Profile In Dreaming: From the Poorhouse to the Promenade

The name Chanel is the epitome of fashion. A symbol of luxury and style. Coco Chanel, the woman behind the brand, built her legend on authenticity, courage, and a love for life. But she didn't always have it easy. Born in a poorhouse hospice and placed in an orphanage at the age of twelve, young Chanel had to scrap for every inch. Her story is a testament to what one can accomplish with a vision, some guts, and resourcefulness.

A late nineteenth century poorhouse hospice is one of the furthest things you’d associate with glamour. Today, it might be called a sweatshop, but, back in the 1880s, it was a staple of life after the Industrial Revolution. Rows of women would toil in these poorhouses, working hours on end, day after day, then sharing slovenly accommodations on the hospice grounds.

A girl was born in one of these workhouses in Saumur, France, on August 19, 1883. A girl that would one day become synonymous with style and luxury fashion. While her birth would have been a grisly, sweaty affair, her life was a gilded adventure, punctuated by international acclaim and a series of high-profile romances.

The girl’s name was Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel.  

She was an illegitimate child, born to a working mother and a father who was a simple peddler. Her mother died when she was twelve years old. Her father put her in the orphanage of the Catholic monastery of Aubazine, where she learned the trade of a seamstress.

Chanel spent her vacations with relatives in Moulins, where she expanded her sewing skills and broadened her horizons. It was there that the seeds of her ambition were initially planted. She knew then that she wanted something more for her life.

When she left the orphanage in 1901, she joined a Catholic boarding house in Moulins, where she joined her aunt Adrienne and went to work as a seamstress at a local haberdashery. It would mark the start of a lifelong career in fashion.

It was during this period that Chanel began to show her adventurous spirit. She formed a duo with her aunt and sang at local bars that were frequented by army officers. The pair performed two playful songs, “Ko Ko Ri Ko (Cock-a-Doodle-Doo)” and “Qui Qu’a Vu Coco? (Anybody Seen Coco?)” about a little girl looking for her lost dog. Chanel was the lead singer, resulting in patrons nicknaming her “Coco” and giving birth to her now legendary name.

Chanel’s ascent in the world of fashion was driven by her romantic relationships. It started when she met a handsome and wealthy Englishman, named Boy Capel. He took her to Paris and, within a year, she opened her first establishment in a narrow backstreet called rue Cambon, on January 1, 1910. She started out selling hats, later adding stores in Deauville and Biarritz.

Capel took her with him everywhere and exposed her to aristocrats and the well-to-do. Chanel was struck by the fussy, constrained nature of women’s fashion at the time, with their stiff corsets and heavy, draped gowns. She set out to design more casual, lighter knits and dresses that were far simpler than the standard faire. She drew inspiration from the simple elegance of men’s clothing, and incorporated elements from men’s fashion into her designs.

“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. Her clothes were a big success, establishing her reputation in Parisian literary and artistic circles. She designed costumes for the Ballets Russes and Jean Cocteau’s play Orphée, and counted Cocteau and artist Pablo Picasso among her friends.

Chanel took her flourishing business to new heights when she introduced Chanel No. 5, her first perfume. She once explained that “[perfume] is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion…that heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure.” Chanel No. 5 remains one of the most popular scents in the world to this day.

The Twenties marked the decade during which Chanel cemented her fashion legacy with the creation of the now legendary Chanel suit with collarless jacket and well-fitted skirt, and the little black dress. Her designs were revolutionary for the time—borrowing elements of menswear and emphasizing comfort over the constraints of then-popular outfits. She provided women with alternatives to corsets and other confining garments.

In 1931, the Chanel brand went global after Hollywood mogul Samuel Goldwyn personally invited her to design outfits for all the major film stars at his studio. Goldwyn felt that Chanel would be irresistible, so he offered her a guaranteed $1 million to come to Hollywood twice a year, to “dress his stars, both onscreen and off.” Chanel was to put the actresses in styles ‘six months ahead’ of fashion, in order to offset the inevitable delay between filming and release.

By 1935, Chanel owned a chain of boutiques and employed 4,000 workers. She had also engaged in a string of high-profile romantic relationships with powerful men, including the Grand Duke Dimitri of Russia, the Duke of Westminster and, during World War II, Haus Gunther von Dincklage, a member of the occupying Nazi force in Paris. She was lambasted by the French press for her relationship with Dinklage and what they considered to be treacherous behavior.

The criticism did not stop Chanel from launching a new collection in her seventies on February 5, 1954. The French press, still unforgiving of her behavior during the war, were lukewarm but the American and British press celebrated her soft, little suits for the seamless way in which they blended chic and youth. Chanel had succeeded when everyone expected her to fail.

In 1955, Chanel changed the way women carried their purses when she introduced the 2.55 Chanel Shoulder Bag, which featured quilted leather and a signature gold chain for the strap, making it glamorous for women to wear a bag on their shoulder.

On 10 January 1971, after returning from a walk with her friend Claude Baillen, Coco Chanel died on her bed in the Hotel Ritz. Her last words to her maid Celine were, “You see, this is how you die.” Prior to her death, she had famously said, “May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life.” And, so it has, mademoiselle. So, it has.

Here are some things you might not have known about Coco Chanel:

  • She claimed to have been born in 1893, making her ten years younger than she really was.
  • She rejected the Duke of Westminster’s marriage proposal, explaining that “there have been several Duchesses of Westminster—but there is only one Chanel!”
  • The name Chanel No. 5 came from the fact that it was the fifth sample out of ten scents she created with the help of perfumer Ernest Beaux.
  • She was good friends with Winston Churchill and famously out-fished him on one occasion, when she landed seven salmon ranging from 15 to 24 pounds.
  • She accidentally popularized suntans when she got a little too much sun during a Mediterranean cruise with the Duke of Westminster.

And three lessons from her life:

Be True to Yourself.

Despite being brought up in the strict confines of an orphanage run by nuns, Chanel was a free spirit. She wore her identity on her sleeve throughout her career. She created trends, because she had the courage to do things nobody else dared to do.

For example, at a time when corsets and ornate, heavy dresses were universal, she introduced revolutionary designs that borrowed ideas from men’s fashion. Later in her life, she would cut her hair short and inspire many women to adopt a boyish style.

Chanel led the way for women to be more liberated in their appearance. To be unencumbered by societal expectations and unwieldly gowns. She was herself even when she had been made a pariah for courting a high-profile member of the Nazi party. As she put it, “The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”

Few things are more attractive or energizing than authenticity. Being yourself separates you from your competition. Your unique identity provides you with a wealth of inspiration only you possess. Staying true to yourself ensures your happiness and gives you the best chance of succeeding in life, no matter what you do.

Be Resourceful.

How does one go from being born in a poorhouse to dying in a luxury suite at the Hotel Ritz? Chanel didn’t inherit her wealth. Nothing was given to her. She earned every bit of her success by making the most of every opportunity that came her way.

She used her romantic relationships as stepping stones to getting her start, finding inspiration, and making a name for herself in higher social circles. She used every resource available to her to build her career.

Chanel realized early on that wealthy and influential men could help advance her career. She also knew that she was capable of charming such men. This was the main resource she had, so she made the most of it. Find your resources and use them to move you closer to your goals. Make the most of every asset you have.

Write Your Own Story.

When you visit the Chanel website today, there is a prominent section that describes Chanel’s story. It mythologizes her life in much the same way she did when she was alive, highlighting all the major milestones in her journey and glamorizing her contributions to fashion. It is done in such a way that her story feels magical and adds to the allure of the brand she created.

Chanel was a wonderful storyteller, carefully crafting a narrative that would suit the legacy she wanted to leave behind. Whether that meant concealing her origins, fudging her age, or omitting details of her impoverished past, she created her own myth that elevated her brand.

In the modern age of social media, stories are more important than ever. We can use stories to engage our audience and connect with them on a deeper level. Stories make us relatable and human. They can add mystique to the mundane, and add cachet to a brand or individual. Chanel showed us that even the drabbest beginnings can be transformed into a wondrous adventure.