In an age when women didn't wear trousers, Chanel not only inspired women to take style cues from men, but she also challenged the notion that men were better suited to business than women.
Coco Chanel, the designer and founder of the eponymous fashion house, is famous for encouraging women to take control of their destiny. But Chanel herself was also a brilliant businesswoman and master of self-invention who understood the value of taking control of her own history as well. "May my legend prosper and thrive," she once said. "I wish it a long and happy life."
Chanel didn't merely embroider her personal history. She fashioned much of it out of whole cloth, a fact that biographer Justine Picardie had to grapple with in writing her book, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life.
Chanel is best known for bringing women's fashion into the modern era during the '20s and '30s with designs that drew their practicality from men's wear. She pioneered pants for women, comfortable collarless jackets and the "little black dress" that remains a staple of women's wardrobes even today. But the book also reveals Chanel's remarkably prescient entrepreneurial streak. Though she began life in an orphanage, she built an empire from a small millinery shop in Paris.
When she launched her fragrance, Chanel No. 5, she created the financial and marketing underpinnings of every major fashion house (and most luxury-goods firms) today. Her company earned the bulk of its sales from accessibly priced, high-margin items such as perfume and accessories, while producing high fashion collections that drove demand and elevated the status of the brand as a whole.
Current-day entrepreneurs would be wise to follow Chanel's many other examples of business acumen as well. She wasn't afraid to try bold new (and often controversial) ideas, such as employing men's wear materials and designs for women's clothing. She sought tight control of her business, even to the detriment of her reputation (during World War II, Chanel took advantage of anti-Semitic laws to try to seize the company manufacturing her perfume from its Jewish owners). And she insisted on financial independence, even repaying a lover's gift of capital for her business.
She was also famously resilient. After closing her business during the war, Chanel emerged from retirement in 1954 at the age of 71. Although the fashion world had turned its back on her austere, masculine trademark, she experienced a dramatic renaissance and reigned supreme at the pinnacle of fashion, working continuously until her death in 1971.
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