“To achieve great things, we must first dream.”
Few people have empowered women like Coco Chanel. Though her journey was plagued with obstacles, her strength, determination and creative vision were byproducts of the difficult childhood she endured. Where others may have surrendered, Mademoiselle channeled her pain to become the most celebrated fashion designer in the world.
Gabrielle Chanel was born in a poorhouse in 1883, the illegitimate daughter of a laundress and a street peddler. Her mother died when she was 12 and her nomadic father abandoned her, and her sisters, at an orphanage in Limousin, France. There she learned how to sew and work hard.
At 21, she opened a millinery shop, Chanel Mode. Even at a young age Coco understood what her female clientele wanted. Simple, wearable designs. She met this demand by producing eye-catching hats stripped of the frills and embellishments that weighed women down.
Chanel achieved monumental success in her thirties, opening stores in Deauville, Biarritz and Paris. After World War I, expensive fabrics were in short supply. Once again, Chanel turned scarcity into opportunity and fashioned a line of chic, yet comfortable designs made of jersey. She also launched what was to become the most famous perfume in the world, Chanel N°5.
The designer refused to let midlife slow her down. During this decade Chanel premiered her cosmetics collection. She also invented the little black dress. The iconic garment that rescued women from mourning and infused them with the elegance, strength and freedom to express themselves.
By the time she reached age 50, Coco managed an empire with 4,000 employees and processed over 28,000 orders per year. In September 1939, WWI broke out, provoking the successful designer to close the House of Chanel and retreat to Switzerland where she remained for the next fifteen years.
Chanel emerged from retirement to emancipate women once again. Designers Christian Dior and Cristóbal Balenciaga had burdened female clients with corsets, stiff jackets and petticoats. Coco retaliated by creating comfortable, fluid ensembles, like her famous tweed suit. Her quilted leather handbag featured a gold chain shoulder strap that freed women’s hands, as well.
It was 1971 when Coco Chanel died in her suite at the Paris Ritz. She was 87 years old. She’d spent the day finalizing her collection that would premiere two weeks after her funeral to standing ovations. A fitting tribute to the woman who not only revolutionized women’s fashions but changed their lives forever.
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