Four years later, Coco Chanel introduced her line of clothing, which was masculine in style, sporty and displayed clean, functional lines. Her ability to foresee this ‘trend’ made her clothing an instant success. In 1923, she launched the Chanel Suit, composed of a skirt and a short, masculine-looking jacket. It has never gone out of style and is worn by millions of professional women throughout the world today. So, too, is Chanel’s little black dress, a starkly simple, close-fitting one-piece garment. This dress defined and illustrated haute couture.
Coco’s visionary designs changed not only the way women dressed, and the way they looked, but also the way they behaved. The tight, binding chains of prim prudishness dissolved, to be replaced by flamboyant minimalism. This change in female behavior, in turn, changed the attitudes of men.
Chanel No. 5, Chanel’s eponymous perfume, was devised by Ernie Beaux and built upon the scent of aldhehydes. Its ingredients were all artificial, made in a laboratory. A total break from the natural model of perfumes which prevailed up until this point. The success of Chanel No. 5 is difficult to quantify. The best way to put it into perspective is this: one bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every thirty seconds.
Yet Coco Chanel reaped only a small amount of money from her perfume’s arrival. This was because her partner in the fragrance, Pierre Wertheimer, owned seventy percent of the undertaking. Chanel owned a paltry ten percent.
Nevertheless, Chanel No. 5 consolidated the merger between perfume and fashion: both became valuable commodities.
By her decision to become a courtesan years before, Coco Chanel vaulted from social exile to arbiter of style for the financially elite of the world.
The architectonics of success: by 1935 the House of Chanel employed over four thousand people, and owned large commercial properties. As the advent of World War II approached, once again, Chanel, like the prophets of old, experienced a vision and foresaw a trend. She acted accordingly. She retired. No more haute couture, relegating her business to perfume only. It was 1939.
Chanel lived in luxury at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. During the German occupation of Paris, she continued to live there. This wonderment was made possible by her liaison with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a high ranking Nazi. Coco became his mistress. Additionally, she was allowed to keep her apartment above her couture house, and constructed a home on the French Riviera. She called the house Villa La Pausa.
After the war, Coco Chanel was accused of collaboration, arrested, and quickly released because of who she was and her social network. Tarnished both by her actions and the accusations, she immediately moved to Switzerland, taking her wealth with her.
In 1954, fifteen years later, after the stigma had faded, without qualm, at the age of seventy-one, Coco returned to the world of haute couture. Her resuscitation, akin to that of Lazarus, was astonishing. Her new line of clothing transcended anything she had done before. The world of high-fashion gave her obeisance.
The next year she exhibited her quilted handbag with shoulder strap. This handbag was considered another incredible virtuosity of her genius. In 1970, Coco unveiled a new perfume, No. 19. Its numerical designation mirrors her birthdate.
January 10, 1971, Coco Chanel died in Paris. Her body was transported to Switzerland for interment.
The House of Chanel, the company that Coco built, lives on and thrives. The effluvium of position and wealth still surrounds the name of Chanel. Now the company markets men’s colognes, a pret-a-porter line of clothing, watches, costume jewelry, fine jewelry, sunglasses, designer eyeglass frames, and shoes.
Yet it must be acknowledged that the glamour of all the haute couture houses has dissipated because of crass hype and commercialism. The grand personalities such as Coco Chanel are no more; these are faded times despite what the media would have us believe. With charismatic personages there is a sense of imminence, with commercialism there is only the bizarre multiplicity of the newest thing to buy.
In her day Coco Chanel was a notorious reality. Driven by exaggerated ambition, a commitment which could not be interrupted, she cultivated style and nurtured her advantages: beauty, an innate sense of style, and sex.
Trapped by her birth, her family, and her society she elected to become a courtesan to survive. Through sheer manipulation she opened a small millinery shop which burgeoned into a vast international corporation. Rather than lose everything she had striven for and leave Paris, she took a Nazi lover during World War II. In 1952 she bought her name out of the memoirs of Walter Schellenberg, who was Heinrich Himmler’s assistant. This was necessary to save her already questionable reputation.
Then she relocated to Lausanne in Switzerland until time dusted over her blemish and her dignity healed. Her biographers cite many reasons for her return to haute couture: fear for her personal wealth, the general state of fashion, even boredom.
Please! Coco Chanel, like everyone, needed and wanted to be loved. And if you’re wealthy, beautiful and successful, then you feel as if you’re worthy of love. And if you engage in high-profile affairs with wealthy and successful men, then you suppose your goal is attained. But it is a false serenity riddled with holes, because it isn’t love, it’s just a mirage floating before your eyes.
That was Chanel. She was addicted to being needed, to being the center of attention, to being a star – the love junkie’s fix.
None of it worked. Oh yes, she was glamorous and rich and famous. She set the fashion. But it was all an inarticulate cry of utter desolation. For she was not loved, and with one exception, the person of Boy Capel, she seemed incapable of giving love.
In the end, it is easier to simply say she did what she had to do to survive. But that is inept. The reality is this: she was always performing, and she became her performance. Even her middle name, Bonheur, was made up – another performance. Her birth certificate says Gabrielle Chanel.
She lost herself somewhere in there.