By Jasmine Bager, Reporter
Take a walk in any city and you’ll find traces of Chanel at every corner and (literally) at every step. We all know what that looks like: the visible interlocked C logos, signature flat shoes, quilted purses, costume jewelry, cardigan sweaters, tortoiseshell sunglasses and an air of mystery. “I have tried to be both invisible and present,” Chanel famously said. That seems to describe all of these women, then and now. But who was the woman behind the little black dress? Do we know much (or anything!) about the person whose initials we wear on special occasions?
Academic writer Rhonda K. Garelick’s new book, Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History (hyperlink: http://www.amazon.com/Mademoiselle-Coco-Chanel-Pulse-History/dp/1400069521) attempts to find out. “What is Chanel? What every woman is wearing without knowing it,” read L’Express Magazine in 1956, but that line could have easily been written today. Prof. Garelick did just that.
For a century (and counting), Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has made an impact in fashion design, but she was a savvy businesswoman, too. Chanel’s company is the highest earning privately owned luxury goods manufacturer today. In the whole planet.
Born in 1883, Chanel lived in a man’s world, but her aim was to dress powerful women. In 12 fascinating, yet lengthy chapters, Garelick allowed Chanel to answer that same question: “I dressed the universe,” Chanel said in 1947.
With a background in academia, Garelick went to the corporate headquarters for the House of Chanel in Paris and read the novels that Chanel is said to have read and visited surviving people identified in old photographs. We learn quickly in the book that Chanel often dressed her past as she did her models: with a dash of drama. Chanel jumbled dates and dramatized events so often, it seemed like she reinvented herself with each new design. In short, Garelick tried to channel the fashionista and follow her alluring footsteps to separate fact from fantasy. Who better to attempt that than an English professor?
Orphaned and abandoned as a child, Chanel dreamed about leaving the obscure village in France where she came from. With an active imagination and few friends, she became a pathological liar, embellishing her life and the details within it, since the truth was dull and depressing.
Entrepreneurship was in her blood. Chanel’s father was a charismatic peddler who sold women’s undergarments on the streets and ran away from his responsibilities. Chanel’s mother was a kitchen maid and at 20, had her first daughter out of wedlock. Chanel was born next. Her given name was Gabrielle, meaning, “God is my mighty,” in Hebrew. The nuns named her when her exhausted mother was too tired to think of a name and her father was nowhere to be found. Chanel had fragmented memories of her charming father but he disappeared often until he left for good, leaving her mother to care for all six children on her own. Chanel’s mother died at 33 from poor health. Chanel was 11.
Chanel moved to the convent, where she worked as a laundress for the orphanage and learned how to sew. That is where she got the basis for her fashion aesthetic; the simple and conservative white and black garments the nuns wore, carried through to her design palette. The mother superior was the first woman boss she’d ever met and helped her realize that she could be her own boss, too.
At 19, the sheltered Chanel left the convent to the bright lights of the city. She was introduced to the flamboyant ladies of the night, which greatly impacted her fashion sense. She tried her luck as a café singer, with limited success. She was charismatic and charming, like her father, however. Rumor has it that customers picked her famous name, Coco. She used to sing “Ko-ko-ri-ko” (Cock-a-doodle-doo) and “Qui qua’a vu Coco?” (Has anyone seen Coco?)—songs about a lost dog and a rooster. Hurt from being abandoned, Chanel invented that her father immigrated to America and that he affectionately nicknamed her Coco. The truth was, her father likely never left the country.
Two of Chanel’s sisters committed suicide as young, overworked mothers with young children and failed relationships. Chanel became the only female survivor in her family by 1920. Determined to break the pattern of hardworking Chanel ladies falling for deadbeats, Chanel strived to make a name for herself. And that, she did.
By the age of 30, Chanel became a household name. Her clothing was androgynous, conservative and classic—silhouettes the nuns who raised her might have been proud of. Chanel’s boyish figure, slim hips and flat chest helped her ease into wearing men’s suit shirts and straw hats while riding. She figured that thinking like a man would be her way to success.
Chanel was a genius at the public relations game and befriended many fashion journalists in Europe and America. Soon after launching her hat making business and designing costumes for dancers, Chanel became a lifestyle brand. She used subliminal seduction as a marketing ploy. “A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume is sold every three seconds,” the book reads. Unlike most perfumes sold at her time, her bottles did not have poetic titles, but contained her lucky number: five. She sprayed the scent in her boutique’s fitting rooms and when the buyers asked what the lovely smell was, she handed them tiny samples to take home. Those women grew addicted to the perfume and returned for more. Soon, bottles began appearing for sale on the shelves.
Chanel loved excitement and some speculate that she was perhaps a spy. She was involved with very powerful and rich men: a Nazi officer, the Duke of Westminster, a diplomat and a composer. Did she briefly turn to discreet prostitution? Was she a mother—was the little boy she affectionately cared for her own child and not that of her sister? The book talks about those possibilities.
Chanel’s last words at 87 were reportedly: “So, this is how one dies.” Forty years after her death, it doesn’t seem like her legacy has died at all. Fashionistas everywhere, and Garelick’s book, bring Chanel back to life.