noun: outlier; plural noun: outliers
a person or thing situated away or detached from the main body or system.
Unsurprisingly, no two outliers are the same. Previously, we explored the meaning of the word “outlier” using the case of Juan Carlos Guáqueta, an innovative entrepreneur focusing on eco-friendly technology. Today, we’re expanding on the concept using someone far more well-known: Coco Chanel.
Unlike most fashion designers, Coco Chanel didn’t learn the tools of the trade from family, or at a fancy school, but in an orphanage. Born into poverty, her father left her to be raised by Catholic nuns after the death of her mother. While not seemingly an auspicious start for an aspiring fashion designer, Chanel was shrewd even then, and used the sewing techniques she learned from the nuns to her advantage. Her childhood taught her to value the untraditional- her unconventional use of “poor peoples’” fabrics, such as jersey cloth, would later revolutionise the fashion world. Resourceful and unpretentious, she learned from her impoverished background and utilised it, rather than denying it.
Surprisingly enough, Chanel didn’t get her start with designing clothes at all- but with hats! At age 27, with financial help from a wealthy boyfriend, she set up her first hat-shop. Her start in fashion was quite serendipitous- one cold day, instead of dressing up, she tugged on an old jersey to guard against the chill. The unconventional fashion choice caught others’ attention- people started asking where she had bought the dress. A shrewd businesswoman, Chanel took the opportunity to expand into women’s clothing.
The boyish style epitomized in this anecdote followed Chanel throughout her career. Though few would call her a “feminist” by modern standards, her embrace and popularization of mens’ fashion for women allowed them to break away from the restrictive fashion norms of the time, such as corsets. She is quoted as saying: “luxury must be comfortable, otherwise it is not luxury”. This ethos can be seen again in her creation of the little black dress (lbd). While Chanel certainly didn’t invent the concept, she undoubtedly popularised it. The first LBD was showcased in VOGUE magazine in 1926- a design characterised by practicality, simplicity and comfort, it fit perfectly into the fashion climate of the Great Depression. Trends have come and gone, sometimes revitalized, but rarely has any design remained as omnipresent in Western culture as the Little Black Dress. It’s difficult enough to create something that captures the public’s imagination for even a second- but only a truly one-of-a-kind designer, a true outlier, could create something that lives in our collective consciousness even now.
Thanks to Coco Chanel’s timeless designs, the Chanel brand remains successful nearly a century later- building and expanding upon her original ideas, while still remaining true to them. It’s difficult to overstate Coco Chanel’s impact on the fashion world- how she changed women’s fashion forever while creating a successful business in its own right. She’s a fashion legend, and it’s for good reason- an undeniable outlier, she is yet to be replicated, and likely never will be. It’s only right that she would be the only fashion designer to earn a spot on TIME magazine’s Top 100 People of the Century.
While Coco Chanel’s journey is marked by her outstanding entrepreneurial instinct and talent, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing to be learned from her rags-to-riches story. Not everyone may have Chanel’s skill, but everyone can glean something from her experience. It’s difficult to fathom a world in which she didn’t leave her mark, and we forget how close that was to happening. Even now, it’s difficult for the disadvantaged to get a place in any industry. It all seems to boil down to knowing someone who knows someone who knows someone- and that’s even before addressing the financials. Even in these circumstances, we’re often reticent to ask for help- too proud to use our contacts, take out a loan. If Coco Chanel hadn’t swallowed her pride and asked for help setting up her first millinery business, she likely would never have developed her fashion empire- and we’d all be the worse for it. There’s no shame in looking for assistance and guidance, as long as you rely on your own virtues in the end.