15 things you didn't know about Coco Chanel

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By Monica Chen 

The world famous and often controversial French designer is known for her signature scent, iconic suits, luxurious handbags and eponymous brand, but there are probably a few facts about her that you don’t know…yet. 

1. who is coco?

When she was born on August 19, 1883, the name on her official birth registry read “Gabrielle Bonheur Chasnel.” Her last name was misspelled, likely due to a clerical error, and “Coco” would be a nickname she acquired after childhood.

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2. early career goals

Chanel hoped to gain success as an entertainer while working in the spa resort town of Vichy, but quickly realized there that her limited singing talents would not take her far. 

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3. hats for sale

After moving to Paris, Chanel began designing hats, and in 1910, became a licensed milliner. She opened her first shop on Paris’s Rue Cambon, later adding stores in Deauville and Biarritz.

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4. suit up!

She introduced the now iconic Chanel suit in 1925. Though the style would evolve slightly through the years, her first design of the collarless jacket and well-fitted suit, emphasizing comfort and functionality, was revolutionary at the time.

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5. chanel number ...

Chanel did not create Chanel N 5, but rather gave her name to a perfumer. In doing so, she became the first designer to be featured on a fragrance. She picked the fifth sample he had, as 5 was her lucky number, and thus the world-renown Chanel N 5 was born. 

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6. bag lady

In 1929 Chanel launched a handbag inspired by soldiers’ bags. The design was shaped by the combination of her early days in the convent where she was raised and her love of sporting, with the burgundy lining referencing convent uniforms and the quilted outside mimicking that of jockeys’ jackets. The design was updated in 1948, again in the 1980s by Karl Lagerfeld. In 2005, House of Chanel released a 50th anniversary replica of the original bag. 

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7. a girl's best friend

Chanel conceptualized and designed her first high-end jewelry collection, dubbed “Bijoux de Diamants” in 1932. It channeled the essence of Great Depression aesthetics while looking to the sky for inspiration – see the shooting star? 80 years later, the House of Chanel released a collection of 80 pieces (one for each year since the first collection) to celebrate the first collection’s anniversary.

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8. the lbd

The concept of “Little Black Dress” is often attributed to Chanel as she took a color most associated with mourning and popularized it for eveningwear, stressing how chic the color looked in many of her designs.

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“I imposed black; it’s still going strong today, for black wipes out everything else around.” - Coco Chanel

9. alone in time

She is the only fashion designer to make the Time 100 Persons of the Century list. In Artists & Entertainers category, she is joined by the fellow icons and revolutionaries Louis Armstrong, Lucille Ball, Charlie Chaplin, The Beatles, Marlon Brando, Le Corbusier and Bob Dylan.

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10. everybody comes to hollywood

In 1921, Coco made the acquaintance of Samuel Goldwyn (of MGM, aka “Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer”) through the Grand Duke Dmitri Pvlovich, cousin to the last czar of Russia, Nicholas II. Goldwyn offered her 1 million dollars (equivalent now to approximately $75 million) to design costumes for MGM stars. Unfortunately for Hollywood, in the end, her tailored design aesthetic did not translate well to the silver screen.

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"Hollywood is the capital of bad taste….and it is vulgar." - Coco Chanel

11. To russians, with love

She met Russian composer Igor Stravinsky in the 1920s and housed his family in one of her homes for 9 months. She also donated a small fortune (300,000 francs) to fund the Ballets Russe and designed various costumes for the Russian ballet company.

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12. close to the crown

The Prince of Wales, Edward VIII, was allegedly smitten with Chanel and is rumored to have even proposed. Later as King, he would abdicate the throne to wed Wallis Simpson, a 3-time divorcee. Twenty-six years later, his niece Elizabeth would ascend to lead the House of Windsor, becoming Queen Elizabeth II, the longest reigning living monarch in the world.

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"There have been several Duchesses of Westminster. There is only one Chanel." - Coco Chanel

13. nazi ties?

Recently declassified documents unveiled that the French police had a document on Chanel in which she was described as "Couturier and perfumer. Pseudonym: Westminster. Agent reference: F-7124. Signaled as suspect in the file.” However, controversy abounds as both Chanel herself and the House of Chanel have refuted the accusations.

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14. au revoir, chanel

Coco Chanel passed away at the age of 87 on January 10, 1971 at the Hotel Ritz where she resided for over 30 years. Her funeral was held at the Church of the Madeleine in Paris and was attended by numerous models and couturiers like Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Balmain.

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15. encore!

Broadway Musical: She inspired the Broadway musical “Coco” and for the first 8 months, her character was portrayed by Katharine Hepburn, in her only stage musical. The show garnered 7 Tony nominations and has been presented as recently as 2011.

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