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Chanel: The Early Years

March 26, 2012

Fashion | by Candid Magazine

It may be a long time since she was around, but Chanel has influenced some of the most important people in today’s fashion industry; let alone the influence her unbeknown protégé Karl Lagerfeld’s continuation of her fashion brand.

Coco Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel; a peasant in rural France. Her father was a nomadic horse and carriage driver who managed to spend most of his children’s lives travelling to and from villages and towns. Chanel’s mother Jeanne Devolle; who tragically dies of tuberculosis when Coco was twelve; still remained a large influence in both her personal life and her sophisticated creations.

Chanel’s work was also influenced by where she grew up; surrounded by nuns in an orphanage called Aubazine. It was here that Chanel learned to sew, following in the nuns steps to make trinkets to sell for extra money to keep the orphanage afloat. It is clear when you look back on her early work that she was heavily influenced by a nun’s habit; encompassing both contemporary lines and styles with the grace, elegance and commodity of a nuns ‘uniform’.

I would like to think that Chanel paid homage to both her rural heritage with her mother’s upbringing (working as a farm hand), as well as the orphanage that she grew up in with her two sisters. I have this image of the visionary herself sitting in a small stone room whilst outside the sun shone and les fleurs grew wild.

After her time spent at Aubazine, Chanel had no other skills than needlework. So at the age of eighteen she moved to a new town and took the job of a seamstress. It

was here where her idealistic dream grew from fantasy to reality. She created garments as part of a team; mainly hemming vast yardage of material. When not working as a seamstress she sang at a Cabaret bar; I know what you are thinking, our dear conservative Chanel singing in a cabaret bar? Although you may be fast to judge, it was here that she picked up the nickname Coco, which she is now famously known.

Of course her biggest break came in the form of Étienne Balsan, French socialite and heir to the industry of French military uniforms. . Here she created the valuable contacts she needed; the upper class that the majorly rich, these would prove extra-valuable when her big break came.                            Although things went askew when she had an affair with one of his friends, Captain Capel (an English upper-classmen); it was he who financed Coco’s first shops, of which she provided perfect couture and hats; oh to live in those times.


Everyone knows that Chanel’s main offices lie on the Rue de Chambon; of which she opened a shop after becoming a licensed hat maker in 1910. Of course then it was called Chanel Modes and didn’t optimise then now renowned double C logo, but that wouldn’t matter to Chanel; she made phenomenal contacts in 1923 when she was accepted into English aristocracy (chasing Captain Capel perhaps?) although this was through dirty channels of an illegitimate child of the Marquess of Cambridge.

In the same year she was introduced to the Duke of Westminster, yet another affair ensued (finding a pattern?)Their affair reportedly lasted ten years, in this time she could afford to build her Monte Carlo villa, La Pausa, on the grounds that the Duke had bought her. Although in the 1930’s it seemed Chanel saw a dip in her profits – The flapper look (which in itself is over-rated as only a handful of women wore the look) died out over-night. Her designs became un-initiative, predictable and to some matronly; other designers overtook her in popularity.

This led to the dark times of World War Two. In which Chanel famously closed her shops and said it was not a time for fashion. Most people recollect their knowledge of Chanel during the Second World War as she had an affair with Hans Günther von Dincklage. I can only come to the conclusion that this was a Dark time for Coco Chanel; her anti-Jewish ideals obvious and her pro Nazi mandates flourishing, as she moved into the Ritz (a hotspot for German soldaten). But don’t feel to bad for the back-stabber; in the latter years of the war, Chanel turned on her own workers, naming the managers of her infamous Chanel No.5 perfume as Jewish and claiming Aryan profits.

It wasn’t until 1954 when she gave up her life in Switzerland and returned to France (and her fashion career) that she realized that it would be easy to reclaim her position on the top of the pack; especially when her opposition in the perfume race financed her new line. It’s from here that the main story of Chanel is widely known.


“Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”

-Coco Chanel


Jack Leyshon Small