Gabrielle Chanel was born into poverty in the Loire Valley of France in 1883. When her mother died when she was 12, her father sent his two sons to work as farm labourers and his three daughters to a convent. It was a stark life but Gabrielle learned to sew, later finding employment as a seamstress, and singing in public using the name the name Coco.
At 23, Coco Chanel became the mistress of Étienne Balsan who showered her with diamonds, dresses and pearls. She then began a nine year affair with one of Balsan’s English upper class friends, Arthur Capel, who installed her in an apartment in Paris and financed her first shops.
After opening successful boutiques in Normandy and Biarritz, Chanel purchased the building at 31 rue Cambon, in one of the most fashionable districts of Paris, registering herself as a couturière in 1918. Her fashion boutique featured clothing, hats, accessories and later jewellery and fragrances. By 1927, she owned five properties on the rue Cambon and had launched her signature scent Chanel No. 5.
By 1935, she had become a habitual drug user, injecting herself with morphine daily, a habit she retained to the end of her life. Chanel closed her couture house in 1939 with the outbreak of WWII. Her association with a German diplomat during the Nazi occupation of France tainted her reputation, and she did not return to the fashion world until 1954.
Chanel was the mistress of some of the most influential men of her time, but she never married. She died in 1971 at the age of 87 at the Hotel Ritz in Paris, where she had resided for more than 30 years.