Coco Chanel making alterations to a model's jacket in 1962 Credit: Hatami/Shutterstock

Who was the real Coco Chanel?

With a newly opened exhibition showcasing the work of Coco Chanel, her biographer examines the icon’s impact on fashion, her poverty-stricken childhood and the dark side of her character.

“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different,” Coco Chanel once famously said, and there’s no denying that the fashion icon broke the mould, as a new landmark exhibition displaying her cutting-edge designs will showcase. 

Her pioneering approach to couture changed women’s clothing forever, moving trends from restrictive corsetry to elegant, timeless garments, such as the Chanel suit and the Little Black Dress, which allowed more freedom of movement. 

The Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto exhibition at the V&A museum takes visitors on a journey of her chic but functional designs, displaying 180 looks that span her 60 years in fashion. It charts her rise to success out of humble beginnings – from the opening of her first boutique in Paris in 1910 to the showing of her final collection in 1971, after her death.


During her lifetime she became the toast  of French high society, rubbed shoulders with politicians and artists and had a string of love affairs with wealthy men. Born into poverty, she was worth around £80 million in today’s money when she died. Hers was the ultimate rags-to-riches tale as she journeyed from destitute orphan to the top of the French elite. But, while she’s celebrated for revolutionising women’s fashion, her association with Nazis during the Second World War cast a shadow over her legacy.

Gabrielle Chanel, who later adopted the name Coco, was born in 1883 in Saumur, western France, to a mother who was a laundrywoman and a father who was a street vendor. Her mother died when she was 12 and her dad abandoned his children, sending Coco’s two brothers to a local family while she and her sister Julia were dispatched to Aubazine, a secluded orphanage. 

Here Gabrielle had no choice but to discover her true potential. From being inspired by the stained-glass windows for her famous Chanel logo to learning how to sew, Aubazine became the school of life that shaped her and made her who she really was: a talented seamstress and a storyteller. In fact, it’s perhaps during this time that Gabrielle started to weave the intricate web of lies that would influence her entire life.

“She only picked Chanel No 5 from a selection of other fragrance in 1921 because five was her lucky number.”

Aubazine also functioned as a private school for wealthy children and, jealous of the rich girls who slept in warm rooms and had sumptuous breakfasts, Gabrielle started to tell everyone that her father was a businessman, currently away on travels. “One day he will come back,” she said. No one believed her and she and her sister stayed in the coldest rooms of the orphanage until they were old enough to leave.

Aged 18, Gabrielle moved from Aubazine to Moulins, a boarding house for Catholic girls, cut her hair short, named herself Coco after a French song, and embraced the uplifting positivity of the Belle Époque. Coco and her aunt, Adrienne, worked in a local seamstress shop during the day and, when pursuing fame performing at night, they soon became known as the Chanel girls. Neither had the voice to succeed in showbiz yet the connections they made turned out to be far more valuable. 

One of these was French socialite and heir Étienne Balsan. Born into a family of wealthy industrialists, Balsan had a strong impact on Coco’s life, believed in her potential and lent her the money to fund her first hat shop on Boulevard Malesherbes in 1909. He was a playboy who surrounded himself with beautiful courtesans. Coco had charisma and a personality that attracted the wealthiest, most interesting men, but she couldn’t compete with some of Balsan’s beautiful lovers so instead became their friend and confidante. She gave them tips on how to dress, leading to a small clientele that eventually served as the foundation for her first fashion boutique, which opened in 1910 in Rue Cambon in the heart of Paris. 


Coco soon built a name for herself as a designer who created stylish yet practical clothes. Once a symbol for mourners, the Little Black Dress became, and still is today, almost 100 years later, a must-have in every woman’s wardrobe.

Coco’s simple yet elegant style, which included stripes and masculine touches, drew inspiration from another of her famous lovers, Boy Capel. The first flap bag was inspired by Capel’s backpack.

Coco was a woman of many talents, a charisma that won her funding and an unparalleled flair for fashion that meant her designs were in demand even during the most austere of times. She boasted friends including Winston Churchill and had famous artists for lovers, such as Pablo Picasso, who she apparently stole from her best friend, Polish socialite and musician Misia Sert. She had a short affair with Igor Stravinsky while he, his wife and children were staying in her house after fleeing the Russian Revolution.

“In order to be irreplaceable, one must always be different.”

She was a believer in astrology, a fanatic of the supernatural and had a passion for numerology. She only picked Chanel No 5 from a selection of other fragrances in 1921 because five was her lucky number. 

She had a love for the beautiful and expensive, like the Ritz Hotel suite in Paris where she lived from 1937 – even under the German occupation of the city during the war – and died. It was there she had a relationship with Nazi agent Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage, earning her the labels of Nazi sympathiser, anti-Semite and Nazi spy.

Despite a string of affluent lovers, she never married or had children. For a number of years, her nephew, André Palasse, was believed to be her biological son, but that turned out to be untrue. Independence was at the heart of what she did, and what she stood for. She was married to her job, her Maison, and her designs, and expected the same commitment from her workers – something that culminated in her sales assistants striking for better conditions. 

After the war, Coco retired to Switzerland, ostracised by the world for having an affair with a Nazi agent. She temporarily closed the fashion side of the business and focused on fragrances. However, she came back to Paris aged 70 in the 1950s full of ideas and with a hatred for designers like Dior, whose clothes she felt were too elaborate, and Yves Saint Laurent, who, in her view, copied everything she did.

She became a household name in the US: Marilyn Monroe famously said she only wore five drops of Chanel No 5 before going to bed; Katharine Hepburn played her in Coco, a musical about her life. When Coco died aged 87, at  9pm on 10 January 1971, she was, apparently, addicted to morphine, and had become a true romantic heroine of her times. Her friends and family long gone, it was left to her maid and butler to take care of her until the end.

Although she was worth millions when she died, the bulk of profits were from perfume sales; the fashion side of the firm was struggling. Her dislike for the miniskirt and denim stopped the Maison from adapting to a fashion world that was rapidly changing. The Chanel brand had begun to look outdated until Karl Lagerfeld carried it forward through the new millennium and turned it into a huge success. It continues to thrive despite Lagerfeld’s own passing in 2019. In 2021, Chanel’s profits rose 23% over pre-pandemic levels to almost £11.7 billion.

Could Coco have predicted all this? Perhaps. But one thing is certain, Gabrielle Chanel: Fashion Manifesto will, regardless of any controversies, powerful friends or lovers,  bring to light the efforts of one of the most interesting couturières of our time.

The Real Coco Chanel (White Owl, £16.99) by Rose Sgueglia is out in paperback on 30 October.

Gabrielle Chanel. Fashion Manifesto is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, until 25 February 2024. Presented in partnership with Palais Galliera, Fashion Museum of the City of Paris, Paris Musees. With the support of Chanel. 



Written by Rose Sgueglia