Coco Chanel Before She Was Coco

Coco Chanel is hailed as the “the most influential designer of the Twentieth Century”. She pioneered easy elegance for the modern woman, contributing to the demise of the corset and frivolous detailing. What most people don’t know, is that Coco Chanel was a milliner before she was a fashion designer. Here is her story …

Coco Chanel was born as Gabrielle Chanel in 1883. She had very modest beginnings. Born in a poorhouse to penniless parents, she was one of five children. In 1895, Chanel’s mother died and her father left her and her sisters at an orphanage at the abbey in Aubazine, Corrèze.

The nuns at the orphanage were very strict. In her time off from the six-day school week, Chanel would perform mundane domestic tasks, such as hemming bed sheets. It was the start of Chanel’s tough and unrelenting nature.

Much of what we love about Coco Chanel’s brand and designs is said to hark back to her days at the orphanage. For instance, her black and white colour palette is reminiscent of the orphanage’s whitewashed walls and imposing black doors. And, the double ‘C’ appears to have been heavily influenced by the design on the glass windows.

After she turned 18, Chanel was sent to the Notre Dame school in Moulin. She was given further instruction on how to sew and she also found work in the town. During the day, she was a seamstress for a local draper but by night, she worked as a poseuse (poser) at a local saloon. The name ‘Coco’ is said to have been given to her by soldiers because of the catchy numbers she performed, including “Ko Ko Ri Ko”.

In 1904, Coco Chanel met French textile heir and race-horse owner Étienne Balsan. By the age of 23, she became his mistress and moved into his chateau, Royalleiu. Her lifestyle changed dramatically. Balsan showered her with gifts. However, there was also a lot of downtime and Chanel needed to find something to do to fill the hours of the day.

So what did she do? She started making hats. Millinery was a welcome distraction for her. She made hats for Émilienne d'Alençon, a French dancer, actress and courtesan and after she was seen sporting Chanel’s designs, more ladies enlisted Chanel to trim their hats.

In 1908, whilst still living at Royalleiu, Chanel’s life changed dramatically once again. It was a love at first sight situation. She accompanied Balsan on a fox hunt and met Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, an English aristocrat and businessman. He encouraged her to follow her dreams to become a milliner in Paris. Capel paid for her to have an apartment and financed her first venture into the fashion industry.

Chanel opened her first store, located at 21 rue Cambon on the 1st of January 1910, called Chanel Modes. Her hat shop was located near to the Ritz and its wealthy guests became her clients. Chanel’s millinery was minimalist in comparison to the overblown look at the time.

On a visit to Deauville with Capel in 1913, Chanel decided to open a boutique on rue Gontaut-Biron, the town’s most fashionable thoroughfare. From this point on, she became known more as a fashion designer than a milliner.


“How many cares one loses when one decides not to be something but to be someone.”

Coco Chanel