Considered by many to be the mother of modern fashion, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was the first fashion designer to create clothes that matched emerging attitudes of women for greater freedom and independence. Born in France around 1883, Coco’s first step toward a life in the fashion industry was a job at a hatmaker’s shop in Deauville, France, where she worked until 1912. At thirty-one years old, she struck out on her own, opening her very own shop featuring streamlined and unfussy wool jersey dresses. Strikingly new, her simple style caught on quickly. Chanel’s success with the dresses and the celebratory atmosphere following World War I encouraged her to really go to town with smartly cut suits, sophisticated short skirts, and bold, chunky jewelry designed at her very own couture house in Paris!
In 1922, she created Chanel #5, the perfume every woman wanted, named for her lucky number; to this day, it remains one of the all-time favorite perfumes. Chanel’s innovations are legendary—costume jewelry, evening scarves, short skirts, and the little black dress all came from the steel-trap mind of Coco Chanel. She retired in 1938, but got bored and staged a remarkably successful comeback in the mid-fifties.
Coco, the ultimate Frenchwoman, never married, but seemed to be utterly happy with her career as an independent businesswoman, in charge of her own time and her own life. She makes America’s Horatio Alger look shabby—the daughter of a vagabond street peddler, she was raised in orphanages and went on to found an empire, live a busy glamorous life, and leave behind a legacy that will last forever. The idol of practically everyone in the industry, Coco Chanel was the epitome of the modern woman. Yves St. Laurent once called her “The Godmother of us all,” and French surrealist Jean Cocteau remarked, “(Coco Chanel) has, by a kind of miracle, worked in fashion according to rules that would seem to have value for painters, musicians, poets.”
“There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but there is only one Coco Chanel.”
— Coco Chanel on why she rejected a famous suitor