Life + Culture

Coco Chanel’s Paris

The Little Black Dress. If you have one in your closet then you can thank Coco Chanel for that. Mademoiselle Coco may not have been originally from Paris, but she certainly made her mark there. And her influence has made an indelible mark on the world.

Each time I have a chocolat chaud in Angelina’s on Rue de Rivoli I inevitably think of Coco. (Tip: the far right corner in the back was her usual table so try to snag for the full experience. According to Angelina’s, it is table #45) Same goes when I walk by the Ritz in Place Vendôme, a spot I’ve walked by dozens of times while staying at the Westin (where my favorite bathroom is!). These this area is the haunt of the cast of Call My Agent and not too far from where Emily in Paris works, but before all that it belonged to Coco Chanel.

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illustration of Coco Chanel
(Illustration commissioned from Linden Eller.)

Today I am sharing a little bit of her history and where you can follow some of her sassy footsteps in Paris.

La Belle Époque

How wonderful would it be to be alive and in Paris during Époque?

Paris, and the majority of Europe, blossomed in the golden years of the late 19th century- also known as one of the most innovative and carefree periods of Parisian history. The Paris of the Belle Époque was a glittering city built on the pillars of economic, artistic, and intellectual growth paired with a side of carelessness amongst the aristocrats and the bourgeoisie.

Artists from all over flocked to the French capital, and why not- the city had been a magnet for modern cultural movements. And one of them was none other than the unforgettable Coco Chanel (‘Mademoiselle’ for the rest of us).

A significant changemaker in the history of fashion, Coco Chanel revolutionized womenswear and became a symbol of French chic for years to come. From a hobby of designing hats to a scaling empire of clothing, perfumes, and accessories, the universe of Mademoiselle Chanel is at the forefront of modern fashion.

Coco before Chanel

Coco Chanel was born in 1883 in Saumur France and was one of six children that Eugénie and Albert Chanel had. After her mother’s death at the age of 11, Albert sent his sons to work as farm laborers and his daughters to a convent that also ran an orphanage. The abbey would eventually turn out to be one of the places that would influence her future in the world of design and fashion.

Saumur France
(Saumur in Loire Valley France.)

This was where Chanel learned to sew hats and clothes and discovered elements that would inspire her future collections – clean lines and the various shades of black, white, and beige.

Born as Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel, she acquired the name Coco while trying out a stage career singing in a cabaret while also working as a seamstress. It is believed that her nickname either came from the songs she sang (Ko Ko Ri Ko, and Qui qu’a vu Coco) or was a reference to Coquette, the French word for a kept woman, although Chanel was often heard saying that it was given to her by her father.

Cabaret dancer legs

Coco’s Influential Relationships

After failing to launch a successful singing career, Chanel soon moved on to explore different careers (métiers) when she met Étienne Balsan, a French ex-cavalry officer and a textile heir. Her relationship with Balsan opened up a whole new world of wealth, self-indulgence, and the whims of a prosperous life.

A few years down the line, Chanel started an affair with Arthur ‘Boy’ Capel, one of Balsan’s friends. Being a rich member of the English upper class, Capel provided financial backing for her first shops and may have also influenced the classic Chanel look. Although Capel remained unfaithful to Coco and eventually married an English aristocrat, he never completely broke up with her.

Their affair, which lasted nine years, came to an abrupt end when he died in a car accident. And while Coco Chanel was an eternal woman in love, she probably loved no other man as deeply and strongly as Capel.

The House of Chanel: 21 Rue Cambon

The story of the House of Chanel begins at 21, Rue Cambon (in the 1st arrondissement) where Coco established her first Parisian boutique as a licensed milliner (remember, I wrote about the milliner holiday St. Catherine’s Day on November 25th…) under the name of Chanel Modes. Coco’s millinery career took off when her hat was featured in Fernand Nozière’s play Bel Ami by theatre actress Gabrielle Dorziat, who later went on to model Chanel’s hats for various photographs.

Before establishing an empire in the French capital, Chanel opened boutiques in Deauville and Biarritz. Financed by Capel, the Chanel boutique in Deauville was opened in 1913 and sold sportswear made of an unthinkable material- jerseys. Previously used to produce men’s underwear, the application of jerseys in womenswear revolutionized fashion and was an instant success.

Deauville France
(Deauville in Normandy France.)

In 1915, Coco opened her first couture house in Biarritz. Installed in a villa opposite a casino, the couture house was a huge success, thanks to the wealthy Spanish clients and the opulent playground of the Côte Basque. The favorable results of the Biarritz boutique paved way for Chanel’s Parisian empire.

Coco Chanel’s Paris

While Chanel was not a native Parisian, the designer spent more than 30 years in the City of Light. Paris may not have been Chanel’s origin story, but the city spread its magical fingers across her designs and perfume lines. As the business started blooming in Deauville and Biarritz, Chanel set her sights on winning the French capital. Her first stop was the Rue Cambon. A modest facade with two windows and a narrow street, it was here that one of the most extraordinary tales of the fashion world began.

Chanel Rue Gambon
Photo credit: Depositphotos

In 1918, Chanel bought the building at 31, Rue Cambon, and set up shop. The ground floor housed the Chanel Couture House with the first and top floor dedicated as living and entertaining quarters. By 1935, Rue Cambon was the beating heart of the brand with five buildings branded with the Chanel name.

The Chanel apartment on the upper floors of the store served dual purposes- a space to host fashion shows which she discreetly viewed from the fifth step of the iconic mirrored staircase and as a salon for couture fittings. Filled with antique paraphernalia, ranging from Chinese screens, wall-to-wall bookshelves, and crystal chandeliers to signature Chanel design codes of camellia motifs, glossy black surfaces, and lush textures, the apartment was an extension of the designer herself. In 2013, the emblematic apartment was classified as a historical monument by the French Ministry of Culture.

Chanel store in Place Vendome
Photo credit: Depositphotos

Today, the structure remains the same. It houses the Chanel flagship store, four active studios (two specializing in tailoring and two in dressmaking techniques), and the apartment of Coco Chanel. This particular boutique is one of the few places whose fame rivals that of the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and other touristic spots of the city.

While the apartment above the boutique housed living quarters, Chanel never lived in the building (hence the absence of a bedroom!). At the end of every day, she would walk to Ritz Paris, a hotel she claimed as her home for 34 years. Even today, Ritz Paris has a suite dedicated to her. Suite Coco Chanel embodies the French chic spirit of the designer with elegant, discreet, and contemporary decor of black and white clean lines, refined lacquer and velvet, and touches of gold. The suite also holds little-known photographs, drawings, and artworks originally belonging to Chanel.

Place Vendôme, a square noted for its luxurious stores and elegant townhouses was another place Chanel was known to frequent. A short walk from the studio, she would often visit the many stores lining the square. It is also said that the octagon shape of the plaza was what inspired the perfume bottle of her iconic Chanel N°5.

Place Vendome Paris
(Place Vendôme in Paris.)

Chanel was a theatre fan and enjoyed opera, ballet, and the latest plays in Paris. She was often spotted at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées where she met the famous Russian composer Igor Stravinsky. Chanel also created costumes for Le Train Bleu, a ballet show that premiered at the theatre.

The elegant designer was also a gourmand and often frequented the elite tearoom of Angelina Paris. Walking distance from where she lived, the cafe, with lavish Belle Epoque interiors and rich cups of hot chocolate, was one of her favorite spots. Chanel was also known to visit Le Grand Véfour. Here she socialized with her elite clients and friends and ate cuisine prepared by the most talented chefs of her time.

Even though Mademoiselle didn’t visit the Grand Palais, the beautiful glass building contains the spirit of modern-day Chanel. The Grand Palais is biannually transformed into a magical faraway land during Fashion Week, giving the viewers a peek into the elusive universe of Chanel. The first show here was held in 2005 and has since been the traditional venue for its fashion shows since.

Coco Chanel’s Legacy

Mademoiselle Chanel passed away at the age of 87 in her room at Ritz Paris. The legacy she left behind stands strong even today. There are boutiques across the globe and her eponymous fashion powerhouse has come a long way from her humble beginnings.

With flexible functionality in mind, Chanel designed a wardrobe that was free from constraints and the frills and fuss of the corseted female silhouette. Reinterpreting the male wardrobe to suit the modern woman, the Chanel line brought an end to the Belle Epoque corsets and paved a way for freedom of movement. The androgynous style made up of sober, discreet black and white outfits with a boyish edge were the focal points of the classic Chanel look that set it apart from other fashion brands.

Little Black Dress

She incorporated “masculine” colors, outdoor sporting influences, and the innovative use of jersey fabric, Chanel built a brand that was bold, free, and ahead of her time. On the heels of the jersey fabric came the Chanel suit and the little black dress.

The Chanel tweed suit consisted of a skirt and a jacket of light wool or mohair tweed and a silk or jersey blouse. Focusing on practicality and comfort, each client would have multiple fittings until the suit was deemed comfortable enough for all kinds of daily activities. The little black dress, often cited as one of the best Chanel contributions to the fashion industry, was a chic yet simple design that has stood the test of time and remains relevant even today.

The Chanel bag, inspired by the soldier’s bag, has various elements from Chanel’s convent days and her love for outdoor sports. Introduced in 1929, the bag has retained its basic form whilst some details such as the lock, the clasp, and the shoulder chain have been reworked to incorporate the Chanel logo.

Chanel Purse
Photo credit: Depositphotos

Along with clothing and accessories, Chanel also revolutionized the cosmetics industry. In 1921, Chanel launched her first perfume, the iconic Chanel No° 5, in partnership with Ernest Beaux. Hitting the sweet spot between jasmine, lily of the valley, iris root, and rose, the sophisticated scent was a huge success and was soon followed by Chanel No° 22 in 1922.

bottle of Chanel No 5

In 1924, the brand created the Société des Parfums Chanel; it manufactured and sold perfumes and cosmetics with Ernest Beaux as the first in-house perfume designer. Beaux went on to produce another iconic scent extracted from Chanel’s emblematic flower (Camellia) in 1925, the Gardénia. It was reproduced in 1983 and eventually became a part of the Les Exclusifs collection.

Chanel Perfumes

In 1927, Beaux created the Cuir de Russie, a leather oriental fragrance inspired by the birch tar used by the Russian soldiers. It was also believed that the fragrance was a celebration of her love for the Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich of Russia. Another great perfume was the Bois des Îles, one of the first woody oriental fragrances for women.

During World War II, Chanel closed four of her boutiques. The boutique at “31” remained open and continued to sell perfumes and accessories. She made a comeback in 1954 and reopened her couture house with another jersey collection. Soon after, Henri Robert replaced Ernest Beaux as the perfumer of the House of Chanel and successfully launched Pour Monsieur, the first fragrance for men.

In the 50s and 60s, Chanel dressed some of the most prominent women of the era – Elizabeth Taylor, Jackie Kennedy, Jeanne Moreau – and Marilyn Monroe was photographed spraying herself with No° 5. In 1965, when Jacques Helleu became the Artistic Director of the Fragrance and Beauty division along with the Watches and Fine Jewelry division, Chanel entered a new era of iconic advertising.

Chanel After Coco

After Mademoiselle’s death in 1971, the Chanel powerhouse dwindled before a change in design leadership. Enter Karl Lagerfeld. He became Chanel’s artistic director in 1983 and sparked life into the stiff and dull collections. After introducing Métiers d’art, the pre-collections, and the ready-to-wear collections, Lagerfeld was successfully able to restore the design house to its former glory.

person in tan pants and suit holding brown shoes

Lagerfeld brought in a modern era for the fashion house. The brand went on to introduce watches and fine jewelry and even began acquiring artistic craft houses under the Chanel umbrella. Under the leadership of Lagerfeld, the Chanel empire grew exponentially in various directions, and each division of the house flourished with new collections, jewelry lines, and fragrances.

magazine with Karl Lagerfeld

After the death of Karl Lagerfeld in 2019, Virginie Viard was appointed the artistic director of Chanel fashion creations. In line with Chanel and Lagerfeld, Viard has successfully designed and reinvented collections with refined simplicity and detailed craftsmanship (great Vogue article on her here).

Coco Chanel’s Legacy

January 2021 was 50 years since her passing yet her impact on women’s fashion still thrives. She revolutionized the way women wore clothes, raising hemlines and freeing women from the corset, she changed how society viewed women and in doing so, ruled Parisian haute couture for almost six decades.

Girl in chanel with sunglasses and hat

She certainly is responsible for a lot of quotes that make for an essential guide to living life in style:

  • The best color in the whole world is the one that looks good on you.
  • Simplicity is the keynote of all true elegance.
  • You can be gorgeous at thirty, charming at forty, and irresistible for the rest of your life.
  • You live but once; you might as well be amusing.
  • In order to be irreplaceable one must always be different.
  • Elegance is when the inside is as beautiful as the outside.

Coco Chanel’s Paris Address Book

Coco Chanel lived in Paris for more than 30 years. She was a creature of habit. Here are the spots she frequented:

  • The Ritz Paris (15 Pl. Vendôme) in the 1st Arrondissement.
  • Angelina Paris (226 Rue de Rivoli) in the 1st Arrondissement.
  • Le Grand Vefour restaurant (17 Rue de Beaujolais) in the 1st Arrondissement.
  • Chanel boutique (31 Rue Cambon) in the 1st Arrondissement.
  • Place Vendôme luxury shopping area in the 1st Arrondissement.
  • Le Théâtre des Champs-Élysées (15 Av. Montaigne) in the 8th Arrondissement.

Places to experience Coco Chanel

  • Le Grand Palais (3 Av. du Général Eisenhower) where Chanel has its fashion show during Fashion Week.
  • Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Les Arts Décoratifs (107, rue de Rivoli) in the 8th Arrondissement has a large collection of Chanel pieces.
  • Studio 7L Bookstore (7 Rue de Lille) in the 7th Arrondissement was Karl Lagerfeld in December 1999 and has books on photography, fashion, design, interior architecture and interior design.
  • Le Grand Palais (3 Av. du Général Eisenhower) where Chanel has its fashion show during Fashion Week.
  • Musée de la Mode et du Textile, Les Arts Décoratifs (107, rue de Rivoli) in the 8th Arrondissement has a large collection of Chanel pieces.
  • Studio 7L Bookstore (7 Rue de Lille) in the 7th Arrondissement was created by Karl Lagerfeld has books on photography, fashion, design, and more.

How about you? Are you a fan of Coco Chanel? Is there a spot in Paris that I missed? Do tell!

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illustration of Coco ChanelBottle of Chanel No 5Girl in chanel with sunglasses and hat

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16 Comments

  1. This is so amazing I really don’t know anything about this! Thank you so much for sharing this to us

  2. Wow this is a really great and very informative boast it’s great to know about this very famous brand thanks for sharing

  3. I love channel perfume. Not much know about Coco channel, Thanks for sharing this post. It is interesting read

  4. I love all the inspiring quotes. She is amazing her product high quality. Interesting facts about her enjoyed read.

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