Late Fashion Visionary Lives On

Coco Chanel is shown in a 1934 photo.


When Coco Chanel died in January 1971, The New York Times called her “one of the greatest couturiers of the 20th century.”

The newspaper noted that she passed away in her apartment at the Ritz Hotel, and was still working at the time, on her upcoming spring collection.

“Her life story,” the Times noted, “was turned into a musical, ‘Coco,’ which ran on Broadway last year starring Katherine Hepburn in her first singing and dancing role. Miss Hepburn, 60 at the time the show opened, was termed ‘too old’ for the part by the tart-tongued Coco, who was 86.”

“Chanel,” the obituary pointed out, “dominated the Paris fashion world in the 1920s and at the height of her career was running four business enterprises -- a fashion house, a textile business, perfume laboratories and a workshop for costume jewelry -- that altogether employed 3,500 workers.”

But, the Times said, “It was perhaps her perfume more than her fashions that made the name Chanel famous around the world. Called simply ‘Chanel No. 5’ -- she had been told by a fortune-teller that five was her lucky number -- it made Coco a millionaire.”

Chanel’s life, and continuing impact on the fashion world, are celebrated in an exhibit that just opened at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and runs through Aug. 7.

Who was Coco Chanel, and how did she become a visionary whose fashion designs are still among the most easily recognized and desired today, nearly 100 years since she began designing?

To find out, CBS News Correspondent Rita Braver talks with Karl Lagerfeld, today’s House of Chanel designer, and to the curator of Met’s exhibit, about the House that Coco built, on CBS News Sunday Morning.

Gabrielle Chanel adopted the name Coco during a brief career as a cafe and concert singers 1905-1908, according to

“From her first millinery shop, opened in 1912, to the 1920s…Chanel rose to become one of the premier fashion designers in Paris,” About says. “Replacing the corset with comfort and casual elegance, her fashion themes included simple suits and dresses, women’s trousers, costume jewelry, perfume and textiles.”

About adds, “By the 1920s, her fashion house had expanded considerably, and her chemise set a fashion trend with its ‘little boy’ look. Her relaxed fashions, short skirts, and casual look were in sharp contrast to the corset fashions popular in the previous decades. Chanel herself dressed in mannish clothes, and adapted these more comfortable fashions which other women also found liberating.

“Chanel introduced her signature cardigan jacket in 1925 and signature “little black dress” in 1926. Most of her fashions had a staying power, and didn’t change much from year to year, or even generation to generation.