What do you know about Coco Chanel?
Some people know nothing of the woman who built the fashion empire and see Chanel bags as a status symbol for the material girls among us. If you follow business and culture, you may know that she was the sole fashion designer on TIME’s most influential people of the 20th century list. If you find yourself steeped in the world of fashion and design, you might know Chanel as a liberator of women: before her, we wore corsets, giant hats and billowing layers designed to keep our bodies, and therefore, our minds and desires still. Before all the clothes you love today: stretch, leggings, athleisure and black beyond funerals, there were a small group of female designers in the 20th century who changed how we dress (or dressed us for change), Chanel the most famous of them all.
And then there are some of you trivia-loving types who might know Chanel as a Nazi.
When I celebrated a monumental occasion in my life a couple of years ago, I did two things: booked my first trip to Japan and bought my first Chanel bag. It was a wonderful, liberating year in my life.
It’s one of the very few brands in the world that can claim multi-generational fanfare; my grandmother, my mother and I all have had our bottles of No. 5 (my preference is the newer, fresher L’eau).
Since October 2012, the house of Chanel has been releasing short animated films under the banner Inside Chanel. Its creative direction and production are shrouded in secrecy - in 2013, no director or agency’s name was attached, and I couldn’t find anything through multiple google searches*. The narration, motion graphics, sound, story, all come together to tell Gabrielle Coco Chanel’s story and legacy, through many lenses: fashion, marketing, creativity, branding, history, autobiography, influence, art, design, film, creative direction, gender, business, media.
Each video is only a few minutes long, but is a powerful study of multiple things at once, epitomizing the complexity and driving forces influencing fashion, commerce, identity and change.
The first in the series is an introduction to Chanel No. 5, the most effective commercial for a perfume I have ever seen, and a fitting choice, considering how ubiquitous and ever-present and global the perfume is: it’s in drugstores, luxury department stores, airports all around the world.
If you don’t know Chanel, you have still seen No 5.
Its power as a perfume ad would be immediately superseded by Chapter 2: Marilyn and No. 5, also released in 2012, preceded by the house’s announcement that over fifty years after her death, Marilyn Monroe would be the new face of Chanel No. 5.
Of course, every legend has an origin story, and this is Chanel’s in under 3 minutes (Chapter 5: Coco).
When Inside Chanel started, I was still in fashion, or trying to break into it as much as Rachel from Friends was when she was working at a coffee shop and sending out good vibes.
Years later, I’ve grown older and my whims have changed, yet the series continues on. It remains one of the most striking and well-produced pieces of modern brand storytelling.
You know me and you don’t.
In 2015, Chanel launched a new fragrance with this as the tagline, and oh, what a truth that is.
Inside Chanel is brand storytelling as its best, but there are also other truths in between, like the now century-old business forces behind Chanel: Chanel herself never did own all of Chanel. Through all the celebration of her independence, ambition and acumen, the $30+ billion empire belongs to a pair of French brothers.
As the series continues on, I wonder if and how they’ll address the decades-long battle for her company and namesake before the ultimate resurgence of the house of Chanel in 1954, during which she worked as a Nazi spy, with a codename and everything. Here’s the true story of Chanel, in TL;DR form: abandoned orphan learns to sew, becomes a cabaret singer, then sells hats and falls in love, expands her business to the height of fashion in Paris, battle ensues for her company, cue becoming a Nazi spy (and that’s just the first half).
The late journalist Hal Vaughan wrote the book, Sleeping with Enemy, which recounts these hidden years of Chanel. In a 2011 interview with The New Yorker, he recalled a chat with Coco’s grand-niece, her only living relative:
“You know, Mr. Vaughan, these were very difficult times, and people had to do very terrible things to get along.” Chanel was, very simply put, an enormous opportunist who did what she had to do to get along.
This is the rare story of a woman who created herself and whose legacy seems to have vastly overshadowed her flaws. She was an anti-Semite, mistress, probably a compulsive liar, maybe a daily drug user: her nickname Coco, in its G-rated version, came from a song she used to sing “Who has seen Coco?” at the cabarets, and in its R-rated version, came from the cocaine parties she was rumoured to be fond of throwing. She courted a cast of characters as her lovers, including Grand Duke Dmitri Pavlovich, Rasputin’s murderer, and numerous wealthy men, sometimes friends of other previous wealthy men she loved.
Today, Inside Chanel is on an impressive chapter 27 - many things have changed on the internet in the last 10 years but this series from 1 to 27 feels both consistent and fresh, as timeless and irreverent as Chanel herself. To date, the series has covered everything from the invention of the Chanel jacket to a 5 minute “western”, as we follow Coco into the new world of Hollywood. With each new film, there are odes and nods to previous ones, and there is no linear order. There isn’t just one story and one lens, but many interwoven.
I can’t tell you in which way Inside Chanel inspires me the most: whether it’s in the way intended, as a consumer (I have, since buying my first Chanel bag, bought two lipsticks and one perfume), as a creative who is looking to do braver and more interesting work, or as a woman who didn’t have a lot of role models for ambition, and in Chanel, was able to find someone who invented her life: designing, building, becoming it.
These interlocking Cs have become one of the most iconic and sought after brandmarks in the world for decades, and it’s all built on artifice. I’ve been thinking a lot about artifice vs authenticity, amidst our oscillating obsession and disgust for both. Coco is not her real name but an invention and the Cs themselves reportedly fashioned after the graphic patterns of the medieval stained glass windows found in the austere orphanage she grew up in. She often tried, unsuccessfully in the end, to tell a more glamourous story of her upbringing. But her legacy is the most meta form of glamour possible: a story about self-invention, passion, ruthlessness and conviction, wrapped up in clothes, hats, bags, and perfume. She became who she was through her own imagining, creating a story, her freedom, a new way to live and be, bringing with her millions of women, one Brad Pitt, and an entire generation…or three.
Inside Chanel is a study in modern storytelling, content marketing, and branding, as much as it is a historical deep dive into one of the most iconic women in history, a woman who brought together all kinds of forces in her life and beyond to invent herself.
*Google did not help me but the many degrees of Instagram did, and I have found the team behind Inside Chanel: Paris-based production house, Falabracks. French electronic musician Pierre Avia is behind much of the Inside Chanel soundtrack:
My name is Ana and this year, I’m documenting my creative influences. If I could have dinner with anyone in history, Chanel would obviously be among my guests.