Gabrielle Chanel and the Building of a Fashion Empire

Published: 2023/07/06 Number of words: 2647

Although Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was not the most celebrated designer of the 1920s, sometimes overshadowed by couturiers such as Madelaine Vionnet, Jeanne Lanvin and Jean Patou, and although her designs stood, in some cases, on the shoulders of her predecessors (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 147), there can be “no arguing with the fact that Chanel took fashion into the 20th century” (Tungate, 2005, p. 13). Through her distinctive and innovative style, Chanel played a major role “in the creation of the ‘modern woman’” (Arbuckle and Sterlacci, 2008, p. xliv). Instead of trying to sell a fantasy vision of femininity, she was the sole Parisian couturier who focused on producing comfortable and wearable clothes for the real women of the twentieth century (Baker, 2007, p. 41). Today, the signature Chanel look is instantly recognisable worldwide: the straight skirt paired with the cardigan jacket with or without braid trims (Baker, 2007, p. 41). This, together with the little black dress, the quilted bag and the two-tone shoes, follows the principles of “order, poise and good taste”, and is “to survive all the changing dictates of fashion” (Baudot, 1996, p. 4).

But how did she achieve it? What were the priorities, sacrifices and strategies that she had to make or adopt in order to build her fashion empire? This essay will explore her ability to sense and utilise the zeitgeist of the 1920s, her propensity to use marketing and turn her social situation to her advantage, and her practical, capitalist mindset, all of which enabled her to succeed.

Many biographers and fashion historians have had difficulties with answering these questions, for much of Chanel’s life is shrouded in deliberate mystery that creates the enigma of – and therefore desirability for – her brand. Born in 1883, at the age of twelve she was sent to an orphanage in the Aubazine Abbey by her widowed father (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 147) where, clothed in black and educated by nuns, she “learned the ways of silence: austerity, good manners and solitude” (Baudot, 1996, p. 5). This was the place where she learned how to sew, which later helped her find her first employment as an assistant to a dressmaker, and even at this early age, her lifelong tendency of appropriating aspects of menswear into her own wardrobe and designs was manifest (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 122). Starting by decorating hats, she moved to Paris and began a modest millinery business. In 1910, she opened a store in rue Cambon, “gaining the attention of fashion magazines and the custom of a number of notable Parisian actresses and chanteuses”; and, after moving again, this time to 31 rue Cambon, she opened her “fully fledged maison de couture” (Cole and Deihl, 2015, pp. 122 and 147). After decades of success and growth, Chanel closed her atelier during the Second World War and left France amidst controversy. In 1954, however, she made her comeback, introducing her famous two-piece tweed suit, which allows countless design variations, yet retains the essence of Chanel’s style (Arbuckle and Sterlacci, 2008, p. 41).

Many argue that her ability both to sense the social shifts at the beginning of the twentieth century and to further mould and steer these changes is the chief reason for her success. This is not surprising, since both “in her personal life and her career, Coco Chanel exemplified a certain kind of woman who … lived the life of the 20th century: decisive, sexually liberated, self-made, and successful” (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 147). This new kind of woman was born in the crucible of the First World War. During this period, women had to replace men in factories and other professions, and that introduced them to the simple working-class uniform, the practicality and ease of which made it difficult for many women to go back to the constricting and embellished pre-war womenswear. Moreover, the automobile had replaced the carriage, and this more dynamic way of transport required shorter hairstyles and skirts, and practical coats and jackets, making women look less traditionally feminine (Tungate, 2005, p. 13). This emancipation of women’s appearance was reflected in legislations throughout the world, giving women of certain age the right to vote, study at university and find employment in previously male-dominated areas (Herald, 2007, p. 11).

The change in traditional gender roles transformed the lifestyle of the rich as well. Many wealthy women rode on public transport or drove cars, which required more comfortable clothing. These changes eroded aspects of the class system, propelling “the move away from sartorial formality in dress” (English, 2013, p. 37). It is true that many of the already existing fashion houses, such as these of Worth, Poiret and Doucet, continued to create ostentatious, intricately structured and embroidered garments, however, new female designers, like Madeleine Vionnet and Elsa Schiaparelli, made their mark with innovations in construction, function and choice of material, inspired by the broad societal and artistic movements of the twenties (Herald, 2007, p. 40). The most consequential of these women was Gabrielle Chanel.

Her style, “based on ease, comfort for the wearer, and practicality” (Baker, 2007, p. 41), allowed for a manifest synchronicity with the demands of the new lifestyle of the twenties, that way ensuring her professional success (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 122). The unique thing about Chanel – in contrast to houses like Hermès and Louis Vuitton – is that, although it produced and continues to produce luxury goods, it is a brand whose original target market was not the aristocracy (Nagasawa and Sugimoto, 2017, p. 924). All notable fashion houses of the period focused on haute couture, the most exclusive form of garment-making, which “depends upon the projection of a garment that is ideal to the creator’s vision and that can be rendered to the specific demands and shape of the client” (Koda and Martin, 1995, p. 47), and Chanel did aim at conquering this market as well, but not in the traditional, extravagant manner of the other couturiers. She believed that good clothes do not draw people’s attention to themselves but, through subtle design, compliment those who wear them. “The delicious perversity of Chanel has always been that its real signs of class … often remain concealed” (Bruzzi, 2000, p. 295). In other words, she managed to revert the signs of high social status from overt to covert, leading “to a social paradox, where gradually ‘dressing down’ became the epitome of elitist fashion” (English, 2013, p. 33).

She achieved her stylistic revolution in two ways: by appropriating men’s clothing and by using new materials (English, 2013, p. 37). Apart from aspects of military uniforms and riding attire, Chanel adopted the work clothes that women employed in factories had to wear, as well as casual sport outfits (Herald, 2007, pp. 41 and 50). Many of her early creations were made in jersey, a subtle knitted material that most had used only for underwear and hosiery (English, 2013, p. 37) but which turned out to be perfect for her vision. Chanel also took the tweed of English suits and, choosing a rougher weave and dying it in unexpected colours, managed to make what previously would have been described as ‘poor’ look fashionable (Herald, 2007, p. 41).

Yet Chanel’s ability to sense and utilise the spirit of the time was enabled by the important for her success capitalist mindset and ability to see and seize business opportunities. For one thing, she had a talent for networking and mixing with the right people (Tungate, 2005, p. 13); moreover, coming from poverty and without standing in society, she was aware that the ticket to success was money and knew that she would never make “her mark without the financial backing of a rich lover” (Herald, 2007, p. 13). And rich lovers she had, most notably Etienne Balsan, a wealthy horse breeder from a family in the textile business, who supported her for a time and introduced her to important people; and Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, a businessman and polo player from Britain, who funded her millinery business in Paris and its expansion into a couture house in Deauville and Biarritz (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 147).

This initial financial support freed “her ability to perceive and meet the demands of a changing commercial market”, that way contributing to the propelling of “fashion to the fifth largest industry in France in the 1920s” (English, 2013, pp. 33 and 43). She managed this by embracing mass production, which many of the other couturiers looked down upon. Mass production in contemporary sense did not emerge until after the Second World War, however, Chanel was amongst the first to offer a range of ready-to-wear garments in different sizes, “with the price including one alteration” (English, 2013, p. 37). This meant that the cheaper versions of her designs were worn by more women, which contributed to her popularity, unlike the other, more exclusive designers (Reilly, 2021, p. 101).

She understood and emphasized “the power of marketing” (Tungate, 2005, p. 13), using it to her advantage. Flattering coverage in fashion magazines – chiefly American – were crucial for her success. Conveniently, she was the perfect model for her creations and the lifestyle she promoted. Embracing the status of a seductive celebrity, she became famous for cutting her hair short, sunbathing, wearing fake but attractive jewellery and frequenting certain resorts. Chanel’s appeal was aided by the mystery in which she obscured her lower-class origins (Cole and Deihl, 2015, pp. 122, 148 and 147).

She gained further profitable exposure by collaborating with theatre- and filmmakers. By designing the costumes for Le Train Bleu, a production of the Ballets Russes, she presented and promoted her freer activewear to the upper classes and those who sought to emulate them (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 154). In the early 1930s, Chanel also tried working in Hollywood, though it was not a complete success. Hired by the producer Samuel Goldwin for the staggering for the time sum of one million dollars, she was to design both the on-screen costumes and off-screen wardrobes of several of the stars who worked for his studio; yet she worked on only three of his films (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 176). Her garments, “while chic, were understated, certainly not the kind of flamboyant cinematic creations” the producer and audiences were expecting, and she ended her collaboration with Goldwin, later designing “only for a few more films – all by French filmmakers” (Jorgensen and Scoggins, 2015, p. 58).

Working with magazines and ensuring good publicity was essential not only at the beginning of her career, but also after the Second World War, when she moved back to Paris and reopened her business. That was not easy, for she was a vastly controversial figure. She had had an affair with Hans Günther von Dincklage, a high Nazi official, vocally supported the Vichy regime and “regarded members of the French Resistance as criminals since they were breaking the terms of the armistice that France had arranged with the Germans” (Baker, 2007, p. 9). Unsurprisingly, when she reopened her fashion house in 1954, her first show was unsuccessful (Baker, 2007, p. 41). However, “magazines wield tremendous marketing clout”, and Chanel’s business was saved by “the support of Hélène Lazareff, the founder of Elle” (Tungate, 2005, p. 128).

Yet her survival really depended on one major source of income – her perfume. “Chanel No. 5, launched in 1921, is the most famous perfume in the world” and it “is pure profit” (English, 2013, p. 148). This is the type of product that all major luxury brands depend on, and Chanel was one of the pioneers of this strategy. With the displaced meaning branding technique – through which low-income clients are allowed access to cheaper products, such as perfume, sunglasses, smaller bags, etc. – buyers believe that they are part of the lifestyle promoted by the otherwise exclusive brands, whilst the latter ensure a considerable increase in their profits (Reilly, 2021, p. 43). Although Chanel tried to reinforce her business by introducing ready-to-wear and expanding to the international market, the Chanel No. 5 fragrance was “the most profitable venture of her various enterprises” (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 176), and it is still one of the top selling perfumes (English, 2013, p. 148).

Her success, therefore, depended on her practicality and mercantile attitude, which were never overshadowed by artistic pretentions or arrogance. Chanel “never considered herself to be an artist” (English, 2013, p. 41) and is quoted to have said that designers “are not artists but producers of dresses” who just need “much workmanship and a little taste” (Chanel in Steele, 2012, p. 17). This was the complete opposite to the attitude of Paul Poiret, her rival, “who was insistent on promoting the illusion that he was a creative artist who was not concerned with commercialism” (English, 2013, p. 41). Unlike him, Chanel revelled in the comparison of her clothes to Henry Ford’s assembly-line automobiles, saying that a dress is “not an everlasting work of art” and that “[f]ashion should die and die quickly, in order that commerce may survive” (Chanel in Steele, 2012, p. 17). And she did survive, whilst Poiret artistic attitude could not cope with financial challenges, in the end losing “control of his name when a corporation took over his business and forced him out of his maison de couture” (Troy, 2003, p. 17), which later closed altogether.

A similar thing happened with Chanel’s other, even greater, rival – the Italian designer Elsa Schiaparelli. “[M]uch influenced by Salvador Dalí and the Surrealist movement”, Schiaparelli is famous for introducing fantastic and surrealist elements into her garments, believing that “dress designing was not a profession but an art” (Herald, 2007, p. 41). At one point, Schiaparelli, also good at promoting her work, “even surpassed Chanel in renown” (Arbuckle and Sterlacci, 2008, p. 238), who talked of her with contempt, calling her “the Italian artist who made clothes” (English, 2013, p. 51). “However, in 1954, [Schiaparelli’s] couture house declared bankruptcy” (Arbuckle and Sterlacci, 2008, p. 238), which was the year when Chanel reopened her business that later flourished.

It is true that the era of the great pre-war couturiers “came to an end with the death of Coco Chanel in 1971” (Cole and Deihl, 2015, p. 320), yet her brand, later under the artistic direction of Karl Lagerfeld and now in the capable hands of Virginie Viard, is arguably the most successful and profitable fashion venture to date. Moreover, Chanel has given us the blueprint of success in that industry, namely responsiveness to the spirit of the time, the usage of marketing and collaborations, the crucial importance of using displaced meaning branding with cheaper products, such as perfume, and a mercantile attitude that focuses on craft instead of art. To paraphrase Chanel, this approach fortifies brands against the ephemeral nature of fashion and ensures their financial success, as well as the perpetuation of their essence, which is style.


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