What year did Coco Chanel start designing?

Early Success

Among the key designers who made a bold and lasting impression on women's fashion in the twentieth century, Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel (1883-1971) deserves special recognition. Born in Saumur, in the Loire Valley of France, Chanel survived an impoverished childhood and strict convent education. The difficulties of her early life inspired her to pursue a radically different lifestyle, first on the stage, where she acquired the nickname "Coco," and then as a milliner.


With the help of one of the male admirers who would provide key financial assistance and social connections over the course of her career, Chanel opened her first shop in Paris in 1913, followed by another in the resort town of Deauville. Selling hats and a limited line of garments, Chanel's shops developed a dedicated clientele who quickly made her practical sportswear a great success. Much of Chanel's clothing was made of jersey, a choice of fabric both unusual and inspired. Until the designer began to work with it, jersey was more commonly used for men's underwear. With her financial situation precarious in the early years of her design career, Chanel purchased jersey primarily for its low cost. The qualities of the fabric, however, ensured that the designer would continue to use it long after her business became profitable. The fabric draped well and suited Chanel's designs, which were simple, practical, and often inspired by men's wear, especially the uniforms prevalent when World War I broke out in 1914

As her fashion-conscious customers fled Paris at the beginning of the war, Chanel's boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz flourished. Chanel's uncluttered styles, with their boxy lines and shortened skirts, allowed women to leave their corsets behind and freed them for the practical activities made necessary by the war. Elements of these early designs became hallmarks of the Chanel look (1975.7; 1984.28a-c; 1976.29.7) Chanel took great pride as a woman in designing for other women, and by 1919, at the age of thirty-two, she enjoyed huge success, with clients around the world. Soon after, she relocated her couture house in Paris to 31 Rue Cambon, which remains the center of operations for the House of Chanel today.

A Style Icon
Chanel's own lifestyle fueled her ideas of how modern women everywhere should look, act, and dress. Her own slim boyish figure and cropped hair became an ideal, as did her tanned skin, active lifestyle, and financial independence. Throughout her career, Chanel succeeded in packaging and marketing her own personal attitudes and style, making her a key arbiter of women's taste throughout the twentieth century.

The designer's passionate interests inspired her fashions. Her apartment and her clothing followed her favorite color palette, shades of beige, black, and white (1978.165.16a,b; 1984.30). Elements from her art collection and theatrical interests likewise provided themes for her collections (C.I.65.47.2a,b). When Chanel attended a masquerade ball dressed as a figure from a Watteau painting, she later reworked the costume into a woman's suit (C.I.54.16.1a,b). She hired Russian émigrés from her circle of friends to work in her embroidery workshop, creating designs to her exacting specifications. Known for a relentless drive for perfection, whether in design or fit, and strong opinions in all matters of taste, Chanel backed her clothing with the authority of her personal conviction.

Chanel continued to create successful looks for women through the 1920s and '30s. In 1926, American Voguelikened Chanel's "little black dress" to the Ford, alluding to its almost universal popularity as a fashion basic. In fact, the concept of the dress suitable for day and evening did become both a staple for Chanel throughout subsequent seasons and a classic piece of twentieth-century women's wear (1984.28a-c). The designer also used colorful feminine printed chiffons in her daywear designs (1984.31a-c). Evening ensembles followed the long slim line for which the designer was known, but also incorporated tulle, lace, and decorative elements that soften and romanticize the overall look of the garment (1978.165.16a,b; C.I.46.4.7a-c).

The Closure and the Comeback
Despite her great success, Chanel closed the doors of her salon in 1939, when France declared war on Germany. Other couturiers left the country, but Chanel endured the war in Paris, her future uncertain. Following the end of the hostilities and resolution of some personal difficulties, Chanel found she could not idly stand by and observe the early success of Christian Dior, whose "New Look" prevailed in the postwar period. While many admired Dior's celebration of femininity, with full skirts and nipped-in waists, Chanel felt his designs were neither modern nor suitable for the liberated women who had survived another war by taking on active roles in society. Just as she had following World War I, Chanel set out to rescue and reinvigorate women's fashion.

The designer faced challenges in this endeavor: securing finances, assembling a new staff, seeking out new fabrics, competing at age seventy against a new generation of designers. Chanel's comeback collection of couture debuted in 1953 (1976.370.2a-c). Although it was not a critical success, the designer persevered. Within three seasons, Chanel was enjoying newfound respect. She updated her classic looks, reworking the classic tweed designs until wealthy women and celebrities returned to the showroom in droves. The Chanel suit became a status symbol for a new generation, made of solid or tweed fabric, with its slim skirt and collarless jacket trimmed in braid, gold buttons, patch pockets, and-sewn into the hem-a gold-colored chain ensuring it hung properly from the shoulders. Chanel also reintroduced her handbags, jewelry, and shoes with great success in subsequent seasons.

The Legacy Continues
Following Chanel's death in 1971, several of her assistants designed the couture and ready-to-wear lines until Karl Lagerfeld (born 1938) took over the haute couture design in 1983 and ready-to-wear in 1984. Lagerfeld, like Chanel at the time of her comeback, looked to past designs for the secret to his success. His designs incorporated signature Chanel details, tweed fabrics, colors, gold chains, quilt-stitched leather, and the linked "CC" logo. In later collections, Lagerfeld became more irreverent, deconstructing some of the ladylike polish of Chanel's 1960s looks. Playing with the fact that Chanel's favorite jersey fabric had been used for men's underwear at the turn of the twentieth century, Lagerfeld even incorporated men's T-shirts and briefs into his designs (1993.104.2a-c). Nonetheless, Lagerfeld's ability to continuously mine the Chanel archive for inspiration testifies to the importance of Gabrielle Chanel's contributions to women's fashion in the twentieth century.
 

Synopsis

Fashion designer Coco Chanel, born August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France, is famous for her timeless designs, trademark suits, and little black dresses. Chanel was raised in an orphanages and taught to sew. She had a brief career as a singer before opening her first clothes shop in 1910. In the 1920s, she launched her first perfume and introduced the Chanel suit and the little black dress.
Fashion designer. Born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France. With her trademark suits and little black dresses, Coco Chanel created timeless designs that are still popular today. She herself became a much revered style icon known for her simple yet sophisticated outfits paired with great accessories, such as several strands of pearls. As Chanel once said,"luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury."

Her early years, however, were anything but glamorous. After her mother's death, Chanel was put in an orphanage by her father who worked as a peddler. She was raised by nuns who taught her how to sew-a skill that would lead to her life's work. Her nickname came from another occupation entirely. During her brief career as a singer, Chanel performed in clubs in Vichy and Moulins where she was called "Coco." Some say that the name comes from one of the songs she used to sing, and Chanel herself said that it was a "shortened version of cocotte, the French word for 'kept woman," according to an article in The Atlantic.  

Fashion Pioneer

Around the age of 20, Chanel became involved with Etienne Balsan who offered to help her start a millinery business in Paris. She soon left him for one of his even wealthier friends, Arthur "Boy" Capel. Both men were instrumental in Chanel's first fashion venture.
Opening her first shop on Paris's Rue Cambon in 1910, Chanel started out selling hats. She later added stores in Deauville and Biarritz and began making clothes. Her first taste of clothing success came from a dress she fashioned out of an old jersey on a chilly day. In response to the many people who asked about where she got the dress, she offered to make one for them. "My fortune is built on that old jersey that I'd put on because it was cold in Deauville," she once told author Paul Morand.
In the 1920s, Chanel took her thriving business to new heights. She launched her first perfume, Chanel No. 5, which was the first to feature a designer's name. Perfume "is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion. . . . that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure," Chanel once explained.
In 1925, she introduced the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt. Her designs were revolutionary for the time-borrowing elements of men's wear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular fashions. She helped women say good-bye to the days of corsets and other confining garments.
Another 1920s revolutionary design was Chanel's little black dress. She took a color once associated with mourning and showed just how chic it could be for eveningwear. In addition to fashion, Chanel was a popular figure in the Paris literary and artistic worlds. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and for Jean Cocteau's playOrphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends. For a time, Chanel had a relationship with composer Igor Stravinsky.  

Lovelief and Scandal

Another important romance for Chanel began in the 1920s. She met the wealthy duke of Westminster aboard his yacht around 1923, and the two started a decades-long relationship. In response to his marriage proposal, she reportedly said "There have been several Duchesses of Westminster-but there is only one Chanel!"
The international economic depression of the 1930s had a negative impact on her company, but it was the outbreak of World War II that led Chanel to close her business. She fired her workers and shut down her shops. During the German occupation of France, Chanel got involved with a German military officer, Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She got special permission to stay in her apartment at the Hotel Ritz. After the war ended, Chanel was interrogated by her relationship with von Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator. Some have wondered whether friend Winston Churchill worked behind the scenes on Chanel's behalf.
While not officially charged, Chanel suffered in the court of public opinion. Some still viewed her relationship with a Nazi officer as a betrayal of her country. Chanel left Paris, spending some years in Switzerland in a sort of exile. She also lived at her country house in Roquebrune for a time.
At the age of 70, Chanel made a triumphant return to the fashion world. She first received scathing reviews from critics, but her feminine and easy-fitting designs soon won over shoppers around the world.
 

Legacy

In 1969, Chanel's fascinating life story became the basis for the Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn as the legendary designer. Alan Jay Lerner wrote the book and lyrics for the show's song while Andre Prévin composed the music. Cecil Beaton handled the set and costume design for the production. The show received seven Tony Award nominations, and Beaton won for Best Costume Design and René Auberjonois for Best Featured Actor.
Coco Chanel died on January 10, 1971, at her apartment in the Hotel Ritz. She never married, having once said "I never wanted to weigh more heavily on a man than a bird." Hundreds crowded together at the Church of the Madeleine to bid farewell to the fashion icon. In tribute, many of the mourners wore Chanel suits.
A little more than a decade after her death, designer Karl Lagerfeldtook the reins at her company to continue the Chanel legacy. Today her namesake company continues to thrive and is believed to generate hundreds of millions in sales each year.
In addition to the longevity of her designs, Chanel's life story continues to captivate people's attention. There have been several biographies of the fashion revolutionary, including Chanel and Her World (2005) written by her friend Edmonde Charles-Roux.
In the recent television biopic, Coco Chanel (2008), Shirley MacLaine starred as the famous designer around the time of her 1954 career resurrection. The actress told WWD that she had long been interested in playing Chanel. "What's wonderful about her is she's not a straightforward, easy woman to understand."