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Coco Chanel

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Gabrielle Chanel was born in the French town of Saumur on the 19th of August 1883. She was one of 5 children and when her mother died; her father couldn’t manage on his own so the girls went to an orphanage and the boys to work on a farm. Gabrielle stayed at the orphanage and visited grandparents on holidays until 1900 when she moved in with them. She went to a local convent school with her aunt Adrienne who was almost the same age as Gabrielle, she remained a valued friend. Gabrielle and Adrienne learned to sew at the convent so were able to get jobs as dress makers when they had finished school. Gabrielle’s earliest ambition was to be on stage and during her time off from work she was a regular cafe and bar singer, through this she gained the nick name Coco from singing her own version of a song called ‘Qui qu’a vu coco?’. Through this circuit Chanel met Etienne Baslan, a wealthy military officer; she became his mistress and went to live with him when she was aged 25. Chanel’s appearance was always very modest and neat, very different to that of Baslan’s rich friends who were always very made up with lace and frills. Baslan owned alot of horses and was into horse racing, Chanel learnt to ride whilst living with him, women traditionally wore side saddle skirts yet Chanel could be found in the same masculine clothes as the stable hands, first showing her rebellion in fashion which eventually translated in her collections. One of Chanels passions was trimming her own shop bought hats and creating a really individual and unique design, these soon became of interest to Baslans rich guests and this was the starting point for Chanels career in fashion. Emilienne d’Aterncon, a socialite, wore one of Chanels hats to the races and this brought her more attention than ever which is when she tried to persuade Baslan to set her up a shop in Paris, to which he refused, he did however agree to allow Chanel to use his own Paris apartment. Here she employed a professional milliner, her sister and two assistants. Chanel struggled financially in Paris until a friend of Baslan’s, Boy, that she had grown very close with, lent her advances to set up the business, he eventually leased her a shop on Rue du Cambon in 1910. The lease for this shop stated that Chanel could not make clothing as there was already a dress maker in the building but clothes had not crosses her mind at this time. After providing hats for many costume departments for theatres and receiving good reviews in the press the business was doing well enough for Chanel to support herself comfortably by 1913. As the First World War broke, Boy took a suite at the Normandy hotel in Deauville; this was a fashionable sea side town that became a summer playground for the rich, many people fled to for safety during the war. Boy arranged for Chanel to open a shop on a fashionable street to which she started making clothing. Typical clothing of this time included an S bend corset which helped the women hold the desired posture, getting dressed was very time consuming and required help from a maid. Chanel introduced relaxed jersey sports suits, these suited women as many no longer had maids and had adopted a much more active lifestyle. Sunbathing was also something that was not practiced by women who guarded their porcelain complexions with large sun hats and parasols, Chanel loved the beach and as her shop was right on the beach front she noticed a market for lifestyle based clothes and acted on it. Whilst watching a polo match Chanel became cold, she borrowed one of the players sweaters, added a belt and felt in the right size this garment could become practical and fashionable which were the main things women were growing to need during the war. Chanels career really flourished during the war, she even took up nursing and made the nurses outfits. As the war progressed, the market in Paris froze and many of the rich headed to Biarrite, Boy and Chanel also headed there and opened a third shop where she began to make haute couture. The first fashion house opened in 1915 and managed to pay Boy back his original 300,000 francs advance that got her started. I find Chanel so inspirational in the ways she changed fashion through the war. She helped women become more comfortable and focus on the more important issues whilst staying fashionable. If it wasn’t for this the fashion world may not be like it is today. By 1916 Chanel’s 3 shops were running well with over 300 staff, her clients included socialites, actresses, singers and even the Spanish royal family came to France for Chanel to dress them. Everything Chanel did made the news as it was so out of the box and ahead of its time, looking at the very early collections you can still see influences from them in today’s clothes. Chanel describes the year 1919 as the year she woke up famous, throughout the 1920’s she dominated the international fashion industry and was officially registered as a couturier. By 1930 Chanel had a 120million franc turnover; the business went from strength to strength and her evening dresses became very ornate and extravagant but day wear still remained very simple and comfortable. Chanel went on strike for 14 years, reasons are not known for sure but the second world war maybe had something to do with it. When Chanel returned she was unknown to this new generation, her designs were seen as old and unfashionable, after receiving bad reviews after her first collection was shown she blamed the journalists for being wrong. Between the years of 1955-57 Chanel experimented with a lot of the colours and fabrics she was familiar with, she created the classic 2.55 bag which is still greatly coveted today as well as the Chanel suit which was stylish and comfortable which remained what was important to women. This again has remained a classic over many years and I am sure will carry on to never go out of style. Chanel continued to work until the day she died in 1971.

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