The True Story of Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel: The Childhood That She Never Wanted You to Know
One of the great rags to riches stories of famous people belongs to Coco Chanel—though the world’s most influential fashion designer would never admit it, preferring to offer various fictional versions of her early life after she had reached great celebrity. Nobody was supposed to know that her childhood was spent in one-room hovels and her adolescence in a grim orphanage.
Thanks to numerous biographers who have delved into her past, including a couple of her close friends, we now know the story in much detail of how Chanel rose from dire poverty to a pinnacle in society, even becoming the long-time lover of Britain’s richest man, the Duke of Westminster, and a friend of Winston Churchill, both before and after his legendary wartime leadership.
Her early years all passed in central France—and the locations make a fascinating itinerary for a Chanel-based trip through that region of pastoral beauty and historic towns. Her father being a pedlar and market vendor, trying his luck in various places, there are quite a few towns and villages where little Gabrielle found herself housed as the family moved around the region.
She was born in 1883 at Saumur in the Loire Valley, that beautiful stretch of river famed for its lovely chateaux erected in the 16th and 17th centuries. But soon the family was on the move, to one village in the poor Auvergne region and then another. Her last and longest childhood home was in Brive-la-Gaillarde, a bustling market town in the Corrèze department. Gaillarde means spirited, aptly for the young girl who showed such spirit when she’d grown up. Brive is also the ideal place to begin a journey through Chanel’s youth, easily accessed via short flights from Paris or direct trains from the capital. An ancient town of 50,000 inhabitants, built in pink sandstone with blue slate roofs, here you can settle into provincial France with plenty of decent hotels and restaurants—and a market famous for its fresh foie gras and local truffles.
With not a glimpse of such luxury, it was here that the family of three sisters and two brothers all lived in one room, in which Chanel’s mother died of tuberculosis when the little girl was just 12. Her father could not take care of his brood and farmed them out, with Gabrielle and her sisters deposited in an orphanage. He never came back.
For little Gabrielle it seemed the end of the world, tellingly depicted in the 2009 film Coco Before Chanel but she came out of it six years later with some basic skills and, most importantly, a burning desire to succeed.
The Pretty Village of Aubazine With a Stony Convent
A rental car is the only way to do this trip, so get yourself one and head eastward from Brive just 20 kilometres to the tiny village of Aubazine. You drive along winding country lanes, up and down hills, through pastures and woods, until you see a huddle of sandstone buildings nestled in a hollow. You motor into the little square at its centre and park under the chestnut trees.
Apart from the trees, only an ancient stone well stands in the square, which is bookended by a towering church—the abbey of the convent. A cafe lies on one side, its terrace tables perfect for sitting back with a drink and contemplating the peace of this place. Across the square is the entrance to the convent, looking quite inviting—unlike how it must have been for little Gabrielle. How daunting for her to be confronted by this huge sandstone institution, with strange black-robed nuns as her guardians. But going round the convent today in the company of the cheery Sister Christophora is a distinct pleasure. And a revelation about where Chanel got many of her motifs as a triumphant designer.
The massive nuns’ block, about 100 metres long with the former orphanage on its top floor, towers over a large cloister planted with vegetables and enclosed by much smaller buildings including a refectory. Attached is the ancient abbey with its bulky belltower soaring high. For six centuries a Cistercian monastery until the French Revolution, revived by the nuns of the Sacred Heart of Mary in the 1800s and run by the Melkite Catholic Church since 1965, the convent does tours led by the exuberant Irish-American sister.
Things get really interesting when we enter the ground floor chapter room where the orphans were schooled. Our eyes are drawn to the plain stained glass windows whose designs look strangely familiar—interlocking rings, surely the genesis of the famous Chanel logo? Little Gabrielle would have seen them every day and they would be imprinted on her memory.
Still more features of the convent, Sister Christophora explains, marked the young girl so deeply that they resurfaced in her designer career. Up on the first floor is a wide sun-lit corridor paved in mosaics of crescent moons and five-point stars. “Celestial motifs, especially that star, appear repeatedly in Chanel jewellery designs,” says the sister, pointing out a star in the mosaic tiling adding, “and five became her lucky number, hence Chanel No 5 perfume.” The black and white clothing of both nuns and orphans, along with the beige of the convent walls, gave rise to the signature colours of Chanel fashions, her biographers have said.
In later years, the fashion icon never spoke about her orphanage days, which lasted until she was 18, inventing other stories for this painful period in her life. Nevertheless, it deeply marked her aesthetic sensibility. Crucially, young Gabrielle also learnt the art of sewing and the value of discipline at Aubazine, two fundamental assets for her later life.
The convent sits in the heart of the village. A walk around its high-walled perimeter is a great pleasure on one of those summer days in the countryside that Europeans enjoy so much, when the air is warm and all is green, there is the buzzing of bees and the babbling of brooks, and breezes riffle through the leaves of great trees. The walk reveals quaint cottages, one housing a bed-and-breakfast, and a stream that gushes from under the convent walls and down through lush pastures—the outlet of the monastery’s water source, which was channelled by the medieval monks themselves from the hills above.
The Cafe-Cabaret in Moulins, Heart of France
In 1901 at the age of 18, Chanel was released from the orphanage and sent to a Catholic boarding house in the town of Moulins, about 240 kilometres northeast of Aubazine. Here she joined her aunt Adrienne, who was actually only slightly older than her, and went to work in a haberdashery as a seamstress. Thus began her adult life in tandem with the dawn of the 20th century.
To get to Moulins from Aubazine you drive to the nearby county town of Tulle, famous as France’s centre of the accordion, and head up the verdant valley of the River Correze along the A89 motorway. Passing through the wild woodlands of the Millevaches plateau, skirting the major city of Clermont-Ferrand, the home of Michelin tyres, you enter the Allier department where Chanel spent her young adulthood until the age of 23.
Moulins, with a population of around 20,000, lies in the very heart of France, at the centre of an historic region called the Bourbonnais. This was the home ground of the Bourbon family who became the ruling dynasty of France from 1589 until 1830. The town is well worth visiting for several reasons, including a gorgeous cafe-brasserie that young Gabrielle used to frequent.
The Grand Cafe has one of the finest Art Nouveau interiors in Europe, its ornate white stucco arches holding up a lofty ceiling that is painted with idyllic scenes. Red velvet banquettes invite at least 100 diners and drinkers to spend a good while contemplating a design masterpiece dating from 1898, kept in superb condition.
In a nearby cafe-cabaret called La Rotonde—sadly long gone—Chanel revealed the adventurous spirit that brought her such success and took to singing in a duo with her aunt, which attracted a lot of attention from the army officers billeted in this garrison town on their nights of carousing. The cheeky pair did just two comic songs, Ko Ko Ri Ko (Cock-a-Doodle-Doo) and Qui Qu’a Vu Coco? (Anybody Seen Coco?) about a little girl looking for her lost dog, with Chanel taking the lead. It resulted in the patrons calling her Coco, and so a legendary name was born.
A fair amount of Moulins’s historical fabric that Chanel knew is still there more than a century later. The twin spires of the cathedral tower over the town, built in the Flamboyant style at the end of the 15th century. The cathedral’s jewel is a brilliant three-part painting commissioned around 1500 by Duke Peter II of Bourbon, showing him and Duchess Anne de Beaujeu praying to the Virgin Mary. A masterpiece painted by Jean Hey of the brilliant Flemish school, its high points are the intricate depictions of exquisite clothing and drapery.
Truly unmissable are the former cavalry barracks, repurposed in 2006 into a fabulous museum of theatrical costumes. So apt for a place associated with France’s most famous and most influential clothing designer, Moulins’s major attraction is the National Centre of Stage Costume, known as CNCS. This is the kind of museum that would normally grace Paris, but they couldn’t find a suitable location there for its vast collection. The site in Moulins, however, right in the middle of France, means that many more French people can access it.
When great Parisian institutions like the Comedie Francaise, France’s national theatre company, and the National Opera have finished their productions, they send the costumes to the CNCS for storage and display in the permanent collection. In glass cases are gorgeous period clothing from plays such as Hamlet and operas like Otello. There is also a ravishing collection of ballet costumes worn by Rudolf Nureyev, considered the greatest dancer of the 20th century.
Invigoration in Vichy Where Coco Met Etienne Balsan
Just 60 kilometres to the south of Moulins on the D2009 highway is the celebrated spa town of Vichy, which hit the heights of popularity in the Belle Epoque period (1870-1914). In 1906, seeing herself as a stage performer now, Chanel tried her luck there in a town full of entertainment venues, but with no success, because only the best talents got work in Vichy and her voice was not great. To keep afloat she got a job serving water from the springs, handing cups of the mineral-rich liquid to cash-rich visitors.
A magnet for health seekers since Celtic and Roman times, Vichy took off as a tourism destination in the mid-19th century when France’s ruler, Emperor Napoleon III, became enamoured of its waters. The town developed in the next decades into a favourite of French high society and the wealthy bourgeoisie, filled with lavish hotels, spas and casinos.
An elegant town of 24,000 people these days, it offers several spas with revitalising waters, with the vast Hall of Springs at its heart featuring taps from six different sources. At Vichy, the River Allier has been widened to a lake offering water sports, flanked by a flower-decked promenade. The main shopping street is lined with designer boutiques, including Chanel of course, and for those who want to chance their luck at the tables, a solitary casino still beckons.
And in the casino of life, Chanel finally got lucky. Returning to Moulins, the young woman met Etienne Balsan, a dashing—and rich—cavalry officer and racehorse owner who took her off to his chateau at Compiegne north of Paris, where the next phase of her life began. In her biography, Coco Chanel: The Legend and the Life, Justine Picardie puts it this way: “And so Coco went with him there, leaving Gabrielle behind her, locked away in a shadowy place where no one might find her, nor the torn remnants of her past.”
Audrey Tautou's Hometown
One more stop in the Allier area with a Chanel connection is well worth a visit, located 83 kilometres by road to the west of Moulins. Montluçon is the hometown of Audrey Tautou, the actress whose portrayal of the young Chanel in the 2009 biopic Coco Before Chanel was highly acclaimed. Best known internationally for her breakthrough in the title role in Amélie, Tautou did an excellent job at portraying the travails of the young Chanel and her keen eye for the main chance. Knowing the region, as well as somewhat resembling Chanel, made her portrayal really effective.
Allier’s biggest town with a population today of around 35,000, Montluçon was a fief of the dukes of Bourbon and retains a dominant memory of their rule in the form of their 14th century castle, which towers over the town on a rocky bluff. The pedestrianised town centre has beautiful old half-timbered houses with plenty of cafes, restaurants and shops to enjoy. Not to be missed by musicians is MuPop, a lively museum of instruments used in French popular and folk music including accordions, bagpipes and electric guitars.
The trail of young Chanel across central France is an opportunity to discover the beating heart of the world’s most popular tourist country—and to learn about the peripatetic upbringing that shaped one of the world’s most influential fashion designers. Try it on, it will suit you.