Chanel Wins Luxist's Editors' Choice Award for Best in Beauty
For a beauty and fashion conglomerate whose founder distained fragrances, Chanel has had quite a run. "Women perfume themselves only to hide bad smells," said Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, shortly after founding her eponymous company.
That was 1909. A century later the iconic Chanel No. 5 is not only Chanel's flagship fragrance, but one of the most recognizable products in the world. Today, the Chanel empire (LINK: www.chanel.com ) spans cosmetics, haute couture, jewelry and swimwear. The company boasts more than 160 boutiques and seven ateliers (through subsidiary Paraffection) across the globe, from Paris and New York to Hong Kong and Tokyo.
Though Coco herself has long since passed on, the company's creative vision comes from head designer and creative director Karl Lagerfeld. Billionaires Alain and Gerard Wertheimer, grandsons of Coco's original business partner Pierre Wertheimer, continue to control the corporate side of Chanel, which takes in an estimated $3 billion or so in annual revenue.
Chanel has come quite a long way from its humble beginnings. A century ago, Coco Chanel opened her first shop from the ground floor of her lover's apartment building in Paris. Her tastes appealed to local fashionistas, and in 1910 she opened a new store on Rue Cambon. By 1913, she had expanded beyond the City of Lights, opening boutiques in the resort towns of Deauville and Biarritz, France.
With the onset of World War I, however, materials and finances both became scarce. As a result, Chanel began to focus on using functional fabrics, especially jersey, in her designs. Stressing simplicity in her designs paid off, and she was able to keep her young company afloat through the war. As the winter of 1921 approached, Chanel rewarded her loyal customers by giving away 100 bottles of an experimental fragrance as Christmas gifts. The following year, Chanel No. 5 made its official debut.
None of this would have happened if French perfumer Ernst Beaux hadn't changed Coco's mind about the merits of fragrances, convincing her to add one to her company's repertoire. According to one story, the formulation of No. 5 was Beaux's attempt to capture the smell of Europe's northern lakes in the midnight sun; according to another, it was the result of a mixing error by Beaux's assistant. Whatever the origin, Chanel No. 5 quickly became a runaway success and added to the company's growing appeal.
In 1924, Coco went into business with brothers Pierre and Paul Wertheimer, handing over all but a 10% stake in her company in exchange for their financial help in its expansion. Two years later, she introduced what would come to be known as the "little black dress." As the years went on, Chanel's star continued to rise, and tensions occasionally flared as Coco Chanel often felt that her efforts left her relatively unrewarded compared to the Wertheimers, who eventually became one of Europe's wealthiest families.
World War II brought more adversity for Chanel: although the company survived another major conflict, it was tainted by Coco Chanel's affair with a Nazi officer. After the war, she took up residence in Switzerland before heading back to France in 1954. Upon her return, she won over a new generation of British and American fans with her designs for women's pea coats and bell-bottoms-and received a luxurious living stipend from the Wertheimers, though it was a fraction of what she would have earned had she maintained a controlling interest in her company.
Coco Chanel died of natural causes in 1971, at the age of 87. Even at her advanced age, she was still designing, and her death took a huge toll on the fortunes of her namesake company on the whole. Coco herself famously said that fashion is made to become unfashionable. Indeed, by the late 1970s, Chanel was largely considered a moribund brand among Europe's fashion elite, and even the classic Chanel No. 5 was beginning to feel a bit musty.
In 1983, Pierre Wertheimer's son, Alain, brought in Karl Lagerfeld to remake the fashion side of Chanel. The flamboyant designer did exactly that, scrapping the brand's traditional restrain in favor of an eye-catching aesthetic that made Chanel a flashier alternative to more demure designs of Prada. Chanel opened more than 40 boutiques in the 1980s, paving the way for a return to glory.
"I like today and perhaps a little future still," Lagerfeld once said. "But the past is really something I'm not interested in."
Today, Lagerfeld continues to drive Chanel forward into the new century; Alain and Gerard Wertheimer still own the bulk of the company and are worth a combined $7.5 billion, according to Forbes. Thanks in part to a series of advertising campaigns that have included actresses Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Kidman, and most recently, Audrey Tautou, star of Amelie, Chanel No. 5 remains popular as ever.
It seems that Coco's choice of launching a fragrance line was a good idea, after all.