Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was an orphan who learned all about sewing and dressmaking from the nuns at the orphanage where she lived. When she was 18, she opened a hat-making shop on the ground floor of the Parisian flat of the textile businessman Etienne Balsan. Because the Balsan flat also was a salon for the French hunting and sporting élite, Chanel had the opportunity to meet many mistresses and wives, who became fans of her hats and, soon afterward, her dresses.
At a time when corsets and large feathered hats were still in style, Chanel was unique in that she was more interested in comfort than style. She instantly did become a fashion icon, as women everywhere began ditching their corsets and wearing “the little black dress” and the Chanel suit dress.
The color black was only worn by widows or those in mourning until Chanel introduced it as an acceptable fashion statement with “the little black dress. Chanel is also known for using jersey cloth, which was commonly used for men’s underwear.
In 1921, Chanel asked a perfume maker to create a new fragrance to match her clothing. This perfume, which she named Chanel #5, is now the best-known perfume name in the world. The #5 name came simply from the perfume batch that Chanel liked best. While Chanel stores in Europe had to close during WWII, Chanel herself was allowed by the Nazi regime to continue making her perfume. After the war, she decided to retire to Switzerland.
Chanel grew bored with retirement, however, and returned to France, to find the world was enamored with a new designer, Christian Dior. Determined to get back into the business, Chanel created new suits, a line of jewelry, and what would become the infamous handbag design with the double C embossed into the leather.
Coco Chanel passed away in 1971, but her infamous stores and products continue on. The company has more than 300 stores located around the world and an untold number of upscale stores carry her designer items.