The House of Chanel: History6 min read

Coco Chanel, the artistic genius of a million dollar empire, who was born by the name of Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, was a French fashion designer who ruled over Parisian haute couture for almost six decades. Her elegantly casual designs inspired women of fashion to abandon the complicated, uncomfortable clothes like petticoats and corsets that were prevalent in 19th-century dress code. Among her ever so classy innovations were the Chanel suit, the quilted purse, costume jewelry, and the “little black dress”.

Although the cosmetics and perfume wing of the French fashion house began many years ago with a little fragrance called No5. It started life back in 1921 when Gabrielle ‘Coco’ Chanel was already reigning over the Paris fashion world.

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Coco Chanel

Chanel was born into poverty in the French countryside. After a brief stint as a shop girl, Chanel worked for a few years as a café singer. She later, with financial assistance from Arthur Capel, opened a tiny millinery shop in Deauville, France, where she also sold simple sportswear, such as jersey sweaters. 

Within the span of mere five years, her use of jersey’s fabric to create a poor girl look had attracted the attention of influential wealthy women seeking relief from the prevalent corseted styles. Faithful to her belief that “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury,” Chanel’s designs stressed simplicity and comfort and revolutionized the fashion industry, changing uncomfortable corsets to leisure suits. 

Chanel enlisted a lot of financial help from various companies and wealthy gentlemen. The magnificent empire of Chanel no. 5 was first supported financially with the help of Ernst Beaux and introduced to the world in 1921 for the very first time. Ernst Beaux was one of the most-talented perfume creators in France.

It is said that from the various samples procured by Ernst Beaux, Chanel chose the fifth sample, giving the perfume its official name. It was a combination of jasmine and several other floral scents that was more complex and mysterious than the single-scented perfumes then on the market. Chanel was the first major fashion designer to introduce a perfume and that she replaced the typical perfume packaging with a simple and sleek bottle also added to the scent’s success.

She partnered with businessmen Théophile Bader of the Galeries Lafayette department store and Pierre Wertheimer of the Bourjois cosmetics company, who both agreed to help her produce more of her fragrance and to market it in exchange for a share of the profits. After signing a contract wherein she received only 10 percent of the royalties, Chanel enacted a series of lawsuits in the ensuing decades to regain control of her signature fragrance. Although she was never able to renegotiate the terms of her contract to increase her royalties, Chanel nonetheless made a considerable profit from the perfume.

By the late 1920s the Chanel industries were reportedly worth millions and employed more than 2,000 people, not only in her couture house but also in a perfume laboratory, a textile mill, and a jewelry workshop. At the same time, Chanel started to expand and go global launching a cosmetics line in 1924 and a range of skincare products in 1929.

Chanel closed her couture house in 1939 with the outbreak of World War II. Her associations with a German diplomat during the Nazi occupation tainted her reputation, and she did not return to fashion until 1954. That year she introduced her highly copied suit design: a collarless, braid-trimmed cardigan jacket with a graceful skirt. She also introduced bell-bottomed pants and other innovations while always retaining a clean classic look.

In the 50s, Chanel No5 really was the perfume to be smelt in. In a 1954 interview, Marilyn Monroe famously answered the question “What do you wear to bed?” with the line “Just a few drops of No5”.

After her death in 1971, Chanel’s couture house was led by a series of different designers, stabilizing the situation in 1983 when Karl Lagerfeld became chief designer. 

The popularity of the perfume continued to grow but this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. In the 1970s it was decided that No5 had lost its air of exclusivity so it was reinvented and made less widely available. Huge advertising campaigns were adopted using big name directors and big name stars; a Chanel tradition that lives on to this day.

Chanel’s shrewd understanding of women’s fashion needs, her enterprising ambition, and the romantic aspects of her life, her rise from rags to riches and her sensational love affairs, continued to inspire numerous biographical books, films, and plays, including the 1970 Broadway musical Coco starring Katharine Hepburn.

Chanel Today

Today Chanel is 87 years old and worth $100 Million. Chanel is owned by by Alain Wertheimer and Gérard Wertheimer, grandsons of Pierre Wertheimer, who was an early business partner of the couturière Coco Chanel. Chanel focuses exclusively on women’s high fashion and ready-to-wear clothes, luxury goods, and accessories.

Chanel has a huge range of fancily-priced makeup with seasonal launches and limited edition collections that come thick and fast. In more recent years, something strange happens when Chanel launch a new shade. People get a bit giddy, waiting lists are formed and cheap copycats are produced. 

It is one of the top luxury brands, a classic understanding of from rags to riches and a desire of every woman across the globe. Overtime they have become exclusive, desired and rare which are the reasons why Chanel’s items are both popular and expensive.

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