Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel broke rules and rank and expectations at every turn. A seamstress turned hat maker turned designer, she rose from a life plagued by poverty and pain. Albert Chanel, a peddler by trade, left Gabrielle and her two sisters at an orphanage in Aubazine, France after the death of her mother; she was 11-years-old. Learning to sew from the Catholic nuns who ran the orphanage likely changed her fate, as this skill eventually propelled her to fashion stardom.
Love affairs with aristocrats and high-ranking officials are woven into her history, although she never married. Some of these men embraced Coco’s talent, helping her get established as a designer. Using the connections these men provided, Coco’s designs wound up on many wealthy women, a fact that simply increased the demand for her work. She loved haute couture, but reveled in the fact that her designs could be replicated and worn by all. Most who wear Chanel now simply equate her name with high fashion. But to those who have studied her life, it is clear she wanted ubiquity – to be known and worn by all.
Without explanation, she closed all of her shops in 1940, shortly after WWII began. Questions about her relationships with the Nazis abound. Some say Coco got involved with the Nazis to secure the release of Andre Pelasse, a young man related to one of her former suitors. Others say she joined ranks with the Nazis because of her anti-Jewish beliefs. Whatever the reason, Coco enjoyed the protections of the Nazis during the war. Also during this time, she unsuccessfully attempted to wrest control of her company from the Wertheimers, brothers of Jewish descent who underwrote her involvement in the perfume industry.
Eight years after the war, Coco announced her return to fashion. Although Parisians initially rejected her fashions as backward looking, Americans fully embraced her fashion, a fact that prompted French critics to dial back their criticism. In December 1953, she formally announced her intention to return to fashion – having strategically maneuvered the Wertheimers into backing her new venture and giving her increased profits (her departure from fashion caused an eventual downturn in profits from the Parfums Chanel).
Read more about Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel in Rhonda Garelick's book "Mademoiselle; Coco Chanel and Pulse of History."