Coco Chanel (1883–1971)

The career of Coco Chanel exemplifies the power of brands in twentieth-century industry and the extension of the market for luxury goods from limited circles of rich people to a much wider public.

She was born in Saumur, the daughter of a washerwoman in a charity hospital and an itinerant street vendor, and grew up in a nearby Convent of the Congregation of the Sacred Heart, which provided a refuge for abandoned and orphaned girls. She initially trained as a seamstress, but was drawn to be involved with entertainment and worked as a singer, then as a waitress serving mineral waters at the spa at Vichy, where she began a series of affairs with wealthy men that provided a foundation for her business success. In 1906 she became the mistress of the textile heir Étienne Balsan (1878-1953) whose family made the fabrics that clad most of the French army, and it was while living with him that she achieved success as a designer of hats. From 1909 she was involved with the English polo player Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel (1881-1919) who financed her first shops, at Deauville in 1913 and opposite the casino at Biarritz in 1915. She was subsequently mistress of the Russian aristocrat Grand Duke Dimitri Pavlovich (1891-1942), and in 1919 established a maison de couture at 31 rue Cambon in Paris. In 1920-21 she provided accommodation for the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) and gave financial guarantees for the first production of his Sacré de Printemps (Rite of Spring).

She circulated in high society and in 1922 at a race meeting at Longchamps put forward her idea for a new fragrance, Chanel No 5, to Pierre Wertheimer (1885-1965) and Théophile Bader (1864-1942) founder of the department store Galéries Lafayette. It was launched with great success. Her relationship with Wertheimer broke down during the Second World War when, as a Jew, his share in the rights for Chanel No 5, reverted to her, but he regained them after 1945. She had a ten-year affair with the British aristocrat Hugh Grosvenor, 2nd Duke of Westminster (1879-1953), who gave her a home in Mayfair and, in 1927, a site on the Riviera where she built her villa La Pausa. In the late 1930s she went to Hollywood to do film design work for Samuel Goldwyn (1879-1974), and, in France, designed the costumes in 1939 for Jean Renoir’s (1894-1979) La Régle du Jeu.

Chanel’s company employed 4000 people by 1935 but she opposed trades unions and had a generally stormy relationship with her workforce, who were all summarily dismissed on the outbreak of war in 1939 when she decided to close her shops. During the war she collaborated with the Nazi occupiers, who made use of her many connections with leading figures in Britain. Collaboration gained her unpopularity and supposedly Winston Churchill (1874-1965) ordered that she should be protected after the liberation of Paris in 1944. She spent the next decade in Switzerland returning to Paris to re-establish her maison de couture in 1954, and living for the rest of her life at the Ritz hotel. She is remembered as the designer of distinctive clothes in Jersey fabrics with beading in the Slavic style, of jewellery, handbags and above all of Chanel No 5 in its distinctive bottle.