What I Learned About Coco Chanel In Paris

Well-behaved women seldom make history. —Coco Chanel

Last summer, I spent a week in Paris, soaking in the fashion, the architecture, the food, the corner bookstores, the leisure and cafés.

While visiting Paris for the first time, my goal was to visit as many luxury boutiques as I could. Chanel, of course, was top on my list of boutiques. I wanted to walk the same paths Coco walked; to be in the same rooms she was once in; to feel her spirit around my shoulders. Chanel is one of the most iconic luxury brands of today, built by a girl who came from nothing.

Chanel, a privately-held company, issued an earnings report that shows the company made nearly $10 billion in sales in 2017.

I wondered what she would think as I wandered to every Chanel boutique. I stared in awe at the empire she created, while living at the Hotel Ritz around the corner of what would become the first Chanel Boutique: 31 Rue Cambon. Dating back to the 18th century, rue Cambon was named after a famous French revolutionary, whose father was a fabric manufacturer. The streets in this part of Paris were built just after the French Revolution.

In 1918, Coco Chanel acquired the entire building at Number 31 Rue Cambon. It was here that she invented the concept of the modern boutique: displays of fashion accessories and her first perfume (N°5) to wear with her garments and hats.  By 1927, she owned five buildings on rue Cambon (Numbers 23 to 31).

Coco arranged the 18th century building to fit the needs of her growing empire: the boutique occupied the ground floor, while the large reception room on the first floor was used to present her collections and for fittings for Haute Couture dresses and suits. A stairway led to her second-floor apartment where she lived. The third floor housed the studio, where Karl Lagerfeld works today. All of her activities, which included workshops for making jewelry, hats and sportswear, were in this building. The configuration of the building is the same today. Chanel even hosts a podcast, 3.55, from Coco’s apartment.

Everywhere in Paris, I saw things Chanel would have been inspired by. A government building with CC’s on it; the Seine; Rue Cambon itself. I wanted to experience what inspired Chanel to change the world just by being herself.

Gabrielle (aka Coco) Chanel once said, “beauty begins the moment you decide to be yourself.” I think the lesson is clear: we can do extraordinary things if we believe in ourselves (and look chic while doing so).

She knew what she was doing—she redefined fashion.

Well-behaved women seldom make history.

—Coco Chanel

From an early age I’ve felt a deep connection to Chanel—I recall my mother fawning over Chanel handbags and my grandmother adorning herself in tweed suits a la Chanel. As an adult, I’ve been drawn to learning more about the history of the brand and more importantly, the woman behind the brand, who singlehandedly redefined fashion in the early 1900s.

I’m always inspired by women saying “fuck you” to the rules and following her own way—defining her own path based on what her own instincts tell her, not what the invisible guiding hand of society says. Those are the ladies I want in my corner.

What Chanel created would change fashion, and the world. The modern black and neutral aesthetic; those chain straps; modern design on every package, every box, every awning, every bottle of perfume; and oh god, that perfectly symmetrical CC logo. The symbol itself conjures a feeling, a status, and a particular type of woman.

The CC logo Coco designed in 1925 soon eclipsed all of Chanel’s other motifs, appearing on jacket buttons, belts, shoes, and purses and acquiring enough cachet to turn into an abstract, impersonal status symbol, while still conjuring the person behind the initials. It became inextricable from the identity of the Chanel brand, appearing somewhere on nearly every accessory and all perfume packages.

Look around you—on the street, in the subway, at the office—you will see Coco Chanel’s influence. From chain-link belts, bouclé suits, jersey separates, quilted purses, beige-and-black shoes, and little black dresses, and shoulder bags, they are all attributed directly to Coco Chanel. No other person has ever wielded anything comparable to the degree of aesthetic influence Chanel has had for so long so many. That’s what one woman started. She was a sharp-witted women with a hungry, yearning spirit beneath.

Visiting the Chanel flagship store in Paris felt like stepping back in time to see what it was like in the early 1900s to be a woman who didn’t want to wear long dresses like everyone else, a woman who cut her hair short when everyone wore theirs in big, uncomfortable updos.

Gabrielle Chanel (aka Coco Chanel), grew up on a convent after her mother died and her father abandoned her. She started with nothing and built an empire.

The convent practiced “social Catholicism,” which believed in teaching, nursing or helping the poor over prayer and meditation. Gabrielle Chanel was provided with a rare view of powerful women in 19th century France: female congregations were an alternative to becoming a wife and mother; the mothers superior were in charge, not men. There’s no doubt that seeing women in uniquely powerful roles inspired Gabrielle to start her own empire.

While in the convent, Gabrielle learned to sew but also her disdain for recited prayer, and people trying “to put order in my disorder or into my spirit.” The church required her to memorize and recite prayers—a monotonous method used to dissuade questioning or interpretation, and to reject individualism.

Coco rejected this notion and respectfully left the convent. She paid respects to the convent with small touches of inspiration in her clothes and handbag:  the burgundy/garnet leather used inside the Chanel 2.55 flap bag was the color of the uniform that Chanel had to wear at the Aubazine orphanage where she was raised;  the double-chain shoulder strap of the 2.55 flap bag was inspired by the nuns who used to dangle keys from their waists. I have always loved how Chanel took memories from her past and turned them into design (this is a common practice by heritage brands and it isn’t a new concept, but it impresses me still).

While walking the streets of Paris, I wondered if I would have felt a kinship with Gabrielle, as those with an immortal angst tend to flock together.

Coco, wherever you are, thank you for your contribution to fashion and our world. Thank you for all the work you did to inspire women to be themselves, not who society wants them to be.

Photos by Becca Risa Luna

Palais de Chanel in Paris, France | CoffeeAndHandbags.com

Chanel CC Logo: Designed in 1925 | CoffeeAndHandbags.com

Coco Chanel Staircase in Paris | CoffeeAndHandbags.com

By Becca Luna

Seattle-based remote ACD and Senior Copywriter

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