“There is no time for cut and dried monotony”, confessed Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel. “There is time for work. And there is time for love. That leaves no other time.”
Gabrielle Chanel devoted her life to these two categories, and she gave herself completely to both. She arguably had the greatest impact on fashion in the 20th century. Yet, the woman behind the famous Chanel suit and little black dress, among other things, is not as known to the new generation of fashionisti. She is an icon worth discovering, not just for the enormous contributions she gave to the world of fashion, but also for her insight that indiscriminately brings luxury and elegance into the very way we live.
Gabrielle Chanel’s severely humble beginnings may have been the counterweight that balanced a wildly luxurious future. Born 1883 in Saumur, France, Chanel was one of three daughters of unmarried and extremely poor peasant parents.
Chanel was only six years old when her mother died; she and four siblings were abandoned by her father with relatives, and at age 11 she was raised in an orphanage. Her eye for simple luxuries would sharpen during these formative years, and it was that perspective that counseled fashionable people for the following 50 years.
Her fashion career began during the war, when she unexpectedly created a fashion buzz by altering sailor’s jackets and men’s pullovers for women. During WW1, the infantile fashion industry would come to a standstill for several years. During this time Chanel served as a nurse in the war.
In 1912, Coco Chanel (a nickname given to her during her brief attempt at a singing career), would open her first millinery shop in Deauville. Her hat designs were popular among the fashionable and moneyed, and it was this progressive new demographic that would turn to Chanel for an alternative to the demanding and uncomfortable fashions around at that time.
Her use of jersey, which previously was used only for men’s underwear, created a certain resistance among her fellow designers at the time. Especially the famed couturier Poiret, whose desire to conform female anatomy by abolishing corsets and petticoats would slowly haunt him as his concepts felt dated next to the new generation of designers.
In 1932, Poiret raged about the new designers in his book En Habillant L’Opaque. He says “it has profited them considerably, but at the same time they have forfeited the title couturier and fashion creator,” and, “they have let the lights go out and they can never be relit.”
After the war, a new world had indeed arrived. Chanel designed clothes for the woman of that world.
Chanel’s designs were instantly popular because she created clothes that were delightfully wearable and allowed women to move and feel free in them. Her revolution was hardly limited to the way she put fabric together.
“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only,” she said. “Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
Chanel used simplicity as her medium, bringing with it an elegance that may surprise even the most loyal Chanel customers.
“I make fashions women can live in, breathe in, feel comfortable in and feel younger in,” she has said.
Elegance was more of a freedom, not a restriction like the tight corsets and unbearable fashions that came before her. It’s almost ironic that Karl Lagerfeld would take on the house of Chanel in 1983, with the infamous edge and favor for designing un-wearable fashion.
While most designers to this day wage war on imitators, Chanel was delighted by it saying “a fashion that does not reach the streets is not a fashion”.
She used the medium jersey with such enthusiasm that she eventually opened a jersey factory in 1935, and sold the fabric to merchants liberally.
Chanel charmed the American buyers with her boyish fashions, which instantly segued her fashions into films. Her contribution of the little black dress and the Chanel suit were already the new standard by World War II, when the raging fashion world in Paris would come to a stop for Chanel.
Her affair with a Nazi officer hurt her reputation and she had an exile of sorts in Switzerland for nearly fifteen years. During this time, her classic suit would continue to flourish. She re-opened her house in 1954. The comeback was not an instant one, as her reviews were shaky at best.
Her new collection was not new at all, she showed the designs she had been working on before she closed her house in 1939. Women had missed her clothes, and it was a new American market that immediately embraced her clothes. Chanel watched her creations flourish until her death at age 71.
“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone,” she once said.
The impact of Chanel is arguably one of the heaviest fashion has ever seen, but there is also much to learn from her simple philosophies about love and life. Her designs were a window into her world, where luxury was freedom, and without it one’s experience of the world was limited.
The bright and modern Chanel boutique in Paris is tucked away in the most prestigious quarter of the Place de Vendome. It’s easy to estimate a certain air of snobbery upon entering the prestigious, big name boutiques on the rue St Honore, but not at Chanel. The staff is otherworldly warm, and although it sounds strange to say, given the city, they genuinely seem delighted to have you and to invite you into the world of Chanel.
Her classic designs have been updated to have the same impact on consumers as they did when she first created them. Some of us may be intrigued by the classic designs, however muted in color, but often had a hard time embracing them with the feverish mania that we so yearned for. The Chanel of the new millennium caters to a rising generation, with often hard core looking pieces of jewelry that even Garrards could envy.
Is it still Chanel? With the stereotypical strands of fake pearls draped over a light jersey dress? Yes and no. It’s from the same philosophy, even if the clothes are less than reminiscent of the classics. Chanel seemed to have known what was to come, conceding once that “fashion is made to become unfashionable.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrates the life of Chanel from May 5 to Aug. 7. You can celebrate the life and legacy of Coco Chanel every time you experience freedom: freedom to love, to move freely in your life and to celebrate the way we live. That is one fashion that should never go out of style.