Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel (19 August 1883 – 10 January 1971) was a French fashion designer, businesswoman and Nazi collaborator. The founder and namesake of the Chanel brand, she was credited in the post-World War I era with liberating women from the constraints of the “corseted silhouette” and popularizing a sporty, casual chic as the feminine standard of style. A prolific fashion creator, Chanel extended her influence beyond couture clothing, realizing her design aesthetic in jewellery, handbags, and fragrance. Her signature scent, Chanel No. 5, has become an iconic product. She is the only fashion designer listed on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century. Chanel herself designed her famed interlocked-CC monogram, which has been in use since the 1920s.
Rumors arose about Chanel’s activities during the German occupation of France during World War II, and she was criticized for being too close to the German occupiers to boost her professional career: One of Chanel’s liaisons was with a German diplomat, Baron (Freiherr) Hans Günther von Dincklage. After the war, Chanel was interrogated about her relationship with von Dincklage, but she was not charged as a collaborator due to intervention by Churchill. After several post-war years in Switzerland, she returned to Paris and revived her fashion house. In 2011, Hal Vaughan published a book about Chanel based on newly declassified documents, revealing that she had collaborated directly with the Nazi intelligence service, the Sicherheitsdienst. One plan in late 1943 was for her to carry an SS peace overture to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to end the war.
Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel was born in 1883 to Eugénie Jeanne Devolle Chanel, known as Jeanne, a laundrywoman in the charity hospital run by the Sisters of Providence (a poorhouse) in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. She was Jeanne’s second child with Albert Chanel; the first, Julia, had been born less than a year earlier. Albert Chanel was an itinerant street vendor who peddled work clothes and undergarments, living a nomadic life, traveling to and from market towns. The family resided in rundown lodgings. In 1884, he married Jeanne Devolle, persuaded to do so by her family who had “united, effectively, to pay Albert.
At birth, Chanel’s name was entered into the official registry as “Chasnel”. Jeanne was too unwell to attend the registration, and Albert was registered as “travelling”. With both parents absent, the infant’s last name was misspelled, probably due to a clerical error.
She went to her grave as Gabrielle Chasnel because to correct legally the misspelled name on her birth certificate would reveal that she was born in a poorhouse hospice. The couple had six children — Julia, Gabrielle, Alphonse (the first boy, born 1885), Antoinette (born 1887), Lucien, and Augustin (who died at six months) — and lived crowded into a one-room lodging in the town of Brive-la-Gaillarde.
When Gabrielle was 11, Jeanne died at the age of 32. The children did not attend school. Her father sent his two sons to work as farm laborers and sent his three daughters to the convent of Aubazine, which ran an orphanage. Its religious order, the Congregation of the Sacred Heart of Mary, was “founded to care for the poor and rejected, including running homes for abandoned and orphaned girls”. It was a stark, frugal life, demanding strict discipline. Placement in the orphanage may have contributed to Chanel’s future career, as it was where she learned to sew. At age eighteen, Chanel, too old to remain at Aubazine, went to live in a boarding house for Catholic girls in the town of Moulins.
Later in life, Chanel would retell the story of her childhood somewhat differently; she would often include more glamorous accounts, which were generally untrue. She said that when her mother died, her father sailed for America to seek his fortune, and she was sent to live with two aunts. She also claimed to have been born a decade later than 1883 and that her mother had died when she was much younger than 12.
As 1971 began, Chanel was 87 years old, tired, and ailing. She carried out her usual routine of preparing the spring catalogue. She had gone for a long drive the afternoon of Saturday, 9 January. Soon after, feeling ill, she went to bed early. She announced her final words to her maid which were: “You see, this is how you die.”
She died on Sunday, 10 January 1971, at the Hotel Ritz, where she had resided for more than 30 years.
Her funeral was held at the Église de la Madeleine; her fashion models occupied the first seats during the ceremony and her coffin was covered with white flowers—camellias, gardenias, orchids, azaleas and a few red roses.
Her grave is in the Bois-de-Vaux Cemetery, Lausanne, Switzerland.
Most of her estate was inherited by her nephew André Palasse, who lived in Switzerland, and his two daughters, who lived in Paris.
Although Chanel was viewed as a prominent figure of luxury fashion during her life, Chanel’s influence has been examined further after her death in 1971. When Chanel died, the first lady of France, Mme Pompidou, organized a hero’s tribute. Soon, damaging documents from French intelligence agencies were released that outlined Chanel’s wartime involvements, quickly ending her monumental funeral plans.