By Shane Lueck
What does it mean to reinvent yourself? People flood Pinterest, Twitter, and Tumblr with inspirational quotes urging you to change who you are, in convoluted, tricky, ethereally motivational ways. It’s not long before you’re all gung ho about making some great effort and coming out the other side a new person. But wait. Hold up. Those seemingly inspirational quotes never really give you concrete advice. Rather, they leave it up to you to either sink or swim. “Best of luck,” it seems to say.
Instead of buying into empty platitudes, look at Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel’s personal reinvention. Chanel is more than just a fashion icon —there’s no better example of a successful personal change than this remarkable woman. The obvious discourse revolves around how she came from nothing to create a high-class, luxury fashion empire that is the envy of the world. How did she manage it? What is her secret? What can her story offer that the quaint little quotes can’t?
Once Upon a Time
Any story is best told from the beginning. Chanel’s tale begins in a broken home, born in 1883 to an unwed teen mother and an absent father—though he was allegedly traveling as a street vendor, rumors abound that he was actually with mistresses. Whatever the case, he would return home every so often to impregnate Chanel’s mother and leave again. Being the child of unmarried parents could ruin someone in that era.
Chanel was born in a poorhouse hospice in the unremarkable town of Saumur in central France, and named Gabrielle Bonheur after the nun who delivered her, because Mommy Dearest couldn’t think of a name. The attendants misspelled her last name as “Chasnel” on her birth certificate. Not the most auspicious beginnings for an international fashion icon.
In Chanel’s youth (when she was either six, or eleven, or twelve years old, depending on which version of the story you believe) her mother died from what was likely tuberculosis and the stress of malnourishment and endless pregnancy. It wasn’t long before Chanel found herself at an orphanage with her two sisters. Here the young woman began her journey of reinvention, by perfecting the art of spreading misinformation about herself and inventing details.
A Pack of Lies
Today, Chanel is known for her rebellion against all the women’s fashion that came before (most profoundly using jersey fabric and menswear-inspired designs), but her first real renegade act was lying about her background, family and friends. No childhood event was safe from her embellishments—she even rearranged events, inventing anecdotes and characters and editing out siblings.
Was Chanel morally corrupt? Or was she just on the forefront of the art of “spin?”
Of the various stories told about Coco Chanel, a great number were of her own invention. These legends would be the undoing of her earliest biographies, as she would tell different biographers different details about the same events. Even today, certain details of Chanel’s life remain unsorted and biographers circulate various versions as fact despite the contradictions. Among her most famous fibs are:
- Her parents were actually deeply in love. Yes, she was born in the poorhouse but that’s simply because her mother couldn’t make it to a midwife and the poorhouse was on the way. This implies that had her parents left a little sooner or taken a different route, she may have been born at a better address. Oh! And the nun was so helpful, the Chanels decided to name their daughter after her.
Some versions of this story don’t even include a poorhouse, but rather the home of some people her parents had met on a train.
- Papa Chanel wasn’t a street peddler. Certainly not! He was a wine connoisseur who adored her and gave her the nickname Coco when she was a just a baby. (Biographers now agree that she earned the title actually later in life from songs she sang during her brief stint as a caf’ conc singer.) Other stories Chanel would tell to her orphanage comrades include her father moving to America to seek his fortune and that he would be returning any day. In fact, there is no evidence that he ever left France (and when they were older, Chanel’s brother tracked down their father to find him living in northern France with a much younger woman).
- Nuns didn’t raise her—rather, strict, nun-like aunts. She wasn’t an orphan, so how could she be raised in an orphanage? Her stories of austere aunts included wearing uniforms during homeschooling, ironing and reironing linens, treading gleaming floors, learning to sew from her caretakers—a skill which would serve to be very handy later in life.
Fake It ‘Til You Make It
All of this isn’t to say that lying your way to success is the way to go, but Chanel epitomized “fake it ’til you make it.” Outside of the orphanage, after she went through a series of struggles and boyfriends, Chanel started to create hats (and eventually expanded into clothing). Chanel lied constantly to the influential socialites and trendsetters of the day. Her fake past accompanied by behavior which said “I belong here” made her seem more socially important than her humble upbringings would suggest. And the different versions of Chanel’s past circulating around only added to her mystique, making people want to know more.
This added attention helped Chanel. As the early 20th century influential French elite believed her to be one of their own, Chanel soon became somewhat of a hot commodity. Her fashions gained popularity and Chanel became one of the most influential fashion icons of her time and beyond.
Chanel’s story cannot be made into a quaint Pinterest post or tweet, but it does have a lot to offer the curious mind. Today she is known through her work: Chanel No. 5, the quilted handbag, the little black dress, the Chanel suit. But the true success story comes from her ability to invent a new life. No one did it better than Coco.