One of the most famous fashion designers of all time, Gabrielle “Coco” Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 in Saumur, France. Raised in an orphanage and taught how to sew at a young age, Chanel had a brief career as a singer in nightclubs, where she picked up the name “Coco.” She opened her first shop, on Paris’s Rue Cambon, in 1910 and began by selling hats. By 1920, she had ventured into clothes making, opening up two additional shops in Deauville and Biarritz. Her early clothing creations including the popular jersey dress, fashioned by the designer as a way to keep warm on a particularly cold day. Another popular design was the iconic “little black dress,” transforming a color worn in mourning to one that was synonymous with chic. With these and other creations, Chanel transformed the fashion world of the day, which was characterized by constricting garments for women. Instead, Chanel created simple yet sophisticated fashions made for a woman’s comfort. The designer’s early ready-to-wear women’s clothing line included blouses, suits, trousers and dresses coupled with elegant jewelry.
Later in the 1920s, Chanel would launch her iconic perfume, Chanel No. 5. In 1925, the legendary Chanel suit, a collarless jacket design paired with a tailored skirt, was created. By this time, the young designer that came from humble beginnings became the toast of the literary and artistic world, gaining friendship with the likes of artist Pablo Picasso, playwright Jean Cocteau, and composer Igor Stravinsky, whom she also dated. By this time, Chanel was also creating costumes for the stage and screen, clothing movie stars like Gloria Swanson, Greta Garbo, and Marlene Dietrich.
The 1930s saw the release of the still-celebrated Chanel bag, a classic handbag made with a thin shoulder chain, which would become the basic model for the many handbag creations to come. Later versions of the vintage Chanel bag would include the crossed C’s that would become the company’s logo. Along with stylish yet functional clothing designs and elegant, hands-free luxury bags, Chanel launched a line of costume jewelry splayed with fine gem stones in bold, theatrical patterns. But despite the success of her clothing, handbag and jewelry lines, the outbreak of World War II and the economic depression that followed forced Chanel to close her company and leave Paris later in the decade. She moved to Switzerland, where she lived for several years.
In 1954, Chanel returned to the fashion world at the age of 70 by presenting a new line of women’s clothing that was feminine while still maintaining ease of movement for the wearer. This sensible yet chic style incorporated elements of the masculine contrasted with feminine complements like strands of pearls and quilted designs (seen in the brand’s clothing and handbag creations). This balance continues to characterize the Chanel brand to this day, though Chanel herself died in 1971 and Karl Lagerfield is now the fashion house’s chief designer. Lagerfield has continued Chanel’s legacy style by taking traditional Chanel elements such as tweed, gold accents, and metal chains, and incorporating them into designs for the modern era. The Chanel name continues to be one of the world’s most recognizable fashion brands, as vintage Chanel handbags, jewelry and clothing continues to be sought-after by fashion aficionados the world over.