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Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel revolutionized the way women dressed in the 20th century. In stark contrast to her glamorous persona, Coco had been raised in an orphanage where nuns taught her how to sew. She established Chanel Modes in 1910, a hat boutique whose streamlined shapes caught the eyes of Parisian actresses. By 1918, she had opened her first couture house, becoming known as “Mademoiselle.” Shifting to dressmaking, she used soft jersey material to create languid silhouettes that revealed the ankles—a look which became symbolic of the Roaring ’20s. She also transformed the traditional use of black as mourning garb to chic eveningwear.
Her collaboration with Ernest Beaux resulted in the 1921 release of Chanel No. 5, the first time a dressmaker had created a perfume. Along with its austere bottle and curious name (“5” was Mademoiselle’s lucky number), it stood apart from its peers which used only single flower notes, while the chic No. 5 bottles were filled with a bouquet of scents.
In 1932, Mademoiselle shook the world with the launch of the Bijoux de Diamants collection. Collaborating with the renowned jeweler Verdura, she was inspired by celestial motifs, using diamonds set in platinum to create new ornaments. Focusing on pearls, flowers, stars and ribbons, the motifs summed up her playful approach, especially when mixed with layered ropes of faux pearls alongside precious gems. (Although it was Coco’s only personal foray into fine jewelry, the 1932 initiative served as a touchstone for the brand when it relaunched its fine jewelry division in the ’90s, and celebrated the 80th anniversary in 2012.)
After being shuttered during WWII, Chanel made a comeback in the 1950s when Marilyn Monroe told LIFE Magazine that the only thing she wore to bed was Chanel No. 5. The brand released its menswear-inspired, collarless tweed suit, the two-tone pumps and the quilted leather 2.55 bag, which graced the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Liz Taylor and Jeanne Moreau.
After Coco Chanel’s passing in 1971, Karl Lagerfeld carried on the torch as the brand’s artistic director, collaborating in the development of new perfumes, jewelry and men’s and women’s watches, while revitalizing the couture line and creating its ready-to-wear. Since then, numerous exhibitions and films have enthralled the world, inspired by Coco Chanel’s esprit while preserving her legacy as having evolved the eternal feminine.