Upon cleaning out my room during the summer after my freshman year of college, I stumbled across an old friend of mine — a book called The Gospel According to Coco Chanel. As I flipped through the pages, I took a minute to prevaricate my cleaning and think back to my first time reading it. When I was younger, I spent hours scouring it — highlighting passages, bookmarking different pages and the like. I was enchanted and intrigued by a woman who would end up becoming one of my biggest role models in life. As (arguably) one the best female fashion icons and a hallmark example of a powerful female leader, I looked up to her. She was someone who had remade herself and defied every boundary set upon women during her time in the process.
To start, Chanel and her legacy have a serious influence over almost everything we consider stylish and fashionable in modern times (seriously — everything). It goes without saying, but we owe her everything for the “Little Black Dress.” Accessorizing with pearls and jewelry to the near-extreme? Incredible, Coco. If you ever doused yourself in your mother’s Chanel No. 5 as a child while playing dress up, you know the quintessential women’s fragrance is not easily rivaled.
Not only did she give women modern and feminine style, but she was also incredibly realistic and provided a sense comfort in her work. I personally would like to thank her for women’s sportswear and — as an equestrian growing up — riding pants. Women of her time were bound to corsets, long dresses and overly flamboyant hats. You don’t have to be an avid athlete to imagine working out in a corset and dress would be somewhat challenging. Chanel took every women’s fashion social construct of the time and made it chic and (most importantly) comfortable. She also didn’t believe in anything that had to work too hard to make one look good. Rather, she stressed clothing that accentuated a wearer’s best features. She was behind the original “Love Your Body” campaign. As she so famously said, “Not all women have the figure of Venus, yet nothing should be hidden.” Straight, slimming and simple lines — thank you once more, Coco.
Coco was not only an icon in fashion, but an icon of womanhood as well. She didn’t believe in following the rules and conventions her life set out for her. Her childhood was something out of a sad song; her mother died when she was twelve, and her father was an absent figure at best. Raised in an oppressive convent orphanage, Chanel ran away at 18 to sing cabaret at a nightclub. Six years of sewing in the convent was a blessing in disguise, as she was hired as a seamstress for a local dress shop. She was poor, unmarried and a female at a time when women weren’t supposed to think much, let alone succeed.
Despite her upbringing, Chanel had an extraordinary ability to persevere and showed an extreme amount of tenacity while climbing the ranks. She used her connections well, refused to play nice and — most importantly — was fearless in every endeavor. She founded her company in 1909 and less than a year later opened a shop in Deauville. With the help of her then-lover and friend, Arthur “Boy” Capel, she served the cities’ high brow women and socialites with fresh and elegant style. By 1916, Chanel had made enough money that she paid back Capel his original investment. The next 62 years featured hard work, steep competition and thousands of cigarettes, but, by the time of her death, Chanel was one of the most famous women in the world. And 45 years later, her legacy lives on.
As a teenager, Chanel showed me we aren’t bound by our circumstances or by our gender. Surrendering to such restraints would be equivocal to giving up on yourself, and your abilities. As cliché at it may seem, she embodied the idea that anything is possible if you want it badly enough. It was an idea that empowered me, and, as I pawed through the book that had defined this idol of mine, I was reminded of my utmost respect for her contributions to fashion, society and women. As a business school student, I’m sometimes faced with being the only woman in a group project or feeling outnumbered by my male peers. Chanel worked in a man’s world and fabricated an empire that still bears her name. She taught women like myself those types of circumstances should not, and will not, ever stop me from doing what I want to do, and being aggressive and putting in some fight is okay as long as you also exercise grace and compassion. In typical Chanel style, “a girl must be two things: classy and fabulous.” Thank you for everything, Coco.