French fashion icon Coco Chanel went from being a struggling hat maker to being one of the fashion world’s most recognizable names. Over the years, Chanel’s simple, comfortable designs began to change the way 20th-century women dressed, freeing them of the stiff, uncomfortable trends of the past. Today, the empire that Coco built produces some of the most successful and coveted fashion items, headed by designer Karl Lagerfeld.
The woman who would later be known as “Coco,” Gabrielle Chanel, was born in 1883 in France’s central Loire Valley. After working as a milliner for a few years in a Paris hat shop, she opened her own milliner’s shop in 1910 called Chanel Modes and a second Paris store in 1914 with the help of her boyfriend and financier, Arthur “Boy” Capel. In 1917, Coco Chanel presented her first couture collection in Paris. Two years later, the designer’s first couture house opened its doors, giving Coco Chanel a name for herself in the fashion world. In 1921, the couturier (and now fragrance maker) produced its most famous perfume to date, Chanel n°5. By the end of the 1930s, the Chanel business had experienced great success, opening a branch in London in addition to its Paris stores. Yet in 1939, the couture house closed its doors and the company focused on its perfume sales instead.
Paris’s Chanel house of couture reopened in 1954 after Coco Chanel decided she was ready to reimmerse herself in designing and introduced a new collection filled with evening dresses and everyday suits. Three years later, the couture company and its designer were recognized with one of fashion’s highest honors - a Neiman Marcus Oscar for Fashion. In 1969, the life of Chanel’s famous designer Coco was brought to Broadway, starring Katherine Hepburn. In 1971, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel died at the age of 87.
Following Coco Chanel’s death, Gaston Berthelot took the reins as house designer, only to resign two years later and be replaced by a two-person design team, Yvonne Dudel and Jean Cazubon. In 1980, the highly respected Balenciaga assistant Ramon Esparza signed on as a Chanel couture designer. Three years later, German designer Karl Lagerfeld became the company’s head designer and artistic director of Chanel’s couture, ready-to-wear and accessories lines. In the early 1990s, Lagerfeld created a stir in the fashion world by pairing Chanel’s traditional boxy suit jackets with short denim skirts on the runway. The house of Chanel ushered in the new millennium by combining France’s five premier houses of traditional fashion artistry--jewelry makers, embroiderers, shoemakers, milliners and featherers--into a company called Paraffection. Currently, Chanel still has incredible commercial success with its perfume line and has launched “in-between season” ready-to-wear collections and fragrances such as Coco Mademoiselle in efforts to appeal to a younger audience.
Along with the opening of Coco Chanel’s first stores in the early 1900s came the now highly recognizable Chanel logo. The two interlocking Cs (representing the designer’s name) facing opposite one another are now included on nearly all of the fashion house and perfumery’s products. The French couturier’s highly recognizable “Chanel Suit” is a boxy jacket and knee-length skirt combination made in tweeds and silks. Chanel is also known for its quilted leather pattern seen on purses, wallets, and jackets and topped with the company logo.
Coco Chanel was a revolutionary presence in fashion, daring to present her line of dresses and suits in simple silhouettes that lacked the fashionable yet binding corsets and frills of the early 20th century. Once quoted as saying that “simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance,” Chanel popularized a simpler yet incredibly chic style for modern women. Her classic designs are still popular today, and she has often been credited with inspiring the “Little Black Dress,” now a staple in Western women’s wardrobes.