Coco Chanel: Fashion Designer, Business Mogul, and Spy

Coco Chanel: Fashion Designer, Business Mogul, and Spy

It’s likely that you’ve already heard
of Coco Chanel either from her famous perfume, or
the luxury clothing brand based on her name. As a woman trying to build a business in a
time where the world was controlled by men, Chanel started at less-than-zero. And yet she found a way to climb to the position
of being one of the most wealthy and powerful women in the world. On today’s Biographics, we are here to tell
you the true rags-to-riches story of Coco Chanel. Early Life
Gabrielle Chanel was born on August 19th, 1883 in France’s Loire Valley. Her mother, Eugénie Jeanne Devolle, was an
unwed laundry woman. She gave birth to Gabrielle in a charity hospital
run by nuns. On the day she was born, her mother had to
write “traveling” where the father’s name should be. That wasn’t just an excuse for an absentee
dad, though, because Albert Chanel traveled from town to town selling clothing to local
peasants. Gabrielle had one older sister, Julia, and
they were less than a year apart. The couple had their hands full with two infant
daughters, and they could hardly scrape by with what money they had. In 1884, Albert and Jeanne’s family gave
them money so that they could pay for a marriage license. After their union was official, they had several
more children, and the family all lived in a cramped one-room apartment in the town of
Brive-la-Gaillarde. Gabrielle learned how to sew at an early age
to help her father with his clothing business. But when she was just 12 years old, Gabrielle’s
mother became sick, and died. Raising young children is very much a full-time
job, so he could not earn an income and take care of them at the same time. He sent his sons to work on a farm, and the
girls were sent to a convent called Aubazine to be raised by nuns. The nuns taught her discipline, as well as
how to read and write. She learned to carry herself with the grace
and elegance of a lady, rather than a peasant. Most of the other children living in the convent
were orphans. But since her father was still alive, Gabrielle
refused to consider herself an orphan, too. She held onto the hope that her father would
return one day, and that they could be a family again. Books were a way for her to get lost in a
world of fantasy. She began to create elaborate stories about
her own life, as well, to help ease the pain of her reality. Later in life, one of the most common stories
she told her friends was how she was raised by her strict “Aunties”. She continued giving lies and half-truths
about her past, which made it almost impossible for anyone to know just how difficult her
childhood truly had been. Becoming “Coco”
At age 18, Gabrielle left the convent to find a job. There were very few opportunities for women
to find work, but she was lucky to have the sewing skills she learned from her father. She worked as a seamstress during the day,
making clothing for rich ladies in the town of Moulins. This was a very solitary job, and she was
hidden in a backroom working long hours mending and assembling garments. At night, she worked a second job at a nightclub,
where she would sing and dance in front of a crowd. When she was 23, her act caught the attention
of a man named Etienne Balsan. He was the wealthy heir to the Balsan garment
company, which supplied the French army with its uniforms. Gabrielle Chanel started going by the nickname
“Coco”. Years later, even Chanel herself would tell
everyone a different story of where the name came from. Some believe it was based on the lyrics of
a song she used to sing. Others think it’s short for the French word
“Cocotte”, which means “a kept woman”- or- in today’s slang, “sugar baby”. For someone in Gabrielle Chanel’s situation,
these wealthy men were the only hope she had of escaping poverty. Balsan had a “type”- which was aspiring
actresses. The girlfriend who lived with him before Chanel
was named Emilienne d’Alencon, and she went on to become rich and famous with her successful
career in Paris. Gabrielle had no delusions about the relationship
with Etienne Balsan, and she knew that by sleeping with him, he would help introduce
her to the right people. But after a few auditions, it was clear that
she just wasn’t cut out for show business. She was staying at Balsan’s house in the
country, the Chateau de Royallieu for a few days. The home was set in the middle of the forest,
where Balsan enjoyed riding horses and hunting. When his guests came over for the weekend,
he kept her like his dirty little secret, telling her to hide in one of the back bedrooms. This was infuriating for Chanel. It was clear that Balsan was willing to sleep
with her, and yet he was ashamed to be seen with her in public. Plenty of people would feel completely dejected
by this whole situation. Instead of feeling defeated, this sparked
a fire in Chanel. She wanted to prove that she was worthy of
being at this party. The only problem was that the clothes she
arrived in made it obvious that she was poor. So she took one of Balsan’s suits and cut
it apart, tailoring it to fit her body perfectly. Then, she showed up to the party uninvited. She carried herself with confidence, while
everyone’s heads turned to see this beautiful woman standing in a man’s suit. When the guests asked why she was dressed
like that, she casually said it was far more comfortable. Remember- this happened in the year 1906,
so this was completely unheard of. Women were wearing corsets, long gloves, and
multiple layers of skirts. At the party, Chanel was clever, and interesting
to talk to. When she made new friends, she would make
up elaborate stories about her past, just like she did as a young girl. She once said, “My life didn’t please
me. So I created my life.” Balsan was impressed by this stunt, so he
allowed her to continue living at his Chateau, and she joined his inner circle of friends. He began to treat her to new clothes and jewelry,
but she continued to use the fabric from Balsan’s discarded clothing to make herself outfits
to wear, instead. For most women, adding layers of fabric, feathers,
and jewels was a way to show off that they were married to someone who had a lot of money. Chanel thought these things were vulgar, and
she didn’t care if a simple style made her look poor. She just wanted to be comfortable. Soon enough, other women began to copy Coco’s
style. Looking at photos of Chanel in her youth,
it’s almost as if they were taken today, or like she was a time traveler sent back
a hundred years. Years later, she was quoted saying, “In
order to be irreplaceable, one must be different.” During World War I, women everywhere began
to wear pants, because they had to work while their husbands were away. But by the time the men returned, they wanted
their wives to go back to wearing dresses. Of course, women in the upper class never
had to work at all. So they never stopped wearing their corsets
and layers of uncomfortable fabric. If Coco Chanel was going to convince them
to change, it would happen in stages, and over a very long period of time. Love. When she was 26 years old, Gabrielle met an
English businessman named Arthur Capel at one of Etienne Balsan’s parties. Everyone called him “Boy”, because he
was the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. He worked his way up in the world to become
a self-made man. Out of everyone in Balsan’s inner circle,
he was one of the only people who actually worked for a living. Chanel was not satisfied to sit around and
do nothing all day like other kept women. She was earning an income from selling custom-made
hats to women who admired her style, but she kept the money in cash. At the time, women could not own businesses,
rent an apartment, or even have bank accounts without a guarantor, which was usually the
father or husband. Arthur Capel could see that Gabrielle Chanel
was a genius, and he believed in her long before anyone else did. He encouraged her to open a shop, and helped
her by putting his name on everything. Gabrielle ran the business entirely on her
own, and began hiring women to help increase production. Boy and Coco were a perfect pair, because
they were both passionate about each of their respective businesses, and had mutual respect
for one another. Arthur Capel used his experience to help look
over contracts and negotiate the business deals, but the rest was all on her. Even before opening her first shop, Chanel
already had loyal clientele from Paris, so it became successful right out the gate, and
she began seeing profits almost immediately. Boy and Coco used the money to purchase a
lavish townhouse in Paris, which doubled as the fashion studio. The whole of the ground floor was an open
space filled with the workshop. She created jobs for women in the local area,
and her staff was growing all the time. Upstairs, she kept an apartment, and whenever
Capel was in Paris, he lived there with her. But no matter what she did to prove her success,
Coco Chanel could never be seen as the “marrying type” in the eyes of the aristocracy. As the member of a noble family, Arthur Capel
was expected to end his affair and marry someone with a title. In 1918, he wed an English woman named Diana
Wyndham, who was a widow, and related to an assortment of Earls and Dukes. But he and Chanel were still very much in
love, and continued their relationship behind closed doors. On December 22, 1919, Arthur Capel died in
a car crash on his way to spend the holidays with Coco. His funeral was on Christmas Eve. They were together for 9 years, and Chanel
planned to live out the rest of her life with him. She was just 35 years old when he died. Arthur Capel had been the love of her life,
and no other man ever came close to replacing him. Years later, her name would be known around
the world, and those same aristocrats who refused to accept her would be fighting to
wear her designs. There came a point in her life when her celebrity
catapulted her to a place where she could have married anyone she wanted, but she never
did. The one man she truly wanted to be her husband
was gone forever. He knew her before, during, and after her
success, and there was no way to replace that. But she had a resilience that helped her to
keep going, no matter what. She said, “When you’re feeling sad, add
more lipstick, and attack.” Fashion
After the unexpected death of her beloved Boy, Coco Chanel needed to find a new business
partner. At that time, she had over 300 employees. She was designing couture dresses that were
selling for over 3,000 francs each. In today’s money, that’s more like $38,000
per dress, and she had an entire army of women making these things. You would think that this should have proven
that she was more than capable of running a successful business. But nope- she was still a woman, so the banks
refused to deal with her directly. It would become impossible for her to run
her business on cash alone, and it was completely necessary for her to seek help from a male
partner. The law banning women from opening bank accounts
would not change until 1965, after the passing of the French Family Law. This is when she met Pierre Wertheimer. He had a reputation for working together with
other luxury brands around Paris, and he offered to be her business partner. The only issue was that Chanel knew nothing
about law or business contracts. Arthur Capel always had her best interest
at heart, and he gave her the freedom to run her business as she pleased, and keep her
profits for herself. So, she was far too trusting, and unwittingly
signed a contract that said that Pierre Wertheimer was entitled to take 90% of her business profits. Even though this contract was ridiculously
unfair, it meant that Chanel could stay in business, and she did not let this setback
get the best of her. In 1921, Chanel began working with a celebrity
perfume chemist named Ernest Beaux. At the time, women were wearing oils that
had a single floral scent. She wanted to create a perfume with a layers
which developed over time. This is when they created Chanel No. 5, and
it became one of the best-selling perfumes in the world. For years to come, perfume and candle makers
would copy the idea of mixing various scents together to create a unique experience. Before Chanel, women never wore black, unless
they were in mourning. In the 1920’s, Vogue compared her iconic
“little black dress” to Ford’s Model T. It was simple, elegant, and revolutionary. Soon enough, people around the world were
looking to Chanel for inspiration. There was a ripple effect in women’s clothing
in the rest of the world. Without Coco Chanel, there is no telling what
kinds of clothes women would be wearing today. Years later, Chanel reflected on that time. “I gave women a sense of freedom. I gave them back their bodies: bodies that
were drenched in sweat, due to fashion’s finery, lace, corsets, underclothes, padding.” Despite the fact that she swore off ever marrying,
Chanel continued to be in relationships with men. But no matter how powerful they may have been,
she always stayed true to herself. She dated Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, who
was related to the Russian Romanov family. Next was Edward VIII, Prince of Wales. And before the dawn of World War II, she began
a relationship with a German man named Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Looking at her track record, it would seem
that she had a personal goal of trying to see if she could date at least one aristocrat
from each country in Europe. But her decision to be in a relationship with
Von Dincklage would become both a blessing, and a curse. Because just a few years later, the Nazi Party
would rise to power, and Chanel’s lover would reveal his true colors. War. By the 1930’s, business was absolutely booming,
and they needed all the space they could get in the House of Chanel. Her all-female staff increased to 300 workers,
and it became necessary for Chanel to move out of the studio, and into the Hotel Ritz. At this point, Chanel had bought up several
stores along a street called The Rue Cambon, which ran directly behind The Hotel Ritz. In 1936, there was a labor movement in France,
and workers were demanding better conditions across the country. On April 26th, Coco Chanel arrived at her
studio to see that all 300 of her employees were sitting on the floor in protest. They all refused to work, unless their wages
increased and their work hours lessened. Chanel was outraged, because she already paid
these women higher wages and gave more vacation time than any other business. Instead of giving in to their demands, she
fired all 300 of them on the spot, saying that they were ingrateful, and she could do
the work on her own. But they refused to move. Finally, she gave in to their demands, for
the sake of getting on with the work. In 1939, Germany had occupied Poland, and
Chanel knew it was only a matter of time before they were coming for France. It’s possible that her boyfriend, Hans Gunther
von Dincklage let her know that the takeover was eminent. She laid off all 300 of her workers, and encouraged
them to seek safety before it was too late. Coco Chanel was not going to leave her business,
no matter what happened. Just three months later, Germany occupied
France. The Nazis destroyed businesses and homes of
countless number of French people. The Nazis even took over the Hotel Ritz as
their headquarters, so Chanel very literally had to live among them. Her home and business were both safe, so long
as she continued to be in that relationship with Von Dincklage. But, knowing Chanel, she would have hated
this. She never wanted to be beholden to any man,
let alone the ones who thought they could rule the world. The Nazis knew that she was close friends
with the British royal family, so they asked if she would become one of their secret agents
in 1943. She was given the code named “Model Hat”. On a trip with Von Dincklage, she met with
Winston Churchill, and handed him a letter, which gave Germany’s demands for England’s
surrender. Obviously, he didn’t take their offer, and
it wouldn’t be surprising if he crumpled up the paper where he stood. There is no way of knowing what was said between
Churchill and Chanel. Was she actually a double-agent, divulging
Nazi secrets? We will never know. But when the war was over, Chanel was never
brought to trial for cooperating with the Nazis. She never spoke about that time, and buried
it deep, like she did with all of the other unpleasant memories in her life. Coco Chanel never said anything publicly that
was Anti-Semitic. The only documented issue she ever had was
with Pierre Wertheimer, who just so happened to be Jewish. After the Nazis occupied France, they were
seizing any property that belonged to the Jews, and that included businesses. She wrote a letter to the Nazi government,
asking if there was a chance that she could buy back the remaining 90% of House Chanel. However, the family temporarily sold their
business entities to Christians during the war, and they had already fled to safety. There are plenty of people who cannot forgive
Coco Chanel for cooperating with the Nazis. But for a moment, put yourself in her shoes:
She had two choices. Break up with her boyfriend, condemn the Nazis,
and lose everything. Or, bite her tongue, and keep on pretending,
for the benefit of maintaining the life she worked so hard to build. She chose life. And if she were alive today, she probably
wouldn’t even bother to explain her decisions. In her own words, “I don’t care what you
think of me. I don’t think about you at all.” When the war was over in 1945, Chanel dumped
Von Dinklage quicker than you can say “Auf Wiedersehen.” She moved on to having an affair with the
Spanish artist Salvador Dali, which is an interesting choice, to say the least. Legacy
When the war was over in 1945, Coco Chanel was 62 years old, and she no longer felt inspired
to create new clothes. She chose to retire from the fashion world
for years, and lived off of the royalties from the sales of her perfume. In 1958, she found her second wind at the
age of 75. She unveiled new designs, and reopened House
Chanel. This sparked a resurgence in her brand’s
popularity. Coco Chanel chose a man named Karl Lagerfeld
to be her successor for the brand. She had more than enough money to retire and
live a comfortable life, but she worked until the day she died on January 10th, 1971. When she died, she was 87 years old, and had
an estimated net worth of $100 million. Yes, this sounds like a lot of money, but
keep in mind that Pierre Wertheimer’s grandsons still own 90% of Chanel, even to this very
day. They are now multi-billionaires. Today, many people think of Chanel as a brand
that is intimidating and unattainable. But for those who look at the price tag, they
miss the point. Coco Chanel was quoted saying on more than
one occasion that she believed people should wear what makes them happy. Wear the colors you feel great in, and the
style that makes you feel comfortable. Instead of trying to be flashy or follow a
trend, your attitude and the way you carry yourself speaks far more than the clothes
on your back. She said, “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,
and what is happening.” Now, before we end this video, I just wanted
to say that our audience here on Biographics is only 13% female, and we look to these analytics
when we decide what videos to make. If you’re a woman in the audience, please
do subscribe, so we know you’re out there. And if you felt inspired by the story of Coco
Chanel, please share this with someone in your life that you know would appreciate it,
too. Thanks for watching.

100 thoughts on “Coco Chanel: Fashion Designer, Business Mogul, and Spy

  1. Hello as you requested I am female. I love watching your videos and love the way you tell a story. I have learnt so much already.

    10% female?!
    Wulp, that's a true surprise!

    P.S. please, do one on Charles Ives, also Dmitri Shostakovich.

  3. This is the third video of yours I've watched today all in a row. It started with your Trump bio then Robin Williams and now Coco Channel. All have been excellent. I'm hooked. 👍🏻

  4. Lady viewer here!! 😁 Love your videos!! I'm learning about people I never knew about!! Virginia Hil!!! 👏 Keep them coming!! 😉 Thank you!! 🏆

  5. Hello from New Zealand. One of your few female subscribers. I would love to see you guys do Richard Kluklinkski aka The Iceman

  6. Great to see Simon Whistler hosting another channel . Great recap on a Legend… Only surprise is there was not ANY Mention of the Ubiquitous "Chanel Suit" (think Patsy Stone) . #SexySimon is always pleasant to watch and listen to.

  7. I will say, although I don't have an interest in square-space, you do sell it well. I would definitely start asking for more money.

  8. I really hope people keep talking about how Chanel was a Nazi, people need to know so they'll stop supporting her brand.

  9. Coco Chanel liberated women (and children) from the corset. Guess the corset contributed greatly to mother/infant death rate.

  10. I’m trying to be a fashion designer and coco is my biggest inspiration even more so after this video. I can see why she just kept her head down to the nazis, that choice is so impossible

  11. Hey Simon! I'm a long time subscriber on all of your channels and it never occurred to me, there would only be 10% of Lady viewers!

  12. This video shone a new light on Coco. I still don't agree with her decisions when it came to Nazis and the way she treated her employs but I respect her work ethic, determination, and confidence. And it's appalling that 90% of her business is still owned by someone else.

  13. It doesn't matter that only 10% of your viewers are female (more would be ideal). Keep putting out great content like this to keep men informed too of great women like Chanel! Love to see more of such videos!

  14. I'm subscribed female and i love brushing up facts and learning something new my boyfriend has yet to get head out his rectom and expand his mind he may achieve something more than 22 British grass league trophies lol thank you Simon for you enticing voice that encourages education for me

  15. I’m a woman, and I’ve watched a LOT of these videos now (and recommend this channel to basically everyone I meet!). I always thought of Chanel as bougie and never really appealed to me, but after hearing her biography, I think she’s my “feminine soul sister” lol. What she did for women- especially for women who can’t afford upper class clothing is really impressive. Her views on clothes are also impressive. I love her “body positivity” attitude. I came out of this loving her as a person though still being critical of high fashion brands- the moral dilemmas of life…

  16. You flippantly excuse collaboration with the Nazis, but at the time (and long after) people were quite absolute about the difference between right and wrong. Revisionist historians may point at some grey areas, but those were not seen at the time. Morally it was a black and white world and collaboration with the Nazis was seen as evil. Of course, protecting possessions and greed were reasons for collaboration, but that was no excuse at the time. Collaboration was still seen as immoral after the war, but only those who had actually committed major crimes during the war were punished. After the war, many companies and people that had prospered from collaboration with the Nazis survived, as did many German companies with murky pasts. But older generations (and some young people) in Europe know exactly which companies and people were 'wrong' during WWII. Chanel is on that list, because Coco was a collaborator.

  17. I am not a lady, but I have enjoyed several of your videos. Several others have caused me to question your motivation, but that's on me.

  18. I'm over 50, female and I love your content.
    Also, I've been following Gabrielle for a very long time. I was a Fashion Merchandising major for a while. Thanks for the content.

  19. coco was also an animal abuser…her friends and her would go out and cut beaks and horns off animals and sit around ,drink champagne and watch them die horridly! It was funny to them to watch something so in pain. Honestly after I read that I could not even use any of my chanel stuff. I cant stand animal abuse. Yes it may be extreme but we all need to stand for something and that is a huge limit for me. Coco was simply put a total bitch. But still a fashion icon and always will be.

  20. Craven self-interest isn’t noble. It’s pathetic. There are people who went to the gallows to protect democracy and human rights. She kept her pearls but lost her soul.

  21. As a woman , I’d like to say how much I enjoy watching these videos . As someone who has always been interested in history , I’ve learnt lots of facts about people that I wouldn’t have read about normally . Keep up the great work n let’s hope more than 10% of women subscribe in the future 👍😋

  22. I'm a woman and ive just resubed for the 3rd time 🙁 yt keeps removing my sub maybe thats why your women veiwer rating is low

  23. I really enjoy your videos in general but especially when I’m anxious your stories are interesting and your voice is really relaxing and helps me chill out Thank you! Educational & Therapeutic 😄👍

  24. I`m a part of the 10%. Why are the viewers only 10% female? I love all of Simons channels. I found his videos by accident because of the Why are kinder eggs forbidden in the US video.

  25. Female and subscribed. Why in heavens name are there so few women watching this channel? It is incredibly interesting. I keep getting stuck on binge watch.

  26. Coco Chanel was an amazing woman, arriving at a time when women were changing their role and beginning to make themselves fully known in the world…even in a tailored man's suit!

  27. Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel he spied for Nazi Germany and SS!It was anti-Semitic even than Adolf Hitler!Coco Chanel it was SATAN!It was a great BITCH! Coco Chanel!To be cursed forever!

  28. @Biographics – what was the bit that Simon mumbled at the end about "ten percent female"? This is a marvelous story of a very unique person and a note to those who judge her for her Nazi cooperation: when you are given the choice (yes YOU) between "standing for your principles and dying for them" what would you do? Most folk I know are blazing cowards when it comes to "doing the right thing". I'm glad she lived to create such wonderful quotable ideas. Who or what is "ten percent female"?


  30. I'm struck by that photograph of Chanel in the striped shirt. She would not look out of place in any era up to this very day. truly a timeless look.

  31. If she made it once, she could have done all over again but she chose to become a nazi spy to keep her lifestyle ? and you believe that's fair? Jewish Children were burnt alive so she could keep her business. Coco Channel was a disgraceful, despicable human being.

  32. There is a video. A woman rides a bike, waltzes etc in a Victorian corset, which she says is comfortable enough if properly fitted.

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