How Coco Chanel Built a Global Empire

Laura’s Playlist
10 min readNov 1, 2020

Have a dream and stand for something

Consider the brand Chanel. What images does the name alone evoke? Perhaps it’s tailored, collarless tweed jackets, perhaps it’s overpriced diamond quilted handbags, or maybe it’s a white-haired, sunglass loving gentleman by the name of Karl Lagerfeld.

For me, the brand, was and always will be a sign of female empowerment, maturity and elegance all wrapped up in radical femininity with a hint of go fuck yourself and this is thanks to none other than Ms. Coco Chanel herself.

Born into poverty, Gabriella Chanel, managed to go from an orphanage to being the world’s most globally recognized luxury brand. Today, and almost 50 years past her death, a Chanel No5 perfume continues to sell every 30 seconds around the world and her iconic look is not only recognized by all, by is copied by many.

“Perfume is the unseen, unforgettable, ultimate accessory of fashion…[it] heralds your arrivals and prolongs your departure.” ~ Coco Chanel

So what was the secret to her global success?

Recognizing that opportunity is all around you

Gabrielle Chanel was one of 6 children born in a poorhouse and after her mother past away, was placed in an orphanage called Aubazine. Here, she was forced to sleep on an iron bedstead in an unheated dormitory and had little to eat with the exception of watered-down porridge.

“They’ve taken everything away form me and I am dead. I knew that when I was twelve. You can die more than one in your life, you know.” ~ Coco Chanel

Not accepting of her new life of rules and routine, Gabrielle rebelled; she had a strong will and was constantly being disciplined by the nuns. What Gabrielle did latch onto however, was the high standards that were expected by all of the children, a trait that she would carry on throughout her life. While at the orphanage, she dreamt of the life she wanted and used this time as inspiration. Chanel’s colour palette today is generally described as onyx and bleach white was inspired by the stark coldness of Aubazine.

“Its whitewashed, unadorned walls and imposing doors painted a black so deep, so noble, that if you every saw it, it would stay in your memory forever.”

The night sky print so often used on Chanel silks and the Maltese cross found in many of Chanel’s jewellery collections were inspired by the mosaics made from thousands of tiny pebbles the monks placed in Aubazine. Lastly, the window panes formed a geometric pattern with knots and leaps that look similar to that of the double ‘C’ of Chanel’s logo. A tough time in her life, one which she likely prefer she never had, was also what had inspired Chanel for so many things.

The night sky print so often used on Chanel silks and the Maltese cross found in many of Chanel’s jewellery collections were inspired by the mosaics made from thousands of tiny pebbles the monks placed in Aubazine. Lastly, the windowpanes throughout the orphanage formed a geometric pattern with knots and leaps that look similar to that of the double ‘C’ of Chanel’s logo. A tough time in her life, one which she would have likely preferred she’ never had, was also what had inspired an entire business venture.

Upon leaving the orphanage, Gabrielle was determined to make a better life for herself. Her days were spent as a seamstress, furthering her craft and her evenings moonlighting for drunken soldiers, who gave her the nickname “Coco”.

As luck would have it, that Coco would meet a wealthy man, Etienne Balsan, a French textile heir and racehorse owner who took to her ‘adorable’ personality. She would soon be come his mistress which afforded her the opportunity to meet courtesans and aristocrats at the racetrack. On her off time, and when she needed to be hidden away, Coco would hang out with the stable boys and learn to ride horses. It was here where she began despising the dress code customary of her time.

“In their body armour with their bosoms outs, their behinds jutting out too, [they were] bound in the waist until they were almost cut in two”. ~ Coco Chanel

Unable to ride the horses like the men did, Chanel began creating lose-fitting “tomboy” clothing which included jackets, pants and dresses that fell away from the body so you could move and breathe and most importantly, clothes that wouldn’t drag in the mud. Women at the Longchamp racetrack soon started asking Chanel where she got her clothing from and upon learning that she created them herself, would turn to her to create pieces for themselves that they too could breathe in.

Keeping it simple

As the Chanel brand grew in popularity, other lines of products began to emerge. In 1920, recognizing that there was a huge market for fragrance, Chanel employed Ernest Beaux, a perfume designer. He created 10 samples for Coco to choose from and lined them up in 2 rows of 5, each numbered 1 to 5.

Coco claimed that she wanted a perfume that would last, and picked the 5th fragrance she sampled as it was the most potent. She would name this perfume Chanel No5. No fuss, she was onto her next creation.

The tweed jacket that many of us associate with Chanel today, was developed in the 20’s and was mimicked after the hunting jackets she saw on the men while staying at hunting lodges. Her take on the jacket was to die the wool in pastel shades and jewel tones, weave them together to create multi-hued tweeds; in time the jacket evolved into the quintessential collarless cardigan looking jacket we know well today.

When Coco designed dresses, she designed them for herself; everything she made she considered whether or not she would wear the garment and that made decision making extremely straightforward. The world gravitated to her styles because there was a sex appeal to her clothing even though they were not tight or overly revealing.

Her philosophy in all of her designs was “costly-simplicity’. Better to spend money on quality and taste and be elegant forever.

“Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.” ~ Coco Chanel

Having high standards of herself

The strictness of the orphanage left a lasting impression on Coco. Sunday’s were her only day off and even then the nuns required that the children go on long hikes in the mountains. This instilled in her a life-long devotion to exercise and wellness. Near the end of her life, it is documented that Coco was working on athletic shoewear for women which may have pre-dated the Nike trainer and these waffle-soled shoes were reported to be Coco’s way of giving women another comfortable way to rock a Chanel suit.

Coco was not known for eating much as she felt that gluttony and overindulgence would not serve her in creating her craft. Even though by the end of her career, her business employed over 300 people, Coco would still go into the studio every single day to work. By this point she could afford a chauffeur and a footman to drive her around, she also resided on the penthouse floor of the Hotel Ritz in Paris, claiming that she would rather spend money on people to help her cook, clean and drive which gave her more time to sew and design.

“Dress shabbily and they remember the dress; dress impeccably and they remember the woman.” ~ Coco Chanel

Coco had a quite a reputation for expecting the best of not only of herself, but also of her staff. Because she did not do preliminary drawings, it was Coco and Coco alone who could would drape the material and cut. She was quoted “it was better when I pinned it together than when you sewed it” and her workroom head Marie-Louise Derey, mentioned that “if a fitting went wrong, she exploded.” Nonetheless, Coco’s best work was done under pressure and the most beautiful ideas were sparked mere days before a runway show.

Do know this, women who are fortunate enough to wear a Chanel suit, can be rest assured that it took collectively 150 hours to create. This is the antithesis of fast fashion and instead speaks to the high level of care, diligence and love that goes into each and every Chanel garment. People will pay and pay handsomely, for this level of care and craftsmanship.

Standing for something

Although Coco’s sense of style was trendy at the time and certainly her scraping the corset for use of soft jersey was trailblazing, her designs were always intended to make women look and feel elegant while they navigated their metropolitan lifestyles. In fact, it was Coco’s “less is more” approach to fashion, perhaps with the exception of pearls, that allowed her to stand out from the other designers and it was Coco who created and coined the term “little black dress”. A simple concept that every women should have in her wardrobe and black number which she can wear confidently to almost any event.

“Fashion has 2 purposes, comfort and love. Beauty comes when fashion succeeds.” ~ Coco Chanel

Additionally, Coco designed for athletic figures and made sure that the models in her runway shows were women, not teenagers. She wanted real women representing her line; in fact, at 33, Coco would even model her own work, claiming that she was “a voting, wage-earning, independent woman with no time to waste” and that her clothes were designed for herself, or women like herself.

“Adornment, what science! Beauty, what a weapon! Modesty, what elegance.” ~ Coco Chanel

World War II and the aftermath would put Chanel sales on hold; luxury clothing designed in the streets of Paris seemed like a foregone conclusion. Coco had left Paris and had almost given up on running her business, that was until she saw fellow luxury designer, Christian Dior’s, new line. He was adamant on reviving the corset and dressing women in long full skirts again, a nod to “better days” perhaps. This infuriated Coco and her dreams of emancipating women that she came out of the woodwork. His old-fashioned and vulgar taste abhorred Coco so much that she had no choice but to undo what he was trying to accomplish. “What a horror!” she claimed when she saw his work and back to the workroom she went, creating slimline, away-from-the-body dresses. Her comeback was official, Vogue featured her designs over all of the other male designers, and Coco was triumphant once more.

Coco’s first handbag creation was name was 2.55 and was a soft leather, diagonal hand stitched pattern that reflected the stable boy jackets she had admired back in her days. The strap was leather but featured a braided chain, identical to the traditional Chanel handbag you still see in stores today. This purse was so popular, Coco was asked to design other styles but refused. “I am familiar with it. I know where to put my money and everything else [referencing how she uses the bag herself]. One cannot be forever innovating.”

Coco had no aspirations to come up with new and trendy fashions. She designed what she loved, for a ‘woman’ she admired and regardless of the pushback, held firm in her decisions. No man or trend would force her to change her mind and to this day, her traditional looks are worn by many.

“A woman can be overdressed, never over-elegant” ~ Coco Chanel

Dreaming big and living passionately

Chanel never married nor did she have children. Her work was her life and she was devoted to pulling herself out of obscurity and creating a business and a fashion line for which she was proud of. Coco was fiercely committed to her craft, despite the pressures of society at the time.

“The moment I had to choose between the man I loved and my dresses, I chose my dresses.” ~ Coco Chanel

She was faced with many hardships along the way, but always viewed each roadblock as a stepping stone to future growth and success. Even when knock-off brands would sell lookalike clothing, Coco was not offended. By the mid-1960s, 7 out of 10 women’s suits sold in Paris were copies. Coco was not one to protest, in fact she was happy that more people would be able to wear a style of clothing previously not afforded to them.

“Unless the whole world wears your clothes, you are not creating a fashion.” ~ Coco Chanel

Coco was principled and her simplicity allowed her business to endure 2 World Wars, Spanish flu, and The Great Depression. The older Coco got, the more confidence she gained and she viewed her clothing not just as clothes, but a lifestyle. She wanted women to feel as inspired as she had to take control of their lives, no matter what obstacles stood in their way. It was less about the actual clothing and more about a feeling she wanted to exude.

“I don’t understand how a woman can leave the house without fixing herself up a little — if only out of politeness. And then, you never know, maybe that’s the day she has a date with destiny. And it’s best to be as pretty as possible for destiny.” ~ Coco Chanel

By the end of her life Coco was still designing and on Sunday, January 10th, 1971, Coco worked a full day and was merely 1 month shy of completing her Spring/Summer Couture Collection. Never one to take a day off, Coco was in her workroom but left claiming that she didn’t feel well. At 88 years old, Coco took off her shoes, lay on her bed and passed away, dressed in none other than one of her very own Chanel suits. Before her death, she was sure to tell her assistant “no nonsense after I’m dead.” Perhaps in her death she wanted simplicity or perhaps in her death, she was confident she would still live on for decades to come.

“She is very agreeable, really a great and strong being, fit to rule a man and an empire.” ~ Winston Churchill after meeting Coco Chanel

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