Celebrating Coco’s Birthday With a Brief History of Chanel

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Les mains de Coco Chanel
All Photos: Courtesy of Chanel

Gabrielle Bonheur "Coco" Chanel is born on August 19, 1883, in Saumur, France.


Coco Chanel opens Chanel Modes, a millinery at 160 Boulevard Malesherbes in Paris, with capital given by her suitor and textile businessman Étienne Balsan. In 1913, Chanel opens her first ready-to-wear boutique in Deauville outside Hotel Normandy, where her line of prêt-à-porter sports clothes made primarily from jersey prove to be an instant hit with socialites. On the heels of her success in Deauville, Chanel opens her first couture salon in Biarritz, France. The following year, her designs appear across shores in major American publications. In 1918, Chanel’s most storied couture house, 31 Rue Cambon, opens. Two years later, Chanel creates her iconic suit.
1926 Reconstitution Ford dress


1926 Ford dress drawing in Vogue US
In 1921, 'Chanel No. 5' is born, but Chanel has no idea how famous and long-lasting this scent is destined to be. In 1924, Chanel creates her first line of makeup, and also establishes the “Société des Parfums Chanel” dedicated to the creation of unique beauty products and fragrances. Chanel creates the costumes for the famed Le Train Bleu ballet in 1924. That same year, she also discovers tweed on a trip to Scotland. This fabric will later play a huge role as the main material used for her iconic suits. Speaking of Chanel icons, Chanel creates the “Little Black Dress” (at the time, called the ‘Ford’ dress) in 1926, which was in turn hailed by top magazines as an instant classic.


In 1931, Chanel is tapped by Samuel Goldwyn to create clothing for Hollywood’s leading silver-screen stars. The following year, Chanel presents an exhibition of jewelry called Bijoux de Diamantes centered on the diamond, which features her iconic 'Comet' and 'Fountain' necklaces. Unfortunately, World War II forces Chanel to close her shops in 1939, but 31 Rue Cambon remains open for accessories and perfumes.


Marie Helene Arnaud carrying the first Chanel 2.55 bag
Coco Chanel exiles to Lausanne, where she stays at the Beaurivage Palace. In 1954, at the age of 71, Chanel decides to reopen her famed couture house, thus inspiring a second fashion revolution. The year 1955 sees the launch of the famed '2.55' quilted bag (named because it was launched in February of that year), which immediately becomes the most coveted accessory in the world – and remains one of the most sought-after “It” bags to this day.


Coco Chanel creates the timeless two-tone slingback shoe, featuring beige leather and a contrast cap-toe. Women everywhere go wild for the shoe, which effectively made the foot look smaller and the leg look longer. Read a complete overview of the Chanel 'Two-Tone' shoe's history, here.
Italian actor Gina Lollobrigida surrounded by models wearing the two-tone shoe


Catherine Deneuve the face of Chanel No. 5
Coco Chanel reaches even higher acclaim when world-famous stars like Elizabeth Taylor, Jane Fonda, and Jackie Kennedy publicly wear her designs. Romy Schneider wears Chanel in a Luchino Visconti movie. Catherine Deneuve becomes the new face of the 'Chanel No. 5' ads in 1968. Chanel creates 'No. 19', a fragrance named after her date of birth (August 19, which happens to be tomorrow) in 1970.


Coco Chanel passes away, but her posthumous collection is received with the highest praise. Three years later, Alain Wertheimer (grandson of Pierre Wertheimer, Chanel’s long-time partner and occasional business rival) takes control of the company at age 25. In 1978, the Chanel brand releases its first ever ready-to-wear collection and begins distributing its accessories collections worldwide.
Chanel ready-to-wear 1979


Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel in the 1980s
On a day that will forever live in the history books, Karl Lagerfeld is appointed in 1983 to be the new Creative Director of Chanel, where he presides over haute couture, ready-to-wear, and accessories to this day. The following year, Chanel launches one of its most iconic fragrances called 'Coco'. In 1990, Chanel launches a new men’s fragrance, 'Egoiste', which defies traditional masculine notions with the inclusion of sandalwood and vanilla notes.


In 1993, Chanel launches its first official fine-jewelry line and pays homage to the original collection launched by Mademoiselle Chanel in 1932. Chanel joins the digital age in 1996 when it registers its internet domain (Karl has obviously always been an early adopter). The same year, Chanel opens a boutique in NYC on 57th Street.
Chanel comete ring fine jewelry


Chanel - Lesage and Lemarié
In a move that will forever change and improve the quality of Chanel’s designs, the brand acquires eight specialty ateliers: Desrues (metalwork), Lemarié (flower and feather craftsmanship), Maison Michel (millinery), Maison Lesage (embroidery), Massaro (footwear), Goossens (goldsmith), Guilet (floral accessories), and Atelier Montex (embroidery). 'Metiers D’Art' is established to celebrate the fine craftsmanship that the eight ateliers are famed for. In 2005, The Metropolitan Museum of Art hosts an exhibition in honor of the House of Chanel and its long legacy. Another museum follows suit in 2007, this time in Moscow, when the Pushkin State Museum hosts the Chanel, Art As Universe exhibition. Later that year, Chanel launches ‘Les Exclusifs’, a special line of rare fragrances available only in Chanel boutiques. Continuing on the museum circuit, Chanel goes on tour in 2008 with a traveling exhibition called Mobile Art, curated by renowned architect Zaha Hadid. The exhibit traveled to Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York, and included art by 20 different artists who were inspired by Chanel’s iconic quilted bags. In 2010, Chanel releases a new men’s fragrance called 'Bleu de Chanel'.


In 2011, Chanel is honored by the international art world with an exhibit entitled Culture Chanel, which showed at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Shanghai and at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. The year 2012 sees the launch of a new book called The Little Black Jacket: Chanel’s Classic Revisited by Karl Lagerfeld and Carine Roitfeld that celebrates the brand's signature jacket. A range of celebrities and models were shot for the book in reinvented jackets. The following year, Chanel launches the No.5 Culture Chanel Exhibition to honor the immensely popular fragrance. Soon after, Chanel heads to Rome, where it debuts a glorious 'Metiers d'Art' collection at the iconic Cinecittà film studio.
Chanel Metiers D'art Rome Detail Shot


Karl Lagerfeld Karl For Ever
Karl Lagerfeld's long career comes to a tragic end when the designer passes away from health complications in February 2019. The world reacts with grief, but his incredible legacy as one of fashion's most important designers endures. After his death, Chanel appoints his "left and right hand" Virginie Viard to replace him as Creative Director.
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