Here’s an interesting tidbit to ponder. On this day in 1902, The Paris Herald, that turn-of-the-20th-century journal of privilege founded as a diversion for muckety-muck American expats that eventually became the International Herald Tribune, mentioned the name Chanel in a piece about furs. The article didn’t go so far as to say “Mme. Chanel,” or even “Gabrielle Chanel,” but simply hearkened a fur from “Chanel.” From a fashion-history-nerd standpoint, this piece of information is intriguing, because practically every biography of Chanel claims she launched her career with a hat shop in Deauville, France, around 1912.
What do you think? If anyone knew fur in Paris in 1902, it would be the fashion editor at The Paris Herald. Could the paper have made a typo and misspelled the name of a furrier with a similar French surname, say, Chanal or Chamel? Or have all of Chanel’s biographers missed this era—even if it was a brief one—of the designer’s career? Could there actually be another chapter in the mystique of Chanel yet to be uncovered? It’s fascinating to think about the possibilities of the latter.
Other than writing about Chanel’s marvelous stand-off with her team of seamstresses in 1936 and the introduction of the classic suit and the little black dress, I have never researched the designer at great length or even read a single biography about her from cover to cover. But my personal theory is that, given her well-known ambition, the 19-year-old seamstress attempted to launch a fashion design business earlier than biographers have previously thought, perhaps as a furrier, got one of her pieces in the hands of an editor at the influential paper and lost the business shortly thereafter. Perhaps Chanel never mentioned this short chapter of her life because she thought it irrelevant or was embarrassed by her failure. We do know that her cabaret career, the era during which she adopted the name “Coco,” took off from 1905 to 1908, and during that time she met the man who would become her lover and help bankroll the millinery business she founded in 1910.
There is a third possible explanation to this mystery, of course, and that is that my own research on this item is incorrect. In fact, the entire source of information is second-hand: A brief mention on page 127 of The Age of Opulence: The Belle Epoque in the Paris Herald, fashion journalist Hebe Dorsey’s book focusing on the decadent era of the paper from 1890 to 1914. I simply don’t have access to 1902 issues of the Paris Herald, and so cannot fact-check her work today, so there’s that. To boot, the book was published in 1988 and another author may have investigated this and debunked it by now, but I can’t find any mentions of that.
So what do you think? Share your opinion in our fashion poll:
Photo: Coco before Chanel: A photo of Mme. Chanel from the early 20th century.