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Coco Chanel, whose birth name was Gabrielle Chanel, was given the name Coco as a term of endearment due to her performance in cabaret shows. Chanel's upbeat personality and passion for life is clearly seen in the fashionable designs that her company is known for. Chanel introduced the "little black dress" to the world in 1926, and is the first fashion designer to have her name on a fragrance.
Coco Chanel was born in Samur, France, and was raised in an orphanage; her father, who was a peddler, placed Chanel in the orphanage after her mother passed away. The orphanage was where she learned to sew. In 1910, Coco Chanel opened her first store, where she sold hats. Chanel later opened stores in Deauxville and Biarritz and sold clothing there. She sold fashionable separates that were simple, elegant and the epitome of luxury. Chanel wanted the clothing to be comfortable while having an opulent look. She stated: "Luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury".
In the 1920s, Coco Chanel took her brand to a new level by introducing her first fragrance, Chanel No. 5. Chanel asserted that the intoxicating fragrance "heralds your arrival and prolongs your departure". A few years later, the Chanel line expanded to feature "the suit", a fitted skirt with a collarless jacket. The suit, along with other clothing pieces designed by Chanel, were inspired by the easy-going but tailored nature of men's clothing. Coco Chanel was largely responsible for helping women to embrace less restrictive clothing that was still stylish and form-fitting.
Coco Chanel was also quite active in the artistic community, and lent her talents to her friends who were pursuing their own creative projects. For instance, she designed the costumes for the Ballet Russes for the play Orphee by Jean Cocteau. Chanel was also friends with famed painter Pablo Picasso and was in a relationship with Igor Stravinsky.
Like most legends, Coco Chanel's life was not without scandal. She met the duke of Westminster in 1923, and the two developed a romance that lasted for decades. Apparently, the Duke proposed to Chanel, to which she responded "There has been many Duchesses of Winchester, but there is only one Chanel!"
The economic downturn of the 1920s and 1930s definitely took a toll on the Chanel company, but WWII was what led Coco Chanel to close her clothing company and fire all her employees. During the time that Germany occupied France, Chanel began a romance with Hans Gunther von Dincklage, a German officer. The officer was permitted to stay in Chanel's apartment during the war. Afterward, Coco Chanel was questioned about her relationship with von Dincklage, but was found to be innocent of the crime of collaboration. Some believe that Winston Churchill, another friend of Chanel's, helped her to be found innocent.
However, amidst the exciting and adventurous life Chanel lived, she will always be know for the mark she made in the fashion world. Her multiple strings of pearls, alluring fragrances and classic black and white ensembles will always be style staples.
Coco Chanel died in 1971, at the age of 88, at her Hotel Ritz apartment. Many of the mourners who attended her funeral paid tribute to her by wearing Chanel suits. About 10 years after Chanel's death, designer Karl Lagerfeld became the leading designer of the Chanel company to continue the ground-breaking artist's legacy.