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The founder of the House of Chanel really presents a lot of contradictions. She set a fashion for very simple dressing but she lived surrounded by antiques. The founder of the House of Chanel really presents a lot of contradictions. Coco Chanel came from very humble beginnings but she became one of the most famous women of the 20th century. Even her career had two distinct periods. The first part lasted from around 1909 to 1939, when she closed her couture house because of World War II. The second half of the Chanel career was from 1953 to 1970 when she came out of kind of a self-imposed retirement.
Coco Chanel was born in France in 1883 and she was raised in an orphanage, even though she wasn't really an orphan. Her mother had died and her father just couldn't take care of her and her two sisters, so he dropped them off at an orphanage to be raised. As a young adult she was a seamstress in a local shop and also tried to start a career singing in cafes. It's probably there that she acquired her nickname Coco, her real name was Gabrielle, because a couple of the songs she sang had "Coco" in the title. So here singing name, as it were, was Coco Chanel. She was rescued from this kind of unsuccessful singing career by a rich man that she met at the cafe named Etienne Balsan. Balsan was the heir to an industrial fortune, which gave him the time to ride and train and raise racehorses. He was really influential on Chanel, not only in her style of life, but also in her style of dressing, because Etienne and his wealthy riding friends all walked around in English-style riding clothes, and that's the look that she started to acquire.
Coco became an excellent horsewoman and was known throughout her life as a very sporty individual. She not only started to wear English-inflected and menswear styled clothes, she actually could do the sports and the outdoor activities that they represented. Chanel actually started her fashion career as a milliner with a small hat shop she opened in Balsan's apartment in Paris. Chanel's hats were very simple, distinguishing her and her designs from a lot of the other fashionable hats at the time. Her shapes were simple, whereas other designers put a lot of ruffles and feathers and flowers on the hats, Chanel put like one or two ornaments, really keeping it simple in line with her design philosophy. Her first actual clothing shop was opened in Deauville, a resort area, in 1913. Because it was a resort area, people were into less formal, sporty clothes, and so her easy-to-wear skirts and pullovers, her knit tops, found a really receptive audience.
She became a proper couturier in 1915, when she opened a real couture house, a made-to-order house in another resort area in Varetz. When she moved her couture operations to Paris, her career really took off, and she found clients among the avant-garde, artistic, more modern, forward-thinking women in the social world. During the 1920s and the 1930s, Chanel's style really crystallized. She became known for using a lot jersey in daywear, really easy-to-wear knits. Simple shapes, a lot of black. While some people say that Chanel invented the black dress, that's of course not true, but she definitely helped popularize the style.
She did not operate her business from 1939 to 1953. And in fact, her activities during that period remain a bit controversial. When she ended her self-imposed retirement in the '50s and showed her first collection, people were astonished that it was so similar to the work that she had been doing before. They were really looking for something a little bit more revolutionary from this revolutionary designer. But within a year or two, people had realized that this is the Chanel look, and it in fact became very influential on fashion in general.