Coco Chanel was a woman of action – she dove with abandon into the world around her. She was an incredible sportsman, a patron of the arts, a lover to great men, and a shrewd entrepreneur. This is the Chanel we don’t know, the Chanel who was far more than a fashion designer and a name splashed across a quilted bag. Even by today's standards of a larger than life entrepreneur we can rarely comprehend the full picture of a woman in this role and no-one resists definition quite like Coco Chanel.
Of course, much of what we remember about Chanel is her signature suits, which have become so iconic as to border on cliché. It’s easy to forget that most of her looks – such as the hotel bell hop uniform that became her signature suit shape – were swiped from menswear and bordered on cross dressing. If they seem unremarkable to us today, it’s a testament to the powerful influence of Chanel herself where something entirely groundbreaking and avant-garde became assimilated in a post WWII world.
The transcendent power of Coco Chanel's innovations in fashion design had nothing to do with trend or style “influence” and everything to do with the fact that the innovations where born directly from lifestyle evolution. With Coco Chanel we see a woman of adventure who embraced a changing time as she broke with traditional female roles. Adopting trousers in lieu of long skirts in the 1920's was wild but so where the summers spent fly fishing in remote locations with her beau, the Duke of Westminster, alongside Winston Churchill. As women took on more roles in society they too began to adopt the items that Coco Chanel herself had designed and introduced: cardigans and sport coats to keep up with a life in constant motion and gowns that did not wrinkle in a suitcase. A 1930 Vogue article about her newest home near Monte Carlo described her as a woman of “rare style” and one can’t help but imagine this referred to more much more than just her clothing.
Coco Chanel was a woman who recognized the power of invention by shedding her orphaned upbringing to write a life narrative that both participates in high society and rebukes it. It’s perhaps more accurate to say that she was able to live her life because she was an innovator and a successful entrepreneur. A reading of her fabulous biography Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life by Justine Picardie lends page after page of anecdotes illustrating that she was not one to bend to the whims of the world, but rather to define it on her own. For example, not only did she provide the funding to encourage the arrival of Sergei Diaghilev's Ballet Russe in Paris, she insured its success by offering impoverished composer Igor Stravinsky and his family her villa at Garches, Bel Respiro. Nor is it surprising that when she reopened her business after the war she chose to work with Mr. Neiman Marcus – Dallas, Texas was, after all, the American Wild West with a generation of women who were as bold and independent as she.
Chanel’s life was not without controversy, and if in certain aspects she does not represent the contemporary woman, she doubtlessly represents a modern one – in a word, liberated. So what does a contemporary Chanel look like? I would imagine she is a woman somewhat like the Chanel we don’t know – wholly individual, with the understanding that a successful life involves a little bit of playing by the rules, and a whole lot of bending them in order to make your mark. Coco Chanel is ultimately a true creator -- whether as a designer, or as an entrepreneur, or as a patron of the arts -- who understands that action and life choice designs style and NOT the other way around.