Gabrielle Chanel, an alchemist who has reinvented her life


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1937: Gabrielle Chanel at the balcony of her suite at the Ritz Paris hotel. Photo: © Roger Schall / Schall Collection

She has hidden her origins as a poor child growing up in the orphanage, rewriting the pages of her past as she pleases. But they can be deciphered through the clothes, perfumes and jewels she has created for life. She transformed a material poor in gold. - Isabelle Cerboneschi

In spite of the biographies that were devoted to him, Chanel remains a mystery. She created an empire, but her greatest creation is undoubtedly her life, which she invented from a poor and sad raw material. To all her biographers, those who believed her or pretended to believe her, she invented a childhood spent with austere and demanding aunts, a father who left to make a fortune in the Americas. The reality was different.

Gabrielle Chanel was born August 19 1883, at the hospice of Saumur. On the day of his birth, his father, Henry-Albert Chanel, fair merchant of his state, "was not there," she will say years later. Her parents were not married. Her father had already had a child with Eugenie Jeanne Devolle, whom they named Julia, a year before Gabrielle's birth, and decided to flee a life that did not tempt her. Caught up by Jeanne's family, he was forced to assume his role and to recognize his child. The Devolle will compel him, a second time, to marry Jeanne one year after the birth of their second daughter. The wedding took place on May 20 1884.

Six children were born from this union: Julia, Gabrielle, Alphonse, Antoinette, Lucien and Augustin, who will live only a few weeks. The pregnancies, the sadness, the tiredness were right of Jeanne, who died of a respiratory disease in February 1885. Albert Chanel is 39 years old. He is far too young to be widowed and has five children. So he decides to put the two boys on farms - where the children were fit to eat - and to leave the three girls in front of the orphanage.Aubazine, in March 1895.

Gabrielle Chanel lived there until the age of 18 years with her sisters and Aunt Adrienne, barely older than her. So much for the origins. Needless to say, their father, though sometimes visiting the area to visit his sister, never came to see his daughters, let alone look for them.

When they reach the age of 18 years, Gabrielle and Adrienne, who did not intend to novitiate, leave Aubazine for a boarding school, the Institution Notre-Dame, located in Moulin, a garrison town where was stationed the 10e regiment of horse hunters. Two years later, they are placed as committed in a house specialized in trousseaux and layettes. But Gabrielle Chanel's need for freedom is stronger than anything. She wants to escape her destiny and thinks that one of the ways to get there is to sing in a café-concert.

According to the legend, she obtained an honorable success at La Rotonde de Moulins, first, then at Vichy. It is in this city that she meets Etienne Balsan, the first man who will take care of her and the first key actor of her future life. From then on, his fate will follow a completely different course.

The only common point between Etienne Balsan and Gabrielle Chanel is that they are both orphans. But he was lucky to be born in a wealthy family of Châteauroux, owner of a textile factory, the Balsan factories. Chanel moved to his Royallieu property. At home, she meets the world, the half-world and especially Boy Capel, who will become his first love. It will be much more than that: a pygmalion, which will give him a taste for art, esotericism and reading. In 1910, he will help financially install a milliner's workshop upstairs, at 21 rue Cambon and open his first store in Deauville three years later.

The legend Chanel could begin.

A legend whose foundations are based on lack. We must believe that it is in these shortages - love, family, money, everything - that Gabrielle Chanel has the strength to shape a unique destiny to which its origins did not want it. And to afford the luxury of rewriting all the pages of his past that did not suit him.

But those pages, the ones she tried to erase, can be read in spite of her through the clothes, the perfumes and the jewels she created all her life.

Without this particular story, The Chanel style would not have existed. In any case not as we know and recognize. The simple lines, a little suit jacket weighted by a chain, wool cardigans inspired by those of RoyalIieu's grooms, tweed like the jackets of his lover the Duke of Westminster, black, white like the sisters of Aubazine, two-colored ballet flats because it made his big feet appear smaller, the double C, probably the perfect logos that have ever been invented which takes the patterns of Aubazine stained glass, pearls, Byzantine cuffs, some symbols fetishes, the star, the lion, his zodiac sign.

His trajectory fascinates because it is about transformation. In her case, this is even alchemy: Gabrielle Chanel has managed to turn a poor material - its origins - into gold.

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