by Amanda Mears
Designer Coco Chanel rose above a tragic childhood to become one of the most influential faces of fashion. The only designer to make Time magazine's list of 100 most important people of the century, Coco Chanel was both a social fixture and a global trendsetter. As a pioneer of casual style, Coco once proclaimed, "Luxury must be comfortable; otherwise, it is not luxury." Studded with drama, her rise to fame was helped largely by her ability to handle situations with elegance and poise. For more information about the woman behind some of fashion's most timeless looks, keep reading.
Coco Chanel was raised in an orphanage. Born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, Coco Chanel was the daughter of a stallholder and a laundrywoman. In 1895, Chanel's mother died from tuberculosis and her father abandoned the family, leaving Coco to fend for herself in an orphanage at the age of 12. While there, she was taught to sew by the nuns who cared for her and by her extended family members who housed her during school vacations.
Her first fashion gig was as a milliner. Coco Chanel left the orphanage at the age of 18 to be a cabaret singer. Historians believe that this was when she changed her name from Gabrielle to Coco. While singing, she met a French textile heir who pulled strings to get her a job in a tailoring shop. Soon after, Coco began an affair with another wealthy man, Arthur Capel, who financed Chanel's first shop where she sold hats.
In the 1920s, she introduced her first perfume. Over the course of 10 years, Chanel added several shop locations. As her popularity grew, Coco Chanel decided to launch her first perfume. The classic Chanel No. 5 went on to become one of the most successful fragrances of all time, and it is estimated that a bottle is sold every 30 seconds.
Chanel made the little black dress an icon. Up until the 1920s, black was a color that was typically reserved for mourning. It wasn't until 1926, when Coco decided to put a short black dress from her collection in an American Vogue magazine, that wearing black became chic.
The fashion icon was briefly accused of associating with the Nazi party. During World War II, Coco Chanel shut down her shops to observe the grim atmosphere in France at the time. However, her reputation suffered when she reportedly began dating a German military officer and became involved with the Nazi party. Chanel left France and resided in Switzerland for nine years, taking a break from fashion. However, she made a comeback when she returned to Paris and debuted a new collection filled with timeless wardrobe staples.