Gabrielle was born into a poor family in the town of Saumur in western France. She helped her father trade in the market. It was a living that allowed them all to survive. But not much more.
She learned the basics of business and trading from her father, yet she never saw herself as a trader. Little Gabrielle dreamed of being the loving wife of a rich man.
For now, she was focused on surviving.
But circumstances in the cold, blistery winter of 1895 made surviving even more of a desperate mission. Her mother passed away. It was sudden. And traumatic. She was only 12 years old.
But her sorrow was soon to get worse. As she was grieving the loss of her mother, Gabrielle’s father decided that he could no longer support the family. He sent the boys to a farm to work and live. The girls were sent to an orphanage.
The morning she was sent away was the last time she saw her father.
Feeling hopeless, and abandoned — Gabrielle felt as if she were all out of options.
The next 6 years were a blur. She spent most of her waking hours under the stern watch of the disciplinarian nuns in the Aubergine Orphanage.
She was taught how to cook, how to sew, and other chores a lady was expected to know. When she made a mistake, she was punished harshly.
Her days were filled with the same routine, and she felt trapped.
The holidays were always a bright sport for her because she was allowed to visit her aunts, Adrienne and Louise. They would spend the holidays sewing clothes.
Unlike the nuns, Aunt Louise taught Gabrielle how to sew creatively. How to add frills and little embellishments to her designs.
Sadly, after the holidays she would go back to the orphanage feeling trapped and unfulfilled.
The day she turned 18, she made the easy decision to leave the orphanage. She had no interest in being a nun. And she was desperate to break free.
She knew that she needed to learn more, so she enrolled in the Notre Dame finishing school for young ladies — where she was given a full scholarship. But it wasn’t going to be easy for her.
She was poor, and so she was treated differently by her wealthy classmates. They saw her as a peasant trying to break into high-society.
She was ostracized — but her determination did not wither. In fact, she used it as a learning experience.
She watched her rich classmates and took notes on how to mingle with the upper class. And Gabrielle got really good at it — even though she had no money to her name.
From her classes to her classmates, she charmed her way into high society life.
After graduating, she worked as a seamstress in a tailor shop in France. The owner told her that she was a skillful seamstress; yet inside herself, she felt that she was destined for more.
To make more money, Gabrielle became a singer for a small café called La Rotonde. Gabrielle only sang two songs, “Ko Ko Ri Ko” and “Qui qu’a vu Coco”. But in this small café, she found a new identity.
She became Coco.
It was while she was singing that she met her first love, Etienne Balsan. He was a young French military officer who swept Coco into a life of luxury. She had been pulled out of the life of poverty.
But while she was being woo’d by Etienne with luxury, Coco fell in love with another man — a young Englishman named Arthur Capel, who was a friend of Etienne.
Arthur believed in Coco and decided to open a small store for her.
And Coco’s business empire was begun.
Her small boutique made news in France. At first, people were shocked to see the clothes Coco designed. But over time, women bought into the idea of comfort. Her chic and simple design was a big hit among French women.
But while Coco was on her way to the top, she faced one of the biggest challenges of her life. Arthur left her for another woman.
Coco was furious. For over nine years, they had been lovers and business partners. The thought of Arthur leaving her for another woman left Coco heartbroken and bitterly torn.
But her tragedy was to only get worse.
Arthur realized that he truly love Coco and proposed to her. He wanted her back. Desperately.
He was on his way to visit Coco for Christmas when he was involved in a fatal car crash.
Coco was utterly distraught. But she was strong.
And she would need to be as times were able to become a bit more chaotic. World War II brought all corners of the globe together in a bitterly fought conflict.
It took a huge toll on many businesses.
But while others saw this as a threat, Coco saw this as a break. She started selling new products. In addition to designer clothes, she began making perfumes for women. And it was a hit.
Soldiers flocked to her boutique, hoping to buy one of her fragrances as a gift for their wives back home. Even women, at the time, flocked her stores to buy a bottle of their own.
She started selling her famous designer perfume outside of France; even to the extent of reaching Japan in the east.
She called it Chanel No. 5.
But it was the war that became her undoing.
During the Nazi occupation of France, Coco fell in love with a German intelligence officer named Baron Hans Günther von Dincklage. It was a torrid love affair.
And it would rip away from Coco everything that she had ever worked for.
Rumors began to swirl that she was a spy. The newspaper began to speculate that her dates with Dincklage in Madrid and Berlin were just a cover-up to engage in spy activity on behalf of Germany.
She was interrogated by the French government. And although the she was never charged with any crimes, many in France saw their relationship as a betrayal.
Shunned by the public who once loved her, she fled to Switzerland.
Where she would live in self-imposed exile for the next 15 years.
Her career was over. Her destiny scarred by the wounds left by lost lovers. She closed the House of Chanel.
But even in exile, Coco’s heart was still in fashion.
She vented to her friends about the ridiculous fashion being forced on women by the rise of a new generation of male designers.
She was shocked that women were forced to buy such illogical clothes as waist-cinchers, heavy skirts, padded bras, and stiffened jackets.
It was too much to bear. She was appalled.
At age 70, Coco declared her triumphant return to fashion.
But it wasn’t going to be easy — despite all her past success.
Her announcement was met with vicious whispers about her affairs and the possibility that she had been a spy.
But she was not easily discouraged. She was fiercely determined to regain her reputation.
She had faced darker times in her life than the gossip of fashion critics. So she pushed on. Bold moves. Clear vision. A passion to return to her former glory.
Unlike the other designers, Coco wanted her clothing to be fun and comfortable to wear. With her pearls, seersucker dresses, and padded tailored suits, fashion critics were quick to change their tune — calling her designs youthful, and elegant.
Quickly, her easy-fitting yet sophisticated design and her outrageously popular “little black dress” became a craze with shoppers all over the world.
Today, the House of Chanel is one of the world’s most premier brands — with a net worth of almost $8 billion dollars. Coco created something timeless.
There are many lessons to be learned from her life.
You don’t have less of what you need to be awesome than anyone else. You don’t have less of a chance to change the world because you have less money in your bank account, fewer friends with power, and not enough resources to finish what you start.
What you need, you have. The stuff that really matters — it’s readily available. It doesn’t need fame or cost a fortune. It’s inside you right now. Inside your soul.
It’s called will — a reason to fight. A chance at challenging the impossible. Passion. Purpose. Potential. And it can change the world, if you use it.
It can get you the job of your dreams, fix your broken relationships, drive you to make more money, and open your eyes to new possibilities.
It takes unrelenting passion and purpose to dig your way out of trouble.
It’s uncomfortable. And personal. Trying and deeply personal. You’re going to get hurt.
You’re going to lose money and friends and popularity. It’s going to seem like nothing you’re doing is going to work.
If you’re willing, things can change. If you’re willing to work hard. If you’re willing to look stupid. If you’re willing to learn from your mistakes. If you’re willing to keep going. If you’re willing to do the hard stuff.
If you’re willing, anything is possible. Passion and purpose never go out of style.