Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel once said, “Fashion is ephemeral, but style is eternal.” Next Friday marks the 133rd anniversary of the late couturier’s birth, and more than a century later, our fascination with the legend has yet to wane. In honor of her birthday, five things you may not have known about Mademoiselle Chanel.
1. Coco Chanel got her start as a milliner, creating simple straw boaters devoid of the embellishments considered fashionable at the time. “The women I saw at the race wore enormous loaves on their heads, constructions made of feathers, and improvised with fruits and plumes; but worst of all, which appalled me, their hats did not fit on their heads,” she once said.
In 1910, she opened her first shop at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris under the name Chanel Modes and began selling hats that would not only become the accessory style of the day, they would remain her signature: When photographer Douglas Kirkland spent three weeks shadowing the couturier including images later used for his visual memoir, Coco Chanel: Three Weeks/1962, he never once saw her remove her hat.
2. Chanel No. 5 was one of the first fragrances to be named after a designer, and is said to be a tribute to Coco Chanel’s lucky number. The story goes: In 1920, Chanel commissioned Ernest Beaux, a Russian-born Frenchman and former parfumier to the tsars in Russia, to create her debut perfume. After 10 months of work, Beaux laid out 10 different vials, numbered one to five and 20 to 24, for the couturier’s review. She chose the fifth, perhaps on blind superstition. As she reportedly explained to Beaux at the time: “I present my dress collections on the fifth of May, the fifth month of the year, and so we will let this sample number five keep the name it already has; it will bring good luck.” And that it did. By 1929, Chanel No. 5 had become the best-selling perfume in the world, and, ultimately, one of the most sold in history. To this day, a new bottle is apparently purchased every 30 seconds.
3. Among many famous Chanel-isms: “A woman needs ropes and ropes of pearls.” But the designer herself would often wear a mixture of real and faux. In fact, the age of costume jewelry began with Chanel when, in the mid-1920s, she launched the first collection of its kind, featuring jewelry made from chains, beads, and glass, one that Harper’s Bazaar dubbed “one of the most revolutionary designs of our time.” Chanel is said to have felt that if women could buy jewelry more affordable than real pearls and gemstones, they could more easily accessorize. “Costume jewelry is not made to give women an aura of wealth,” she once said, “but to make them beautiful.”
4. When Chanel designed her first handbag, in 1929, she caused a minor scandal for including a shoulder strap, considered improper at the time. “I got fed up with holding my purses in my hands and losing them,” she said, “so I added a strap.” Chanel later redesigned her iconic quilted chain-strap bag, releasing it in February 1955. Hence its name, the 2.55.
5. When Chanel discovered knockoffs of her designs, she wasn’t just okay with it, she supported it. The couturier came across accurate copies made with decidedly cheaper fabrics at low-end prices at S. Klein, a since-closed discount department store in New York City’s Union Square. Rather than bristling, she opted to capitalize on the advantages of prêt-à-porter and the free publicity that came with it. Upon returning home to London, she staged a private runway presentation, noting on the invitations that guests were welcome not only to bring their dressmakers, but also to make sketches and take notes.