few wealthy lovers.
Chanel was born in the small town of Saumur in France. She was the second daughter of Albert Chanel and Jeanne Devolle, a market stallholder and laundrywoman respectively at the time of her birth. Her birth was declared the following day by employees of the hospital in which she was born. They, being illiterate, could not provide or confirm the correct spelling of the surname and it was recorded by the mayor François Poitou as "Chasnel". This misspelling made the tracing of her roots almost impossible for biographers when Chanel later rose to prominence. In 1895, when she was 12 years old, Chanel's mother died of tuberculosis and her father left the family. Because of this, the young Chanel spent six years in the orphanage of the Roman Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress. School vacations were spent with relatives in the provincial capital, where female relatives taught her to sew with more flourish than the nuns at the monastery were able to demonstrate. When Chanel turned eighteen, she left the orphanage, and the ambitious young girl took off for the town of Moulins to become a cabaret singer. During this time, Chanel performed in clubs in Vichy and Moulins where she was called “Coco.” Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a “shortened version of cocotte, the French word for ‘kept woman,” according to an article in The Atlantic. While she failed to get steady work as a singer, it was here that she met rich, young French textile heir Étienne Balsan, to whom she soon became an acknowledged mistress, keeping her day job in a tailoring shop.
Balsan lavished on her the beauties of "the rich life": diamonds, dresses and pearls. While living with Balsan, Chanel began designing hats as a hobby, which soon became a deeper interest of hers. "After opening her eyes," as she would say, Coco left Balsan and took over his apartment in Paris.
Chanel became a licensed modiste in 1910 and opened a boutique at 21 rue Cambon, Paris named Chanel Modes. Chanel's modiste career boomed once theatre actress Gabrielle Dorizat modelled her hats in the F Noziere's play Bel Ami in 1912 (Subsequently, Dorizat modelled her hats again in Les Modes). In 1913, she established a boutique in the fashionable seaside town Deauville, where she introduced luxe casual clothes that were suitable for leisure and sport. Chanel launched her career as fashion designer when she opened her next boutique, titled Chanel-Biarritz, in 1915. Fashionable like Deauville, Chanel created loose casual clothes made out of jersey, a material typically used for men's underwear. By 1919, Chanel was registered as a couturiere and established her maison de couture at 31 rue cambon.
Later in life, she concocted an elaborate false history for her humble beginnings. Chanel would steadfastly claim that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to get rich and she was sent to live with two cold-hearted spinster aunts. She even claimed to have been born in 1893 as opposed to 1883, and that her mother had died when Coco was two instead of twelve.
In 1920, she was introduced by ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev to world famous composer Igor Stravinsky (who composed 'The Rite of Spring'), to whom she extended an offer for him and his family to reside with her. During this temporary sojourn it was rumoured that they had an affair.
In 1925, Vera Bate Lombardi, reputedly the illegitimate daughter of the Marquess of Cambridge, became Chanel's muse, and also her liaison to a number of European royal families. Chanel established the English look based upon Lombardi's personal style. Lombardi also had the highest possible social connections. She introduced Chanel to her uncle, the Duke of Westminster, her cousin, the Duke of Windsor, and many other aristocratic families.
In 1939, at the beginning of World War II, Chanel closed her shops. She believed that it was not a time for fashion. She lived in the Hôtel Ritz Paris on and off for more than 30 years, making the hotel her Paris home even during the German occupation. During that time she was criticized for having an affair with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer and Nazi spy who arranged for her to remain in the hotel. She also maintained an apartment above her couture house at 31 rue Cambon and built Villa La Pausa in Roquebrune on the French Riviera.
In 1943, after four years of professional separation, Chanel contacted Lombardi, who was living in Rome. She invited Lombardi to come to Paris and renew their work together. This was actually a cover for "Operation Modellhut", an attempt by Nazi spymaster Walter Schellenberg to make secret contact with Lombardi's relative Winston Churchill. When Lombardi refused, she was arrested as a British spy by the Gestapo. Chanel was later charged as a collaborator, but avoided trial due to an intervention by the British Royal family.
Walter Kutschmann, who was responsible for the murder of thousands of Poland's Jews early in World War II, was transferred to France in 1943 where he became Chanel's Paris SS contact. Chanel was a very close friend of Walter Schellenberg to the extent that when he died penniless of cancer in Milan, Chanel paid for his funeral. Kutschmann made frequent trips to Spain with Chanel with large sums of money passing from Kutschmann to Chanel.
In 1945, she moved to Switzerland, eventually returning to Paris in 1954, the same year she returned to the fashion world. Her new collection did not have much success with the Parisians because of her relationship with the Nazis; However, it was much applauded by the British and Americans, who became her faithful customers.
Chanel had affairs with some of the most influential men of the time, but she never married. The reason may be found in her answer, when asked why she did not marry the Duke of Westminster: "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel."