Coco Chanel is synonymous with high fashion — the tweed suits, the quilted purses, the No. 5 perfume; but there are plenty of quirky facts about the controversial couturier to fill a book. In her new biography of the designer, “Mademoiselle: Coco Chanel and the Pulse of History,” which recently hit shelves, author and professor Rhonda Garelick offers a few more enlightening tidbits you may not know about the the most important fashion designer of the 20th century. Here are eight (among far too many!) that will definitely have you yearning for more.
Chanel leaving her Rue Cambon offices, 1938
1. Her first passion wasn’t fashion (and neither was her second). Chanel longed to be a professional singer and even frequented cabarets in France as a teen. She attempted a few numbers, but couldn’t quite hit the notes. Next up: dance! But she was quickly discouraged by none other than the French modern dance Caryathis, who told her she had “no future as a professional.”
2. She was born Gabrielle Chanel. The designer picked up the nickname “Coco” after she sang a song about a lost dog called “Coco” at a cabaret. So the singing career wasn’t a total loss!
3. She earned her business smarts from her British diplomat boyfriend. He was a secret go-between for France and England during WWI. The diplomat taught her how to use word of mouth techniques and to create branding strategies – both of which would be essential in building the house of Chanel.
Chanel with Serge Lifar, 1937
4. She repurposed men’s underwear. Chanel was (initially) a girl on a budget, unable to dress like the other woman in her trés chic Parisian social circle. Hence, her invention of knit jersey apparel – a material that, at the time, was only used for men’s underwear. She sold the thrifty pieces to duchesses and society ladies, making a killing.
5. She despised flowery perfume. Chanel once declared, “A perfume shouldn’t smell like flowers. A woman should not smell like another substance in nature. She should smell like herself, but better.”
6. Who knew? Lilliputian horse-jockeys were her muses. Their outfits inspired Chanel’s famous quilting textile for her bags. The designer was exposed to all things equestrian and even rode and owned a handful of thoroughbreds.
Chanel at her dressing table, in her Ritz apartment, 1938
7. Coco was a big fan of the booty— particularly her own. The couturier exercised frequently and took long walks into her 80s. She would insist that people feel her buns of steel, according to Garelick.
8. She couldn’t sketch at all. The designer never drew a pattern and had no formal training in fashion. Chanel would literally get on her hands and knees and sculpt the clothes on models’ bodies. As for the sewing, she left that to her staffers.
Photos by Jean Moral, Courtesy of Brigitte Moral