Gabrielle, later Coco, Chanel was born in 1883 in the poorhouse in which her mother worked. These humble surroundings, which she was to notoriously vague about, characterised her early life.
Gabrielle’s mother died when she was still a child, and she was virtually abandoned by her father who was a travelling salesman. She went into the orphanage of the
Catholic monastery of Aubazine, and it was here that she learnt the trade of a seamstress from the nuns.
The nuns even lined up a job as a seamstress for the young Gabrielle, but she rejected this path and instead attempted to make a career as a singer in cafes.
It was in this brief flirtation with show-business that she acquired the nickname Coco, and the relationships she formed there, particularly her relationship with playboy Etienne Balsan, eventually meant she had the finances to move to Paris and open her own shop.
Another acquaintance of Coco’s backed her expansion from hats to clothes, and financed the opening of shops in the coastal resorts of Deauville and Biarritz.
However, her phenomenal success from this point was down to her talent and hard work. Her designs caught the public’s attention and the shops quickly expanded. She was the first designer to use jersey in the 1920s and her clothes were incredibly popular with women tired of corseted fashions, attracted to the more mannish fashions preferred by Chanel.
The launch of Chanel No 5, the first fragrance to be named after a designer, and a huge boost to her brand, as well as her iconic little black dress, sealed her success, and she became arguably the
most important figure in the history of 20th century fashion.