Even if you’re not a fashion maven, you’re likely to recognize the name Coco Chanel. Born Gabrielle Chanel in 1883, Coco Chanel is one of the icons of fashion design, especially known for her famous Chanel suits, with boxy button up jackets and knee length skirts. This particular design has a place in American history since it was one of the favorite dress options of Jackie Kennedy.
Coco Chanel wasn’t born into a fashion family, but instead was born in poverty. In her early career, it appeared that performance rather than fashion would be her forte. She pursued a brief career as a nightclub singer, where she earned her nickname Coco, before turning to fashion design.
Her first attempts in fashion were in millinery, the making and or selling of hats. She opened a store in Paris in 1913 and sold a few items of clothing too. In her early years as a designer, she favored using wool jersey, since it was inexpensive to purchase and draped beautifully. As a stylist, her early clothing designs were based on the number of women entering the workforce, and her clothing seemed based primarily on menswear cuts. She also designed for 1920s women who were finally abandoning corsets.
By the mid 1920s, Coco Chanel was known specifically for not only her working woman’s wear but also for “the little black dress” that now most women feel a wardrobe would be incomplete without. In this time period, Chanel opened her main shop in Paris on the Rue Cambon. The Chanel Company is still located there today.
When World War II struck France, especially with German occupation of Paris, Coco Chanel stopped designing for a time. Known for her passionate affairs with numerous men, an affair at that time nearly ended her career permanently. A German spy and soldier, Hans Gunther von Dincklage, aided her in remaining in her Paris hotel, and Paris could not easily forgive Chanel for this association and liaison.
Known for her ability to recreate herself, Coco Chanel finally made a huge fashion comeback when she returned to Paris from Switzerland in 1954. Her new success can be especially attributed to the creation of the Chanel suit, which was popularized by not only Europeans but also by several prominent American actresses, like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly. During her lengthy career, Chanel is credited with numerous “firsts.” She was among the first to add accessory lines to her design house; she created perfume, and jewelry in addition to clothing. She may also have invented and introduced the first bell-bottom pants.
Coco Chanel never retired, and was still creating and working when she died in 1971. Since 1983, The House of Chanel has been aptly run by Karl Lagerfeld who continues to follow her dictates of simplicity as style in fashion. Chanel suits, which have never gone out of style, are in high demand, particularly if they are the vintage creations of their original designer.