In 1895 Gabrielle feared as her mother laid unwell of tuberculosis on the bed, she could not imagine what the future will hold without her mother. Life was already hard, her and her siblings grew up in biting poverty. Her father an itinerant trader who went from place to place peddling work clothes and undergarments hated any ties of responsibility and was rarely at home. A few days later her mother died and what she had feared was about to happen.
After her mother’s death her father showed up and took her and her two sisters to a convent in Central France. He said he would return soon when more settled, but they would never see him again for the rest of their lives. Now housed in a former medieval monastery that took in all sorts of girls for care, mostly orphans. The rules were strict, luxuries were forbidden and all the girls were to lead a life of austerity and spiritual practice.
Gabrielle tried to accommodate herself to this new world, but she was burning with restlessness. One day she discovered a series of forbidden romantic novels somehow smuggled into the convent which soon became her outlet from frustration. The novels gave description of palaces and château, beautiful women living a life of leisure with sophisticated men of wealth. Although it was forbidden for her to want such things and even seemingly impossible to have them she kept imagination alive.
At age eighteen she left the convent for boarding school also ran by nuns. She was being trained as a seamstress and the school located in a small busy town of varied activities she soon developed a new passion for the theater. The costumes, the sets, the performers in makeup all fascinated her. She joined in and took the stage name “Coco” and tried everything from singing, acting and dancing. She had energy and charisma but soon realized she lacked the talent for big success in such work.
Again restless as before she soon hit on a new dream. Many of the theater actresses that couldn’t make it had become pleasure women who were supported by wealthy lovers. Such women had enormous wardrobes, could go where they pleased, although they were shunned by good society. As good luck had it one of the young men who had enjoyed her on stage, Etienne Balsan invited her to stay in his nearby château. He was so wealthy and led a life of leisure from family inheritance. Gabrielle now known as Coco could not believe her good luck and quickly accepted his offer.
She found his château filled with pleasure women who came in and out from all over Europe. They were all stunningly beautiful and worldly. She lived a simple life of horse riding in the country and lavish parties in the evening. There obviously was class difference and whenever aristocrats or important people visited the château, women like Coco were to make themselves scarce. With nothing to do but horse riding and parties she felt burning restlessness yet again and this time began to analyze herself and her future.
One day without thinking of what exactly she was up to, she wandered into Balsan’s bedroom and pilfered some of his clothes. She started to wear outfits that were totally her own invention, his opened collared shirts and tweed coats, paired with some of her own clothes; all topped with a man’s straw boater hat. In wearing the clothes she noticed two things: an incredible sense of freedom from constricting gowns and fussy headpieces women were wearing; secondly the new kind of attention that she received.
The other pleasure women in the château were captivated by this strange androgynous style and these new outfits suited her figure so well. Nobody had seen a woman dressed quite in this manner and Balsan himself was charmed. He introduced her to his personal tailor and on her instruction the tailor custom-made for her a boy’s riding costume with jodhpur boots. Now she could be seen everywhere with her strange riding costume. Within a few days the other women began to visit her in her room to try on peculiar straw hats she had decorated with ribbons and feathers.
She now thought of the name to give her products, she easily picked her former stage and nickname “Coco” and added to it her second name which was Chanel. The pleasure women of the château now strode around town with Chanel’s hats on their heads, and soon other women in the area were asking where they could buy them. Balsan offered her the use of his apartment in Paris, where she could begin to make more of her hats and perhaps go into business. She happily took the offer.
We all know the rest as history, she took over the fashion world by storm with her revolutionary clothes style that were authentic, unusual and androgynous. She once shocked the locals of Deauville by swimming in the ocean during one of her summer trips. Women did not do such things and swimming costumes for women were almost nonexistent which she wore. Within weeks women were clamoring at her store which she just opened at Deauville for her swimming costumes.
Her brand has lived on long after her death in 1971 to become one of the most fascinating fashion line in the world. She succumbed to her authentic self which ever made her restless for improvement, innovation and self introspection. The poor girl who lost everything and saw no future ahead but a menial existence turned out to have the power, influence and wealth that only men had at her time.
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