If art indeed has its basis in life, then Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel has given us plenty to work with. Consider, for instance, the luminous string of actresses who have portrayed her on stage and screen over the course of the past four decades: Audrey Tautou, Katharine Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine. And like the lady of the hour, their talent was unmistakable, incandescent, one-of-a-kind.
Chanel’s name first transformed, then epitomized, the luxury womenswear market in the 20th century, with thousands of 2.55-toting pilgrims journeying to her quarters at 31 Rue Cambon since her death in 1971. But the designer—born 128 years ago today—did not always operate from a position of privilege. Born to poverty-stricken parents, she spent her formative years shuttling between a convent and the homes of various seamstress aunts, where she picked up the art of sewing. The teenaged Gabrielle then worked as a cabaret performer at the Moulins circuses, earning the definitive nickname Coco, before retiring from the stage and opening up her own clothing shop at the turn of the century.
While initially a milliner, she began constructing outfits made from inexpensive jersey, a move that was unheard of, since the material was traditionally used to produce men’s underwear. Over the next fifty years, the iconic interlocking Cs served as a venerable code of arms for all things chic and classy: pearl necklaces, tweed suits, ballet pumps, even perfume.
Blessed with razor-sharp instincts and a natural flair for business, Chanel’s humble beginnings had beaten a pathway to the gilded sidewalks of Rue Cambon and into the bedrock of history. In spite of her monumental acclaim, she remained every bit an individualist. “The best color in the whole world,” she was once quoted as saying, “is the one that looks good on you.”
There were, inevitably, rumors that Chanel was an anti-Semite, a Nazi spy, an opium-abuser. There had been a series of torrid affairs, some with married men. While her accomplishments were widely praised, many spoke also of her inscrutability, and her deep-seated loneliness. But there is no denying that Coco was a born survivor, gifted with a preternatural brilliance that is reflected in the durability of her empire. Having already conquered two World Wars, that empire is now set to weather some of the worst economic crises of the modern age.
And there was, above all else, that omnipresent zest for life. “I am not young but I feel young. The day I feel old, I will go to bed and stay there. J’aime la vie!” And we’re betting she was impeccably dressed the entire time, too.