Who hasn’t heard of Chanel No. 5? But how much do you know about the woman behind the scent? Follow along as Tidbits aims the spotlight at Coco Chanel.

It might seem that world-renowned fashion designer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel led an elegant, privileged life, but her beginnings were very humble. She was born in a French village in 1883 to a street peddler father and a laundress mother, one of six children. Her 32-year-old mother died when Gabrielle was 11, and her father, overwhelmed and unable to provide for the family, placed her and her two sisters in an orphanage operated by Catholic nuns. They never saw their father again.

    During her six years in the orphanage, Coco was taught to sew, a skill that shaped the rest of her life. When she left the institution, she found employment as a seamstress and milliner, with a side job as a nightclub singer, where she earned the nickname Coco.

    In 1921, Chanel branched out into perfumery, introducing the legendary Chanel No. 5. Wanting to create perfume that represented “a real woman,” scents of floral and woods were blended and named after the fifth sample that was presented to her. The following year, Chanel No. 22, a variation of No. 5 was launched.

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    When Coco was 27, her current love interest financed her first shop in Paris. Another boutique followed three years later. In 1923, the Chanel tweed suit was introduced, a jacket and skirt in light wool, with a jersey or silk blouse. Her aim was to make clothes that were more comfortable for women.

    Perhaps Chanel’s most famous creation was the “little black dress,” which she debuted in 1926. It was a simple yet sophisticated straight, long-sleeved, drop-waist, calf-length sheath dress of crêpe de Chine. It was worn with a string of pearls. Vogue magazine declared that the dress would become “a sort of uniform for all women of taste,” describing it as “the frock that all the world will wear.” Chanel produced it in wool and chenille for daytime wear, and elegant dresses in satin, crêpe, and velvet for the evening. Chanel’s style was to keep the dress simple, but pair it with the perfect accessories to “dress it up” or “dress it down.”

By 1927, Coco Chanel owned five properties on the exclusive fashion district’s Rue Cambon, property that the company still occupies. Coco had a lavish apartment on the second floor of one of the 18th-century buildings, filled with luxurious furnishings, objects from Ancient Greece, Egypt, China, and Italy. Yet she never slept there. She chose to reside in a suite at the Ritz Hotel for 34 years, walking back and forth each day. She used the apartment “to work, read, daydream, rest, lunch and entertain.” It was Coco’s habit to notify the staff of her arrival time in order to have all the rooms spritzed with No. 5 perfume.

    By 1935, Chanel’s company had more than 4,000 employees. But with the outbreak of World War II, she shut down her business, firing the workers, and closing the stores. Post-War, she left Paris for a self-imposed exile in Switzerland and at her country house in the French Riviera.

In 1954, after her couture house had been closed for 15 years, at age 70, Chanel re-entered the fashion world, launching a comeback collection of new designs.   

•    Coco Chanel was 87 years old when she died in 1971. Today, the company produces 137 different perfumes. Chanel Grand Extrait sells for $4,200 per ounce.