Commentary: Coco Chanel, rebel entrepreneur, disruptor and pioneer

Commentary: Coco Chanel, rebel entrepreneur, disruptor and pioneer

Chanel’s new perfume Gabrielle harks back to Coco Chanel’s early days and the business instincts that built a global brand, says one business expert.

Chanel logo is seen in a shop in downtown Rome
Chanel was founded by Gabrielle Bonheur Coco Chanel, born in 1883 in Saumur, France. (Photo: Reuters)

HUDDERSFIELD, United Kingdom: Chanel has released its first new feminine fragrance in 14 years.

The perfume Gabrielle is named after the eponymous founder before she was known as Coco. It is a reference to the company’s youth, when an inexperienced entrepreneur willing to take risks set a course that should inspire modern-day women in business to do the same.

In the 100 years since Chanel set up shop, her brand has become a distinct, trusted, exclusive and globally recognised marque. It is a heritage brand that has somehow retained a place as an expression of modernity.

The promotion of the new fragrance makes reference to Chanel’s rebellious nature in a bid to attract new millennial devotees.

The hope is that it will also reinforce Chanel’s luxury status and retain the core 24- to 35-year-old consumers in challenging market conditions.

Picture of the famous french high fashion designer Coco Chanel taken in 1944 in Paris. AFP PHOTO
Picture of the famous french high fashion designer Coco Chanel taken in 1944 in Paris. She once said that: "A girl should be two things - classy and fabulous". (Photo: AFP)

Coco Chanel’s life and personal qualities have been front and centre of the story.

Movies have tried to combine products and personal identity in tales where Chanel the business person is never detached from her life story or love life. Her abandonment in childhood suggests a motivation to escape poverty and seek a work identity, to make something of herself.

But the dramatic narrative can detract from seeing her contribution as a straightforward business entrepreneur and style innovator.

The company was built on her ability to spot market opportunities and align fashion and fragrances with emerging lifestyle trends, not on her intriguing back story. Her complicated relationships – where friends and lovers were business partners, creative mentors and the means to market – in fact stress the importance of building a network.

Women work on making gloves on January 9, 2013, in Millau, at the Causse glove factory.
Women work on making gloves at the Causse glove factory. The French company founded in 1892 was bought in 2013 by Chanel. (File photo: AFP/Pascal Pavani)


As with many good start-ups, it began with a key insight. Chanel, who died in 1971, could see the desire for a new self-expression that emerged from World War I.

She combined jersey wear, the sailor’s blouse, the trouser suit, tweed and the little black dress in her collections. She blended masculine and feminine, work and leisure identities with affordable fabrics in a new system of style.

Her innovations were creative disruptions of which tech innovators today would be proud. She enabled a new way of being fashionable and changed industry norms.

She had a sense of how clothing should feel, paying particular attention to the selection and use of fabrics. For example, jersey was affordable but not best suited to highly structured clothing.

Chanel embraced the fluidity of the fabric by designing looser clothing with a dropped waistline. The little black dress was the consummation of efforts to achieve elegance through simplicity.

Chanel’s fashion innovations demonstrated her talent for creativity within constraints. She dealt with limited resources in the early days, working from an apartment to remodel and sell hats bought from department stores.

Later, she contended with skill gaps in production and distribution as the business matured. Modern-day entrepreneurs will have run into similar issues acquiring and accessing resources while in start-up mode.

Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld as part of his Haute Couture Fall/Winter
Models present creations by German designer Karl Lagerfeld as part of his Haute Couture Fall/Winter 2017/2018 collection for fashion house Chanel in Paris on Jul 4. (Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Chanel the business grew from that small millinery operation founded in 1910 to a diversified fashion and fragrance conglomerate. Created in 1921, Chanel No.5 remains one of the bestselling fragrances in the world.

Working with perfumer Ernest Beaux, the scent was pioneering. It used higher levels of aldehydes to create a richer scent, which Chanel hoped would be difficult to copy.

The bottle design was based on one from a men’s toiletry travel set. Again, Chanel challenged convention through design, redefining luxury through simplicity in a subtle rebellion against prevailing norms.

Behind the scenes, Chanel used her social network to good effect. When demand for No.5 increased, she formed a business relationship with the Wertheimer brothers for the production and distribution of the scent.

Where she did not have the skills or business capacity, she accepted the need to outsource.

Chanel No. 5 perfume was created by Coco Chanel in 1921, and quickly came to define a new type of
Chanel No. 5 was created by Coco Chanel in 1921, and quickly came to define a new type of independent, modern woman (Photo: AFP/Niklas Hall'en)

If entrepreneurship is a matter of seeing and exploiting opportunities for business with scalable market appeal, Chanel fits the bill. She was also able to diversify the business from fashion to fragrance, seeing that one could support the other if the brand and brand values could be shared.

The use of her name was both a risk and a means of self-verification, an expression of self-belief in her and her business.


Among her fellow female entrepreneurs, both then and now, it is often issues of risk and self-belief that prevent the move into business. It is a complex issue to explore, but it is generally assumed females have a less positive attitude towards risk and this can dampen the motivation to drive new ventures.

The research is not conclusive; it may be that studies struggle to distinguish between financial, context-specific and personal risk.

Women may also maintain different life and work-related values to men, in some cases constrained by wider societal and cultural values.

Does society expect women to pursue secure and stable employment, rather than follow Chanel’s rebellious path? The gender gap in start-ups suggests that fewer businesses are initiated by women, and that a lack of self-belief has a part to play in limiting intentions.

A giant replica of the Eiffel Tower is seen at the Grand Palais before the German designer Karl Lag
Chanel's fashion shows have since become more elaborate. The most recent Fall/Winter collection was unveiled on a walk-way with a giant replica of the Eiffel Tower in July. (Photo: REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

Perhaps Chanel’s early life experiences and the poverty that followed did help forge her business identity. It was a combination of push and pull that allowed her to challenge social attitudes towards women in business and how women do business.

The research is inconclusive as to why there are still fewer female entrepreneurs, but there is some accord in the need for targeted support mechanisms, for improving access to finance and exploring alternative approaches to entrepreneurship education.

By exploiting opportunities that arose from economic, social and technological change, by acknowledging and managing risk, and by the use of social and financial networks, Chanel challenged the conventions of fashion and beauty.

If the new fragrance is meant to be an expression of rebellion, then this should also be the message from Coco to a modern generation of entrepreneurs.

Leigh Morland is principal lecturer at the University of Huddersfield’s department of management. This commentary first appeared in The Conversation. Read the original commentary here.

Source: CNA/sl