Coco Chanel: Fashion Icon, Entrepreneur, Nazi Spy?
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel is a 20th-Century icon; in fact, Time Magazine listed her as one of the 20th Century’s 100 Most Influential People.
Gabrielle Bonheur “Coco” Chanel is a 20th-Century icon. From humble beginnings she rose to mingle with European aristocracy and world political leaders. At one time, she was the world’s richest woman. Her life has been the focus of dozens of books and movies. Time Magazine listed her as one of the 20th Century’s 100 Most Influential People.
She has been called an innovator, entrepreneur, socialite, and Nazi spy. Nazi spy? In 21st Century America, that part of her story isn’t well-known. In truth, controversy still rages over Chanel’s wartime activities. Some say she served as a negotiator between the British and German governments; others say she was simply in love with a German officer. Whatever the truth may be, her situation became a life-or-death matter for her at the end of World War Two.
In August 1944, Paris had just been liberated from Nazi occupation. Newly freed French partisans unleashed years of pent-up anger against fellow citizens who had collaborated with Germans. For weeks in August and September, mobs exacted revenge on Nazi sympathizers. Punishments included beatings, torture, and executions without due process. Women who had taken German lovers had their heads shaved, and some had swastikas carved into their bodies.
It was in this environment that Coco Chanel was arrested and taken to the French Purge Committee headquarters. Chanel had spent the war living at the Hotel Ritz with her German lover, Baron Hans Gunther von Dincklage. Von Dinklage was a Nazi intelligence officer and travelled often with Chanel. In his book “Sleeping With the Enemy,” author Hal Vaughn asserts that the French Police labeled Chanel a Nazi spy and assigned her the code name “Westminster,” agent reference number F-7124.
After two hours of questioning, Chanel was released. The Committee had no documented proof or witnesses against her. Chanel later told her maid that she was released on the order of Winston Churchill (historians have speculated that Chanel had “dirt” on the British aristocracy and could identify Nazi sympathizers among them). Chanel left that afternoon for Switzerland, where she would stay for the next ten years.
Coco Chanel’s life story reads like a Dickens novel.
She was the second of five children born to a laundrywoman and itinerant street vendor Albert Chanel in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France in 1883. When she was twelve, Gabrielle’s mother Jeanne died of tuberculosis. Her father sent his two sons to work as farm laborers, and his three daughters to the orphanage at the convent of Aubazine in central France. While there, Gabrielle trained as a seamstress. At eighteen, being too old for the orphanage, she accepted a position as a seamstress in Moulins, France.
Gabrielle’s ambitions took root at the Moulins cabaret “La Rotonde,” where she moonlighted as a singer-dancer. It was at La Rotonde that Gabrielle adopted the name Coco. Some believe the name was taken from the song “Ko Ko Ri Ko”; others insist that the name was derived from “coquette,” referring to her affair with textile heir Etienne Balsan. Living with Balsan, Chanel left the cabaret life and began dabbling in hat-making. Her hobby grew into a commercial enterprise, and in 1910 she became a licensed milliner.
From that point forward, Chanel’s prospects grew rapidly. Her hats became wildly popular with stage actresses and wealthy women. In 1913, Chanel opened her first clothing boutique in Deauville, France, where she introduced a line of casual clothes for women. Her designs were heavily influenced by the aristocracy’s love for horses and hunting; her clothing emphasized simplicity, comfort and flexibility as well as elegance. From her love for sailing Chanel appropriated aquatic styles: horizontal-striped shirts, bell-bottom trousers, crew-neck sweaters, and trench coats. After decades of corsets and long dresses, women welcomed the new fashions enthusiastically.
As her popularity grew, her business empire expanded into jewelry and fragrance. Despite her wartime activities, Chanel was widely accepted into aristocratic social circles. Hollywood moguls, composers, writers, and theatrical producers sought her association and advice.
Over the years, the number of Chanel brand products has grown considerably. In addition to the traditional Chanel brands (clothing, fragrances, jewelry, handbags), one will find licensed products such as sunglasses, toys, ink pen sets, cosmetics, and (believe it or not) surfboards. New and vintage Chanel clothing, jewelry, handbags, and perfumes are popular items that command high prices. Consequently, some of them (especially handbags) are counterfeits being sold as authentic. Online identification guides such as 1st Dibs “How to Spot a Fake Chanel Bag” are commonplace and should give collectors some measure of confidence.
Coco Chanel died in 1971 at the Hotel Ritz in Paris. She is buried in Lausanne, Switzerland. Her legacy is unquestioned. Former French Minister of cultural Affairs Andre Malraux said of Chanel: “From this century, in France, three names will remain: de Gaulle, Picasso, and Chanel.”
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s blog at SellMoreAntiques.com.
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