Coco Chanel is one of the most idolized characters in the fashion industry. Everyone knows who she is, from the iconic double-C logo, to the tweed suit, to several “feminist” quotes about not needing a man. Chanel pieces are coveted by thousands (and cost that much too!) and stay fashionable for decades after their release, and yet, do you really know who Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was?
Born out of wedlock in 1883, Chanel grew up impoverished in Saumur, Maine-et-Loire, France. Her parents married a year later and would go on to have a total of 6 children, one of whom passed after only six months. When Chanel was 11, her mother died of health complications, the cause of which remains unknown, and her father sent her to a convent, where Chanel was first taught how to sew.
As she grew older, Chanel grew fond of a life of luxury, finding herself in bed with more than one married man throughout her life. At twenty-three, Chanel lived at the estate of a young textile heir, and at twenty-five was gifted an apartment by the heir’s best friend, Captain Arthur Edward ‘Boy’ Capel, a well-known member of the English upper-class. When later discussing the affairs, Chanel would reminisce, “two gentlemen were outbidding for my hot little body.” Capel was Chanel’s first investor, helping her career by financing her first two shops in 1913. Chanel would later tell friends that Capel was her only true love in life, despite his car accident and subsequent death in 1919.
By 1922, Chanel apparel was all the rage, and her interest in creating a custom Chanel fragrance had never left her. Introduced to Chanel by a mutual friend, Pierre Wertheimer, a wealthy Jewish businessman, made a substantial investment into her perfume; one that left her making only ten percent of the profits of Parfums Chanel. Many blame this (objectively terrible) deal for her later involvement in the Nazi party, but it seems worth mentioning that although Chanel had little education, for the past nine years she had run her business with little to no help. Chanel was not forced to sign that contract, and in fact, made the decision herself that the establishment of her perfume company was more important that her profits, although she later claimed to regret it.
Skipping forward a few years, by the beginning of 1939 Chanel was a grand success, employing 4,000 workers in her atelier. Despite this, Chanel chose to close her business, citing the oncoming war as “not a time for fashion.” As the Nazis invaded and took control of France, Chanel moved into the Hotel Ritz, known as the French headquarters for Nazi Germany. It seems worth noting that Chanel had already formed a strong distaste for Jews long before the Nazi party rose to power; however, this had not severely impacted her business decisions in the past (see Pierre Wertheimer.) Chanel did attempt to use the Nazi occupation to take control of Parfums Chanel, as Jews were no longer permitted to own businesses, but Wertheimer had already sold the business to an Aryan friend of his and fled to Switzerland long before the occupation began. Nonetheless, Chanel did not let that get her down, as she had found a new lover in German diplomat Hans Günther von Dincklage, also referred to as her Nazi boyfriend. In 1941 Chanel formally dedicated herself to the Nazi cause, becoming an informant and eventually tasked with going to her old friend Winston Churchill and convincing him to “work out a deal” with Germany. Needless to say, the mission was a failure and the Nazis were stamped out like roaches.
Chanel was never prosecuted for her collusion. She was interrogated in 1944 by the Free French Purge Committee but was released due to a “lack of evidence.” Chanel later told her grand-niece that it was Churchill who had her freed. Chanel lived alone in Switzerland for the remainder of her life, reopening her namesake brand in 1954 at the age of 70. In a move that may surprise some, Chanel made another deal with Pierre Wertheimer where, in exchange for total control over the Chanel brand, Wertheimer would bankroll Chanel’s luxe lifestyle until her death in 1971, still living in Hotel Ritz. To this day, the Wertheimers still own Chanel, valued in 2019 at approximately 11.5 billion dollars.
While it seems obvious that the Wertheimer family was aware of Chanel’s ties to the Nazi party, official documents confirming her actions were not released until 2014 by French Intelligence agencies. As one of the biggest secrets in the fashion industry, it stands to reason that one would think that this could seriously hobble Chanel’s sales, and yet the company seems to be doing better than ever, which then begs the question: were the Wertheimers right to have hidden the truth for so long? And is it ethical to still purchase Chanel products, knowing what we know now?
In the age of cancel culture (and I grimace just typing that), many may refuse to buy Chanel once they discover her white supremacist ideals. However, given that a Jewish family owns Chanel, I see no issue in purchasing from the brand. In fact, it gives me a small spark of joy every time I think of how angry Chanel would feel knowing that the business she created brings so much income to a Jewish family, and how irritated she would be to see the famous interlocking C’s in the hands of a Jewish woman. However, I do have a problem with idolizing Coco Chanel to the extent she has been. I don’t care what her opinions were, or what she thinks makes a girl irreplaceable, or that she thinks every woman must wear perfume to be successful. Nothing she said holds any interest for me, because Coco Chanel lived with, had sex with, and fell in love with people who killed millions. The quotes you see from her only serve to paint a false idea of who she was, not the real beliefs from the woman behind the tweed suit.
Actually, seeing as Coco Chanel died bitter and alone in a hotel (which is more than she deserved), I think only one of Chanel’s quotes describes her life perfectly.
“My friends, there are no friends.”