“Never be an imitator, be always original. Don’t become a carbon copy. But that’s what is happening all over the world — carbon copies and carbon copies.”
THE month of May proved to be a significant one with regard to certain individuals who shaped the female fashion and hair industry.
One of them is Vidal Sassoon, one of the most famous hairdressers in the world, who died on May 9 aged 84.
He was dominant in the Caucasian hair industry and you may have noticed his name on shampoo and other hair product adverts in magazines.
But my focus today is on Coco Chanel, the woman who built a fashion design and fragrance empire in the early 1900’s.
With little formal education Chanel made the most of her talents and left behind a timeless brand.
Her life was featured on a movie channel throughout May and I found it fascinating for a number of reasons.
Rising above one’s beginnings — This life story, like many others proves that one’s achievements are not limited by challenging conditions encountered early in life.
Chanel was born Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel in 1883, although it is reported she later claimed it was 1893, making herself 10 years younger.
She was born in a workhouse, a place where people in debt were forced to work until their debt had been repaid.
Her mother died when she was six after which she was sent to live in an orphanage and spent holidays with relatives.
By the time of her death in 1971 at the age of 88 she had built a fashion and perfume empire which is still going strong today.
Her perfume Chanel No. 5 launched in 1922 is a leading fragrance to this day.
She is credited with the design of the “little black dress” a term that is part of the fashion vocabulary and also the design of the Chanel suit.
A Vision for Change — It is worth noting that the early 1900’s was a conservative era in terms of dress and Chanel wanted to free women from corsets and multiple layers of fabric.
She believed in simple designs coupled with large accessories, usually pearls, for dramatic effect.
Her approach was radical and did not always get approval.
At one point she got bad press in Europe for her pea jacket and bell bottom designs but they became a big hit in the United States.
But if we look around, conventional wisdom teaches us to follow the tried and tested method because “that is the way it has always been done.”
And yet if we look at women who made a mark in history, they went against the grain in a big way.
An unconventional life — I have noticed that in most cases women who reach great heights live unconventional lives and Chanel was no exception.
She never married nor had children.
Her private life was quite controversial and it’s even more extraordinary considering the conservative nature of society at that time.
Although looking at the facts I am inclined to think that the conservatism was just a veneer, underneath they were as liberal as people are today.
Her first job as a tailor was followed by a brief stint as a singer in cafes and concert halls and these types of performances were exclusively for a male audience.
It was at one of these that she met her first benefactor, a rich gentleman with whom she lived for three years.
During that time she began making hats for friends that proved popular and the activity gained momentum.
Her major breakthrough came in her late 20s when she embarked on a nine-year relationship with a wealthy English industrialist Arthur Capel, who tragically died in a car accident in 1919.
He financed the start of her millinery and two boutiques.
Even though Chanel moved in elite circles, there is speculation that her lower class background rendered her unsuitable for marriage at those levels.
Despite their mutual devotion, Capel never married her, instead he wed someone else a year before his death.
Her entanglements continued throughout her life however, including one with a famous Russian composer.