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Chapter 1 Coco Chanel
‘Fashion is not just about dresses; fashion is something in the air. Fashion is in the sky, the street. Fashion is about ideas, the way we live, what is happening.’
At the start of the twentieth century, the idea of women in business seemed crazy. In those days, men held all the positions of power and made all the decisions about money. They believed that a woman’s place was in the home, looking after her children, cooking for her family and managing the house. If a woman needed to work she could perhaps find a job in a shop or in a factory, but she had no chance of working as a businesswoman or a banker or a lawyer.
Women’s fashions in the US and Europe at that time
supported this idea of their position in society. Fashionable women wore long dresses that almost touched the ground. This made it difficult for them to drive a car, ride a horse or even walk quickly. As a result, they needed men to arrange their travel for them. A fashionable woman was also expected to keep her skin as white as possible to show that she didn’t work outside in the sun. This meant that women spent a lot of time indoors.
When they went out, they often wore large hats that were decorated with flowers, leaves and fruit. These protected their faces from the sun and made it even more difficult for them to move around.
But many women weren’t happy with their position in
society, and they didn’t like the clothes they had to wear either.
One of these people was a Frenchwoman called Gabrielle ‘Coco’
Chanel. When she went into business in 1910, she planned to change the clothes that women wore. But over the next sixty years she did much more than that, as she became the richest and most successful businesswoman of the century.
Coco Chanel had no experience of business when she opened her first hat shop in Paris in 1910. She was only twenty-seven years old and she came from an ordinary family. When she left school, she worked for a dressmaker for a short time. Later she tried to become a singer in a nightclub, where she was given the name ‘Coco’. Coco was an attractive young woman; she always dressed well and she was good at making friends. Although she didn’t have any money, she mixed with fashionable, successful people and her boyfriends were often rich young army officers.
One of these was a handsome young Englishman with a big black moustache, called Boy Capel. When Coco asked him to lend her some money so she could open a shop, he was surprised.
He had never heard of a woman in business before, but he liked the idea.
‘A woman in business?’ he said. ‘That sounds fun. How much do you want?’
Coco asked for enough money to open a shop in one of the best streets in Paris.
‘No problem,’ replied Boy Capel. He was so rich that he didn’t care if he never got his money back.
Many of Coco’s customers in her first shop were her rich young women friends. They loved the simple but beautiful hats that Coco made for them. At parties they laughed at other women who still wore hats that were covered in fruit and flowers. Soon they were asking Coco for clothes that were designed in the same simple way. Coco hated the long dresses that fashionable women wore and so she was happy to make dresses and skirts that were much shorter and reached just below the knee. She also persuaded her customers to wear loose jackets and blouses that allowed them to breathe more easily. Again, the rich, fashionable young women of Paris loved Coco’s new ideas, and her shop started to do well.
In 1913, Coco asked Boy Capel for more money, because she wanted to open a second shop, this time in the French seaside town of Deauville. In summer, the streets of Deauville were full of fashionable people from all over Europe. Russian princesses mixed with English ladies and the daughters of German businessmen, and they were all looking for clothes in the latest style. After her success in Paris, Coco was sure she could offer all of them something special. She was right. The young women in Deauville loved her simple hats, loose jackets, and skirts and dresses that reached just below the knee. Coco made plenty of money in her first year in Deauville and in her second summer she expected to do even better. But then, for everyone in Europe, everything went wrong.
In June 1914 in Sarajevo, Bosnia, a young student called Gavrilo Princep shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, an important person in the Austrian royal family. Two months later, almost all the nations of Europe were fighting one of the worst wars in history. In August of that year, the German army marched through Belgium and into the north of France. The French army was not prepared for this, and soldiers rushed to defend their country. The British army quickly came to help, but the situation looked very dangerous.
Many rich French families rushed from the north of France to the expensive hotels of Deauville to get away from the fighting.
Some people were frightened, but most were in a good mood.
‘Don’t worry,’ they told each other. ‘The war will be finished by Christmas.’
But after a few weeks, it was clear that they were wrong. More and more men left Deauville to go and fight in the French army.
Soon the expensive hotels were changed into hospitals, full of soldiers who had been hurt in the fighting. The rich Frenchwomen of Deauville saw that it was their duty to help the French army and many of them took jobs as nurses in the hospitals or did other kinds of war work. But after a few days they realized that it was impossible to work in their long dresses. They looked around for different things to wear.
‘Where can we find clothes that are stylish, but will also allow us to work?’ they asked each other.
They found the answer in Coco Chanel’s new shop. Her simple hats, loose jackets and straight skirts were just what these women needed. They were stylish, but they also allowed women to move around quickly. Coco was soon selling clothes as fast as she could make them.
A year later, in the summer of 1915, Coco had worked so hard for so long that she was ready for a holiday. So Boy Capel took a break from his job with the British army, and together they went to Biarritz in the south of France. The mood in this seaside town was very different to the mood in Deauville. In Deauville, everyone spent all their time worrying about the war; in Biarritz, people just wanted to have a good time and to forget about it. The town was full of young army officers who were spending a few days away from the fighting with their wives and girlfriends. There was dancing in the big hotels every night.
The shops and restaurants were always busy. But the war meant that it was hard for women in Biarritz to find the sort of fashionable clothes that they wanted. Coco immediately saw a business opportunity.
She realized that women in Biarritz wanted a different style of clothes from women in Deauville. These women wanted to go out and have fun. They wanted to look good and they didn’t really care how much they paid for their clothes.
‘Don’t you see?’ she said to Boy. ‘This could be a new direction for the business. In Biarritz I can sell clothes that are modern and simple, but that also allow women to feel beautiful and to enjoy themselves.’
Boy Capel put his fingers to his big black moustache and thought for a moment.
‘And,’ added Coco, ‘I think women will also pay a very good price for these clothes, if we can sell them in the right way.’
‘What do you mean?’ asked Boy.
‘Well,’ said Coco, ‘these clothes need to have a new look. The Chanel clothes in Biarritz will not just be clothes for rich women who work. These clothes will make women feel good when they wear them.’
Boy wasn’t sure about the idea. ‘But where will you get the cloth for these clothes?’ he asked. ‘No other designer can get cloth at the moment. We are in the middle of a war, you know.’
‘Don’t worry about that,’ said Coco, ‘I’ll find the cloth. I just need the money.’
‘Money?’ said Boy Capel. ‘Oh, no problem. I’ve got plenty of money.’
Boy Capel sounded confident, but as he lent more money to Coco, he never really expected to see it again.
But Coco’s idea was quite right. She found that she could still buy cloth across the border in Spain, which wasn’t fighting in the •war. Then she rented an expensive house in the middle of the town and hired sixty women to make her new dresses. She sold the dresses for very high prices, but women were happy to pay for them. They were so popular that people even came from Madrid to buy them.
For the next three years, Coco travelled between her three businesses in Paris, Deauville and Biarritz, while the First World War continued in the north and east of France. By 1916, over three hundred people were working for her. She soon made so much money that she could pay back Boy Capel all that she had borrowed. Coco had been lucky because the war had given her a chance to make her new designs popular. But she had also shown that she could recognize business opportunities and that she could change her style to suit her customers.
When the war finished, in November 1918, Coco was ready to start the next and most successful part of her business life.
The First World War completely changed European society.
Millions of young men had been killed, and women now had a much more important position in society. Women had shown that they could work in offices and factories while men were fighting in the war. In many countries, women were now allowed to vote for their government for the first time. By the start of the 1920s, women had realized that they could be different from their mothers. They could lead a very different kind of life from the one they had known before the war.
After the bad times of the war, rich young people just wanted to spend money and to have fun. They drove their shiny new cars to the beach, where they played games and swam in the sea. Both men and women went to parties, where they smoked cigarettes and drank alcohol. They danced to the music of Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton. They went to the cinema to watch the films of Charlie Chaplin and Greta Garbo. And they also wore the clothes of Coco Chanel.
Women didn’t want to return to the long, tight dresses and silly hats of the years before the war. They wanted clothes that allowed them to move around freely. Chanel’s style was just right for the time. But now her clothes were not just for the women of Paris, Deauville and Biarritz. The end of the war meant that she could sell her clothes around the world. For women in the big cities of Europe, she made smart suits of jackets and skirts, and for women on holiday she designed special beach clothes. In the US her dresses were so successful that a magazine even compared them to the Ford motor car. Coco’s business grew and grew. But Coco didn’t just think about clothes. She realized that women couldn’t always wear diamonds and other expensive jewellery when they went out. So she started making jewellery that looked real, but was made from cheap materials. She also introduced the idea of short hair for women, and for the first time she made it popular for women to go out in the sun so their skin went brown.
But Coco’s best decision was to go into the cosmetics business. She knew that the cosmetics business and the fashion industry were similar in many ways, and she was sure that her ideas could help her to be successful in this area. She also believed that cosmetics were very important. She once said, ‘If a woman doesn’t wear perfume, she has no future.’
So in the early 1920s, she went to see a man called Pierre Wertheimer to discuss her plan. Wertheimer owned the biggest perfume factory in France and he was very happy to work with such a famous designer. At that time women wore perfumes which always smelled of flowers, but Coco wanted her perfume to have a completely different smell. Together Wertheimer and Chanel invented a new kind of perfume, and they decided to sell it in a simple, square bottle. They agreed to give it Coco’s name, and she added her lucky number. The result was Chanel No. 5, the most successful perfume of the past hundred years.
As Coco grew richer and more successful, she mixed with the most famous people of the time. She loved to be with artists and she made clothes for shows at theatres in Paris, where she worked with Jean Cocteau, Pablo Picasso and Sergei Diaghilev. These people all admired Coco’s work and understood what she was trying to do.
‘Coco worked in fashion according to rules that seem to have value only for painters, musicians and writers,’ said Jean Cocteau.
But Coco didn’t just mix with artists. She often went to parties where she met important people like the future King of England — the Prince of Wales — and Britain’s future war leader, Winston Churchill. And after her boyfriend of the war years, Boy Capel, was killed in a car crash, she was often seen on the arm of rich Russian and English lords.
For Coco and her friends, the 1920s were the happiest ten years of the twentieth century. But the good times suddenly ended in October 1929, when the stock exchange in Wall Street, New York, crashed. Share prices fell and fell and fell. The world economy was badly damaged. Thousands of businesses closed and millions of people lost their jobs.
For most people, the Wall Street crash was a disaster, but not for Coco Chanel. While ordinary people suffered, the richest people in the world still had money and they still wanted expensive, fashionable clothes. Instead of making cheaper, simpler clothes, she started to design even more expensive clothes and to use real diamonds in her jewellery. Coco had remembered the lesson of Biarritz: in times of trouble, the secret of success is to help people to forget their problems.
In these bad times for the world economy, other successful people remembered the same secret. One of these people was the great Hollywood film producer, Sam Goldwyn. As ordinary people in America got poorer and poorer, he realized that they wanted to see films about a different kind of world. They wanted films that showed the wonderful lives of rich, beautiful people.
They wanted to go to the cinema and get away from their problems. Goldwyn decided that people in his films should wear the best and the most expensive clothes in the world, and so he went to the top fashion designer in the world: Coco Chanel.
Coco understood his idea immediately and she was interested.
‘How much will you pay me?’ she asked.
‘One million dollars,’ said Goldwyn.
With an offer of so much money, how could Coco refuse? She went to Hollywood, she met the film stars, and then she started work on their clothes. Everyone waited to see the results. The first film was called Tomorrow Or Never and its star was Gloria Swanson. In the film her clothes were beautiful, but they were quite simple. When the film was shown in the US, people were surprised; they had expected something more for $1 million.
When an American newspaper wrote about the film it said, ‘Chanel wants a lady to look like a lady; Hollywood wants a lady to look like two ladies.’
Chanel kept the money, but Sam Goldwyn decided not to use her clothes again.
Back in Paris, Coco had more problems. The French economy was in a very bad state. People without work wanted jobs, and the people with jobs wanted more money. Bosses like Coco had everything, while it was hard for many French people to feed their families. In the middle of the 1930s, Coco’s business employed around 4,000 people. She thought she was good to the people who worked for her, but some of them had a different opinion. In 1936, fifty of her workers stopped work and sat down in one of her factories in Paris. Coco put on her best suit and rushed to speak to them, but they had locked the door of her factory and she couldn’t get in. Coco was very angry. How could they do this to her? She and her workers argued and argued, but they couldn’t agree on a solution to their differences. Coco’s reply showed that she was a very tough businesswoman: she sacked three hundred of them. But still they refused to change their minds. Coco now had an even more serious problem. She had designed some new clothes for a fashion show and she was worried that they wouldn’t be ready. What could she do? She decided to give her workers what they wanted, but she never forgot what they had done to her.
At around this time, Coco started to go out with a rich German man called Hans Gunther von Dincklage. She always called him ‘von D’. Nobody knew exactly what von D was doing in Paris, but many people thought that he was a spy for Germany’s Nazi government. This didn’t worry Coco, and the two of them started to live together in the expensive Paris Ritz Hotel.
But while Coco and von D enjoyed their life, Europe moved closer to war. In 1938, Hitler’s German army marched into Czechoslovakia. The next year, the Germans marched into Poland and the Second World War began.
Although Coco’s business had done well in the First World War, she decided that she didn’t want to work through another war. Perhaps she was still angry with her workers after the problems of 1936. Or perhaps she had just had enough of business. But for whatever reason, in 1939 Coco closed her fashion business and all her workers lost their jobs. Many people were angry with her and asked her to change her mind, but she simply told them, ‘This is no time for fashion.’
Through the winter of 1939 and into 1940, the French people waited and worried. In 1940, the German army arrived and took control of Paris. Many French people started secret groups and continued to fight the Germans, but not Coco. She was happy in her rooms at the Ritz Hotel with her German boyfriend, and she just wanted to enjoy her life. The war hadn’t closed the theatres and shops of Paris, so she could still go out and do what she wanted. But as her fashion business was now closed, she needed to find other ways of making money.
She knew that her perfume Chanel No. 5 was still very popular with the French and German women who were living in Paris. She also knew that her partner in the perfume business, Pierre Wertheimer, had left France to get away from the war and was now living in the US. Coco thought she saw an opportunity to take control of the whole perfume business. But although Wertheimer was on the other side of the Atlantic, he was not going to allow this to happen. Chanel No. 5 made him so much money that he didn’t want to lose control of it. Coco, Wertheimer and their lawyers started to argue about it.
But while Coco and Wertheimer fought for control of Chanel No. 5, the Germans were slowly losing control of the war. In June 1944, the British and the Americans landed on the beaches of the west of France and started to move towards Paris. Two months later, they were just outside the city. The Germans realized that they were beaten and started to leave. The people of Paris opened the doors of their houses, had parties and danced in the streets. But Coco wasn’t so happy. She knew that many French people were angry with people who had helped the Germans in the war and they wanted to punish them. Would they want to punish Coco? She wasn’t going to wait to find out.
When the war ended, she left France and went to live abroad.
For most of the next eight years, Coco lived quietly in Switzerland. She soon found out that she was so rich that she didn’t need to work. She continued to argue with Pierre Wertheimer about the control of Chanel No. 5 from her new Swiss home. But when he returned to France after the war, they found a way to solve their problems. Wertheimer kept control of the perfume business, but he agreed to pay Coco 2% of the money from sales of the perfume around the world. This meant that Coco was now earning around $1 million a year and she didn’t even have to get out of bed in the morning!
As the years passed, some people still remembered the beautiful Chanel clothes from the years before the war; but they soon forgot the rich old lady who had designed them. Although Coco now had everything that she wanted, she didn’t really like her new life. She had loved her work and now she missed the world of fashion. She still read fashion magazines and looked carefully at all the new designs. But Coco found that more and more often she didn’t like what she saw.
The new star designer in the fashion world was a Frenchman called Christian Dior. In 1947, he produced his ‘New Look’. His shirts and jackets were tight and made it difficult for women to breathe. His skirts and dresses were narrow at the waist and wide at the bottom and they reached down to women’s shoes. Women loved Dior’s clothes. They were very different to the boring clothes and uniforms that they had had to wear during the war years. They were also very different to the Chanel look of the years before the war.
Every year, Christian Dior’s ‘New Look’ made Coco more and more angry. In 1953, she decided that she couldn’t sit and watch and do nothing. She had to return to the fashion business. She returned to Paris and started to design new clothes for a fashion show the next year. Many people thought she was crazy.
‘What does a seventy-year-old woman know about modern fashion?’ they asked. ‘Doesn’t she know that times have changed?’
But Coco didn’t listen and on 5 February 1954, she
introduced her new designs at a fashion show in Paris. The show was a disaster. The newspapers said that they were clothes for old ladies and country people. Coco was upset and angry that her designs had been criticized so strongly.
‘These people just don’t understand,’ she said. ‘It’s true that I’m old, but I’m still one of the greatest designers in the world. I changed women’s fashion once and I know I can change it again.
I’ll show them!’
So Coco didn’t return to Switzerland and she didn’t stop working. The next year, she produced some different designs for another fashion show and this time many people liked them. The year after that, there was another new show and more and more people started to admire her clothes. By the end of the 1950s, she was again one of the most important fashion designers in the world.
During the 1960s, rich and beautiful women from all over the world visited Coco’s offices to ask for advice and to buy new suits and skirts and dresses. Coco was rich and successful, but nobody really knew if she was happy. For the final seventeen years of her life, she lived alone in the Ritz Hotel in Paris. Every morning she walked across the road to work in the offices above one of her shops. She was often still cutting cloth and making dresses late at night. Why did she work so hard? She once said, ‘Work has always been a kind of drug for me.’
If work was her drug, it was a drug that helped her to live for a long time. She was still designing new clothes for the world’s top women when she died in 1971. She was eighty-seven years old.
Today, ‘Chanel’ is still one of the most important names in fashion and cosmetics, but the modern ‘House of Chanel’ is very different to Coco’s old company. A new boss, the German designer Karl Lagerfeld, joined the company in 1983 and introduced several new ideas. He saw that the company could use Chanel’s famous name to sell many different products all over the world. Soon the company had shops in over forty countries. The Chanel name was on hats, belts, jewellery, clothes and handbags, as well as on many different kinds of cosmetics. Chanel’s products were bought by many more women than ever before.
But if Coco were still alive today she would probably be pleased with many things about the modern company. She could walk into the best shop in any big city in the world and buy her Chanel No. 5 perfume and it would still be in the same square bottle. She could walk into a Chanel shop and still find smart suits and beautiful dresses in the simple Chanel tradition. In her work as a designer, Coco Chanel loved simple styles because she believed that a woman was always more important than the dress that she wore.
‘Dress badly,’ she once said, ‘and people will notice the dress.
Dress well and people will notice the woman.’
In her life, people noticed Coco Chanel not just because of wonderful clothes, but also because she was the first and most successful international businesswoman of the twentieth century.
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