The Coco Chanel Legacy

Laura Tolentino

Miss Chanel was widely recognized for breaking away from restrictive clothing that defined women’s social status in her day, leaving a lasting legacy that lives on today in classic Chanel suits and little black dresses.

While her designs undoubtedly had an immense influence, Coco Chanel’s life story is also remarkable and captivating.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in Saumur, France to a mother who died young and a father who worked as a street vendor. Gabrielle spent time at an orphanage before joining his sister who taught her sewing lessons. Later she worked in cabarets where her singing earned her money – as well as the nickname Coco that would follow her throughout her life.

Soon thereafter, she quickly launched herself into fashion design using a comfortable new fabric known as jersey – something Karl Lagerfeld continued when he took over as Creative Director for the house in 1983. She used jersey exclusively in all of her designs until Karl Lagerfeld took over creative directorship of her house in 1983 and took it all over.

At the start of World War I, Chanel was still an emerging fashion designer known throughout Europe for her glamorous creations. However, upon realizing the war had begun she quickly came to recognize that high fashion would soon come to a halt and began planning accordingly.

As men left home to join the war effort and women had to fend for themselves, Chanel understood that her business needed to adapt and change in order to remain sustainable.

As soon as she took risks and broke all the rules that had been set for women’s clothes, she began taking risks and challenging everything that had been assumed about what women should wear. She adopted menswear tweed into jersey; designed pajamas specifically tailored for beach use; created waist-eliminating dresses – all while pushing back against femininity’s restrictions; becoming an icon for what modern women should wear and making Chanel suits and little black dresses an integral part of every fashionable woman’s wardrobe for decades afterward.


Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in Saumur, France in 1883. At just twelve years old, Chanel lost both parents due to tuberculosis; and after living with her sisters in poverty until Brive-la-Gaillarde came along where her aunt worked as a seamstress, Chanel relocated there permanently with them.

At age 20, Chanel first took steps towards becoming an iconic fashion figure. She found work at a cabaret, singing poorly-voiced songs but captivating crowds anyway – she quickly gained notice from military officers billeted nearby who quickly nicknamed her Coco, which became part of her identity forevermore.

Chanel was determined to leave behind her humble upbringing, so her aunt taught her the basics of sewing. However, Chanel soon recognized she needed more capital in order to be successful – thus taking up multiple lovers in order to raise this sum of money.

At this point in history, Europe had been devastated by World War I. Many people were pessimistic about their future and abandoned the luxurious styles associated with Belle Epoque period. Chanel saw this cultural shift as an opportunity and became one of the first fashion designers to introduce women’s suits and little black dresses; she was also popular for designing costume jewelry which earned her some income and freedom from poverty. Chanel created simple yet sophisticated clothing designs which often featured sweaters made with jersey fabric-which many wealthy women preferred at that time. Chanel was often considered rebellious against traditional corseted clothes worn by wealthier women at that time.

Early Years

Chanel never admitted it herself, but her story of poverty-to-riches success was truly extraordinary. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France as the daughter of a peddler father and impoverished mother, Gabrielle spent her early years living in single room hovels orphanages until discovering sewing as well as fashion at an early age. Soon enough she realized she needed money in order to be successful on her own and set out on an extraordinary path towards greatness.

At first, she established herself as a seamstress while also performing at a cabaret frequented by cavalry officers. Through her performances of comic songs such as Ko, Ko Ri Ko (Cock-a-Doodle-Doo), Coco quickly earned the name of patrons at this cabaret and would remain her official moniker throughout.

In Paris during this period, she met and fell into a relationship with Etienne Balsan, the heir to a textile fortune. It was he who helped her launch a millinery business which later expanded to stores on Paris’ Rue Cambon and Deauville; additionally he introduced her to Arthur Capel a wealthy English polo player who would become her partner in her fashion empire.

High society connections also allowed Chanel to meet influential individuals like composer Igor Stravinsky, whom she helped financially back for his 1920 production of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Furthermore, Chanel had a long-running affair with Duke Westminster as well as friendships with Winston Churchill prior to and post WWII leadership. Chanel retired from couture business in 1938 but 16 years later decided to reenter it and launch a new collection. Her return proved an immediate hit as audiences welcomed feminine yet easy-fitting designs well received by public audiences alike.

Life in Paris

In 1910, Chanel moved to Paris to pursue her career, teaming up with Etienne Balsan to establish a millinery business along Rue Cambon. Chanel first started by creating hats – her early designs proved popular among actresses of her day; using an established pattern as her foundation while adding variations and embellishments for her signature style. Soon thereafter she also began producing perfumes; in 1921, CHANEL No.5 was released, its name possibly due to receiving five samples of it from Russian-born French perfumer Ernest Beaux!

By the time World War I broke out, Chanel was enjoying great success in her career. She had become a celebrity, which gave her great confidence and self-esteem a boost; unfortunately, however, her good fortune quickly came to an end due to rising tensions across Europe, which ultimately lead to war being declared.

As men went off to war, women must step into the breach. Chanel recognized this and adjusted her designs to meet the needs of this new era; here she established herself as an industry pioneer.

Chanel created an effortless, androgynous silhouette with loose shapes, oversized jackets, wide-leg trousers, and dresses designed to allow women freedom of movement in them. She held that “Nothing is more beautiful than freedom of the body”, making her designs a form of female liberation; today her designs live on, including her iconic interlocking “C” logo and iconic little black dress which can still be found among us today.


“Fashion fades, style remains” was Coco Chanel’s famous catchphrase – and this statement remains as true now, nearly seventy years after she died. Her boxy tweed twin sets, quilted leather bags and ballerina pumps remain iconic even decades after first created by their designer.

Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, better known as Coco, was one of the most revolutionary fashion designers of the twentieth century. Her designs freed women from restrictive corsets, and introduced sleeker silhouettes with jet black crepe as her trademark fabric. Coco also became an entrepreneur who built her own empire; her raw yet tragic life story inspired many books, plays and films, including Katharine Hepburn’s 1970 film Coco.

Chanel had several partners throughout her life, which was not unusual at that time for women. She romantically linked to Etienne Balsan, heir to a textile fortune; then began a nine-year affair with Arthur Capel, an English polo player. Following the death of Chanel’s mother in 1895, Chanel raised herself and two sisters by herself.

Chanel maintained business as usual during World War II in Paris despite most residents fleeing, remaining to maintain business as usual and striking up an affair with an influential German military attache, Baron Hans Gunter von Dincklage. To what extent she cooperated with Nazis is unknown; recently declassified documents suggest she helped train SS soldiers as well as providing luxury items like lingerie and perfume to them – though she herself was Jewish, she used her connections to avoid prosecution.