May 29, 2013
Born into poverty, orphaned at seven and looking up at a “glass ceiling” that was virtually opaque, Gabrielle “Coco” Bonheur Chanel (1883-1971) became one of the 20th century’s great entrepreneurs and innovators. She was a resilient businesswoman who climbed the ladder of success. And when times were tough, she found a way to turn problems into opportunities. Today, the House of Chanel is a multi-billion dollar empire and the brand, Chanel is valued at over $6 billion.
The post-Victorian era was not conducive to women causing a disturbance, especially in France where they didn’t pass women’s suffrage laws until 1944. But that did not deter the young Coco Chanel. From the time she opened her first hat shop in 1909, she began to revolutionize women’s fashion by innately understanding what women wanted and needed. She saw the improbability of the status quo, knowing that corsets, frills, fuss and lace were all about pleasing men, not women. She saw through the glass ceiling and knew that beyond the “expected and accepted,” there was an opportunity to create clothes that delighted the women, not the men. She said, “I want women to have the possibility to laugh and eat, without necessarily having to faint.” Thirty years before women had the right to vote, she gave them the right to wear jackets, pants and comfortable, practical clothes. Initially, her ideas were considered outrageous and yet, she was outrageously successful. Coco Chanel didn’t simply buck a trend; she disrupted social norms, changed cultural customs and allowed women to enjoy what they had never before imagined.
WWI brought hardship and tough economic times but rather than focusing on the problems, the budding entrepreneur found opportunity where others saw setbacks. During the war women had to work more so she designed practical wear for them. And because Spain was neutral during the war, it was a playground for the rich so she opened a hugely successful shop in nearby Biarritz, France to serve wealthy clients. By the end of the war she had created the iconic Chanel brand – casual chic, liberating, sporty – the epitome of haute couture. Then she introduced Chanel No. 5, and as they say, the rest is history.
What Coco Chanel did is not rooted in genius or luck; it’s about thinking like an innovator and acting like an entrepreneur. She built an empire on principles that are as fundamental today as they were a hundred years ago.
I categorize them as: 1) Recognizing what will delight your customers; 2) Creating an ongoing conversation 3) Seeing beyond “what is” to “what can be;” 4) Turning problems into opportunities; and 5) Being ready to cause a disturbance in the marketplace.