It would be easy to think that with all the crises in the world today – economic stagnation, wars with ISIS, refugees from Syria to name three – that there’d be some diminished enthusiasm over the just-ended Fashion Week in Paris. But you’d be wrong on two counts.
First, there’s the French attitude towards fashion and beauty, succinctly put by Gertrude Stein in her seminal work, Paris France, published on the eve of World War 2, when she resided here with such other artistic ex-pats as Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald (Note: the punctuation below is famously Stein’s)…
“If you like fashions you get tired of crises, and the French like fashions they do not like them they naturally create them and crises are occasionally a help to fashions…the seasons and the fashions that exist with the seasons are the things France lives by, the earth has its seasons and the people who live on that earth have fashions and that is all.”
There’s also the astonishing fact that luxury goods are one of France’s top three exports (the other two being aerospace and automobiles), and, according to the Committee Colbert – the industry’s professional group – account for 10% of all European Union exports. So fashion in this sense is more than hemlines and trouser lengths, perfumes and vintage wines…it is a place where beauty and lifestyles intertwine and no one escapes this influence. Heady stuff for fashion leaders, be they on the creative side or power-wielding fashion editors, or retailers or the “best-Dressed” population.
And so it is interesting to note that the person whose shows are the most coveted, whose fashion leadership is alive and well today is someone who has been dead since January 10, 1971: Coco Chanel. Not to disparage 77-year-old Karl Lagerfeld whose helmsmanship rescued the line from becoming moribund when he took over the reins in 1983; but it was Chanel who led the revolution and set the groundwork for the modern woman. She did it by creating the “look” for her own life…and it is a life worth examining.
Hers is a story for all times – for entrepreneurs, for women in business, for freedom-loving freethinkers. And it as relevant today as the day back in 1910, when she opened her first shop – selling hats – in the rue Cambon in central Paris, still the site of one of Chanel’s main boutiques. Two additional shops – in the resort towns of Deauville and Biarritz followed – providing Parisians fleeing the city during WW1 a place to shop. Financing came from two industrialists whom she may have met during her years as a cabaret singer (1905-1908). Indeed, she herself created the name “Coco” derived from these years: short for cocotte,” French slang for “kept woman.“
She was actually born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel on August 19, 1883, in Samur in the Loire Valley region of France. Her parents were not married; her father worked as a peddler and handed Gabrielle and her four siblings over to an orphanage for upbringing when their mother died. This is where Gabrielle learned to sew.
Her first fashions were crafted shortly thereafter from jersey – a material hitherto used for men’s underwear. Chanel claimed she made the dress for herself because it was cold in Deauville and turned it into a house staple when women customers asked if she could make something similar for them. In 1925 the classic Chanel suit –collarless jacket and for-fitting skirt – was born, followed by her famous “little black dress,” immediately turned into a fashion staple by American Vogue which likened it to the Ford car for its universal popularity which has famously lasted until even today. ‘I imposed black,” she said once; ”it is still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.’
She managed to find time to design costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe which performed in Paris in the 1920’s – an activity which out her in touch with the likes of Picasso and Stravinsky (with whom she not only had an affair; she financed the more sanguine re-performance of his notorious Sacre de Printemps, whose debut at the Theatre du Chatelet was so despised that the audience actually rioted).
And she managed a long-time affair with the Duke of Westminster, which began in 1923 on his yacht and ended with her famously declining his offer of marriage:
“As soon as you set foot on a yacht you belong to some man, not to yourself, and you die of boredom,” she said. “Everyone marries the Duke of Westminster. There are a lot of duchesses but there is only one Coco Chanel.”
photo: evening dresses
Introducing Chanel No 5
Her real key to success came in 1923 when the still-best-selling perfume, Chanel No 5, was born. Selecting the fragrance that would become a timeless classic was Chanel’s strong suit; financing its manufacture and distribution was something else. Support for manufacturing came from the perfume-making Paul and Pierre Wertheimer family; distribution from Theophile Backer who owned the Galleries Lafayette department store. Les Parfums Chanel was born in 1924, but at a heavy price: the Wertheimers owned 70% of the venture, Backer 20% and Chanel herself just 10%. When the scent’s success soared Chanel tried any number of ways to increase her percentage.
Then World War II intervened opening an opportunity to take control from the Wertheimers who, being Jewish, had fled the country when the Nazis arrived. Chanel wrote to the Nazi authorities thereafter, claiming that Les Parfums Chanel” was a Jewish property and, as other such companies, should be “redistributed”…to her. But the Wertheimers had handed over the company before leaving to a gentile businessman who agreed to hold it for them until the end of the war. Chanel’s attempted takeover filed; she closed her shops and shut down her business and became involved with a German military office, which allowed her to stay in her apartment at The Ritz for the duration of the war. During the peace, however, she was questioned about her German liaison but never charged with collaboration; then left Paris for a kind of self-imposed exile in Switzerland.
She made her fashion comeback at 70 –an age when most people are retired or have given up. Her first shows were not at all well-received, but she persisted. In the meantime – perhaps a case of business sense overriding wartime discretions – relations with the Wertheimers improved. Paul died and Pierre bought the controlling interest in Les Parfums Chanel from Backer and from Chanel herself – agreeing to fund her couture house and pay all her bills – including her taxes1 – for the rest of her life. By 1954, full control of Chanel fashions and beauty lay in the hands of the Wertheimer family, where it lies today, in the third generation.
Forbes lists the current owners, brothers Alain and Gerard Wertheimer (both in their mid-60’s), as being worth a total of $19-billion making them #145 in world billionaires and #5 in France. In addition to Chanel. The family owns racehorses and vineyards and recently acquired lingerie and saddle-making companies. They are painstakingly private. Chanel is not a publically listed company but incorporation notes from the Netherlands recently valued the company at $18.5-billion, according to Bloomberg.
What We Can Learn From Chanel
So one lesson we have from Coco Chanel is to watch what you’re signing when you need money for your projects! But there are other lessons here as well, especially for women…
She tackled restrictions: Chanel took women out of corsets and put them into daily attire that suited the new activities they found for themselves in the wake of two world wars. She even put them in rousers (Yves St Laurent was to keep them there 40 years later). “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street, fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.”
She understood success and hard work: “Success is most often achieved by those who don’t know that failure is inevitable…. Gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.”
And when to give up: “Don’t spend time beating on a wall, hoping to transform it into a door.”
And she knew how to be independent and understood the importance of speaking up: “ In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different….The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud.”
Coco Chanel died in her apartment at The Ritz in 1971 leaving behind quite a legacy…and she knew it: “May my legend prosper and thrive. I wish it a long and happy life.”
see more: formal dresses online