Coco Chanel Overview (01:53)
The designer rose from poverty and changed the face of 20th century fashion. She collaborated with the Nazis and was unlucky in romantic relationships.
Childhood in Poverty (02:05)
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 in the Loire Valley. Her parents lived in a poor house; working class women were second class citizens. At age 12, her mother died and her father sent her to the Aubazine orphanage run by nuns.
Career Beginnings (03:21)
Chanel learned creative sewing techniques from her aunts. At 18, she left Aubazine and enrolled in finishing school. In 1903, she worked as a seamstress and began performing at a cabaret frequented by military officers where she adopted the name “Coco.”
A Kept Woman (03:37)
Chanel and Étienne Balsan became lovers. She moved into his estate, learned to ride horses, and socialized with wealthy friends. Male fashion designers forced women to wear impractical dresses. In 1909, she attended a race wearing men's clothing.
First Venture (03:30)
Chanel needed male financial support to launch a fashion business. She left Balsan for Arthur "Boy" Capel, who became her benefactor. In Paris, Capel and Balsan jointly financed her hat shop.
Deauville Boutique (02:11)
Chanel's simple and modern hats were commercially successful. In 1913, she opened a shop in the resort town, attracting wealthy customers. Hers was the first couture collection designed by a woman—providing comfort as well as fashion.
Wartime Fashion (02:33)
World War I brought scarcity and hardship to France. Women took over industry jobs; corseted dresses were dangerous in factories. Chanel designed functional working clothes and jersey day wear.
Expanding Business (02:58)
Chanel's business opportunities grew during World War I. In 1915, she and Capel vacationed in Biarritz, where she opened a second boutique—gaining a sense of independence. After Armistice, Capel married an English aristocrat, breaking Chanel’s heart.
In 1919, Capel was killed in a car crash; Chanel was devastated and swore to make French society worship her. She rewrote her history, moved her Paris shop to 31 Rue Cambon, and rented an apartment at the Ritz.
Paris Affairs (01:54)
To establish society connections in the 1920s, Chanel took on lovers such as Igor Stravinsky and the Duke of Westminster. Rumors of marriage never materialized.
Flapper Era (02:14)
Modern French women abandoned corsets and embraced Chanel's style. In the 1920s, she launched Chanel no. 5, introduced a "little black dress," and dressed women in trousers—defying convention and redefining women's fashion.
German Occupation (03:52)
When Germany attacked France, Chanel closed her shops and fled Paris; Hitler took over Northwest France. Chanel decided to return to keep her label running from the Ritz Hotel—selling perfume to the wives of Nazi officers.
Nazi Collaboration (03:55)
In 1941, Chanel became lovers with "Spatz," a German officer and spy. The Nazis introduced her to Walter Schellenberg in Berlin, who wanted to negotiate peace with honor. She tried to arrange a meeting with Winston Churchill.
Turning Tide (04:04)
In August 1944, the Allies liberated Paris; female Nazi collaborators were publicly humiliated. Chanel was arrested for her role in Operation Modellhut, but soon released. Some speculate that Churchill intervened on her behalf. Her reputation ruined, she left Paris for Switzerland.
Switzerland Safe Haven (01:38)
Having lost her reputation and fashion label, Chanel stopped designing and lived on profits from selling perfume to the Germans. She disapproved of French fashion developments, including Christian Dior's New Look.
Style Comeback (03:09)
In 1954, Chanel returned to Paris and launched her first post-war collection. British and French presses criticized her, but American women embraced the classic look.
House of Chanel Success (02:12)
In the late 1960s, Europeans and Americans idolized Chanel; she revolutionized women's clothing in a male dominated industry. Chanel was isolated and addicted to sleeping aids; she committed suicide in 1971.
Credits: Coco Chanel: Extraordinary Women (00:47)
Credits: Coco Chanel: Extraordinary Women
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