Orphaned at a young age, Chanel made a living as a simple seamstress and cabaret performer. She earned the nickname "Coco" after one of the nightly songs she performed for drunken soldiers.
Her rags-to-riches story was widely unknown—as her fame grew, Chanel kept her modest childhood a secret. Her transformative journey is revealed in Coco Before Chanel, a French film starring Audrey Tautou in limited release beginning Friday, September 25, 2009.
"She was really quite a radical person," says Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and author of Women of Fashion. "She grew up very poor—a kept woman who didn't want to just be somebody's mistress. She identified with wealthy men. She wanted to have the independence that they had."
The classic black-and-white palette, menswear-inspired design and simple elegance of the Chanel revered today are what made her a rebel in the 1920s and 30s. "She rejected a lot of the feminine styles of her day and created a kind of androgynous style," Steele says. "In a way, she was the first female dandy, which I think is still very powerfully modern."
The press could not get enough of her rebellious style. The Chanel brand thrived until economic depression and the outbreak of World War II caused her business to close in 1939. Chanel returned with a legendary fashion show in 1954, and in her 70s, she revived her brand to the influential status it holds to this day.
Steele credits the lasting Chanel legacy to the fashion house's current head designer, Karl Lagerfeld, who brought the label up-to-date in 1984. "He started using different materials like denim; he started exaggerating different features like the buttons and the double Cs," Steele says. "In many ways, Chanel would probably be rolling over in her grave in horror. On the other hand, that was necessary to make it relevant. He has certainly been brilliant in staying with the Chanel DNA, but then giving it shocks to make it modern."
As Chanel is often quoted, "Fashion passes, style remains." Even a woman who has never owned a Chanel piece is likely to have something inspired by the iconic designer.