Born August 19, 1883 as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in France, her mother died when she was very young. Her father, unable to care for her and her five siblings, gave the children over to relatives whom raised them.
When Gabrielle was about 20, she took work as a café singer, she took the stage name of Coco, and later became a mistress of several wealthy and powerful men. It was through these contacts that she was able to start up her own shop in France, and pursue her career as a designer.
In 1913, she opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, followed by another in the resort town of Deauville. Her line was hats and a limited line of garments for women. Most of the clothing Coco designed was made of jersey, at the time, it was inexpensive, yet it wore well and suited her designs. Coco had set out to design simple, practical and easy to wear clothing for the woman of the era.
With the onset of the war in 1914, her designs became even more popular, as women were abandoning their corsets because of the impracticality during the war. By the 1920’s, her business had flourished as more women took to her new fashion trends.
Coco had modernized the world with her line of clothes designed after men’s wear. She felt the style was more comfortable and women found them liberating. Her line soon expanded to include simple suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textiles.
In 1921 along with the great perfumer, Ernest Beaux created this mythical perfume, Chanel No. 5. Coco met this designer through her then Russian beau, Grand Duke Dmitri. Ernest Beaux actually made more than 20 fragrances for her and it was the fifth one that Coco liked. In 1924, she took on a partner in the perfume business. Chanel No. 5 remains today as the most famous perfume ever made and the top most selling perfume in the world.
In 1925, she introduced her cardigan jacket and 1926 her famous “little black dress”, which took the world by storm.
The World War would cause her to close the doors to her shops in 1939 as France declared war on Germany. Following the end of the war and after resolving some personal issues, Coco again ventured into the designer’s arena to compete this time with young new designers such as Christian Dior.
Coco brought back her style of comfortable wearing apparel for the liberated women. She had to overcome several hurdles to make her way back into the public market after an absence of almost 14 years. In 1953, she introduced her comeback collection, although it was not an immediate success, within a few years she was again leading the pack with her tweed designs, worn by wealthy women and becoming a status symbol among all. Coco also reintroduced her handbags, jewelry, and shoes with great success in subsequent seasons.
On January 10, 1971, Coco Chanel died in France; several of her assistants continued the business until 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld took over as chief designer of Chanel’s fashion house.