Humble Beginnings: The Early Years of ‘Coco’ Chanel

The simple mention of the name ‘Chanel’ and images of luxury, grandeur and haute couture spring up in minds across the world. As one of the most recognized and venerated brands in fashion history, Chanel came from the impoverished streets of France to revolutionize women’s fashion and liberate it from its restrictions. Thirty years after her death, Chanel’s lasting impact on the fashion world can still be felt.

Born on August 19, 1883 in Saumur, France, Gabrielle Bonheur ‘Coco’ Chanel was the illegitimate daughter of a shop girl and a street peddler who would know little of the comforts of a stable family life. Her mother passed away when Chanel was just six years old, and it wouldn’t be long before her father also abandoned her. Averse to fatherhood, he quickly ran off and left the young Chanel and her four siblings to fend for themselves on the streets of France. They went to live with their two aunts in Auvergne, France and it was here where Chanel learned much of the etiquette that would characterize her later career.

Living with her aunts, Chanel was taught how to be a polite little girl, to sit up straight and to learn how to sew. She took an early liking to sewing and instead of playing with dolls, spent much time dressing them in material she had cut from curtains. She also spent her time playing sports and horseback riding, atypical activities for a girl of that time. But, Chanel didn’t have the opportunities of most other children and her childhood would soon be interrupted once again.

When she was 17 years old, Chanel was sent to an Aubazine orphanage, where nuns took over as her primary caregivers. Supportive of her efforts as a seamstress, the nuns helped Chanel get a local job to build her talents. But, Chanel was bored with the simplicity of her surroundings and decided to pursue a life of excitement and stardom. She abruptly took off for the town of Moulins in an attempt to become a cabaret singer.

While singing didn’t prove to be Chanel’s forte, the experience was valuable in that it introduced her to Etienne Balsan, a rich French playboy and textile heir who took a liking to the young aspiring singer. Chanel soon found herself as a mistress to Balsan and living a luxurious life. But, Balsan had many mistresses and Chanel grew bored again. She rekindled her interest in sewing and approached Balsan with a business proposition. With more money than he knew what to do with, Balsan decided to give Chanel the money she needed to open up her own hat and dress shop in Paris.

It was a small boutique with just two teenage girls as employees, but Chanel’s first venture into the world of fashion proved successful. She became one of the popular go-to ladies for the well to do of Paris. It wouldn’t be long before Chanel was moving on to bigger and brighter things, turning her single little store into one of the most powerful empires in the fashion industry.

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