She was born in 1883 in a hospice for the poor in the Loire Valley, to unwed parents of peasant stock and, when her mother died, at age 12 she was placed in a convent-orphanage to be raised by Roman Catholic nuns.
She was put to work as a seamstress at 20 and took the name Coco from a song she liked to sing in a rowdy café patronized by cavalry officers.
One ex-officer installed her in his chateau, taught her to conduct herself with high style on horseback and gave her the skill she needed to make her way through society.
He introduced her to Arthur (Boy) Capel who soon became Chanel’s first great love and, who also set her up in a Paris apartment and helped her start her first business venture, designing sleek simple women’s hats.
She caroused with Igor Stravinsky and Pablo Picasso, designed costumes for the Ballet Russes and amused herself with the cash-poor White Russian aristocracy.
As her personal fortunes rose, she turned her attention to making serious inroads into British high society, befriending Winston Churchill and the Prince of Wales and becoming the mistress of The Duke of Westminster and Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor (known as Bendor), the wealthiest man in England.
Their anti-Semitism was well documented. The pro-Nazi sensibilities of the Duke of Windsor and many of his circle have long been noted too.
It wasn’t much of a stretch for Chanel during wartime to find herself the mistress of German intelligence officer Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a charming character who had spied on the French fleet in the late 1920’s.
While not officially charged, Chanel suffered in the court of public opinion. Some still viewed her relationship with a Nazi officer as a betrayal of her country. She left Paris, spending some years in Switzerland in a sort of exile.
She met the wealthy Duke of Westminster aboard his yacht around 1923 and the two began a decades-long relationship. In response to his marriage proposal, she reportedly said, ‘There have been several Duchesses of Westminster-but there is only one Chanel!’
During the 1920’s, Coco Chanel became the first designer to create loose women’s jerseys, traditionally used for men’s underwear, creating a relaxed style for women ignoring the stiff corseted look of the time. She became a style icon herself with her striking bob haircut and tan placing her at the cutting edge of modern style.
In 1922 she launched the fragrance Chanel No. 5 which remains popular to this day.
In 1925 she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Another revolutionary design was Chanel’s little black dress. She took a colour once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for evening wear.
The Little Black Dress continues to be a staple part of every Chanel collection
The International economic depression of the 1930’s had a negative impact on her business, but it was the outbreak of World War 11 that led Chanel to close her business. She fired her workers and shut down her shops.
After the war she was interrogated about her relationship with von Dincklage but she was not charged as a collaborator and some have wondered if her friendship with Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on Chanel’s behalf.
At the age of 70, Chanel made a triumph return to the fashion world. She first received scathing reviews from the critics but her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world.
Chanel’s fascinating life story became the basis for the Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn as the legendary designer. The show received 7 Tony Award nominations and Cecil Beaton won for Best Costume Design and Rene Auberjonois for Best Featured Actor.
Coco Chanel worked until her death in 1971 at the age of 88, living in the lap of luxury in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz. She never married.
A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeld took the reins at her company to continue the Chanel legacy.