In 1893, two little girls are in the back of a hay wagon, being driven by their father. They ride quite a distance through the countryside, and then arrive at a catholic orphanage, staffed by nuns. The father takes two young girls inside, and leaves them, without even looking back.
Fifteen years later, the two sisters have grown, and are eking out a living, being seamstresses in the backroom of a dressmaker’s shop, and my singing in a saloon each evening. There, they sing a popular duet, “Coco”, and this trademark song becomes Gabrielle’s nickname. Coco (Audrey Tatou) and sister Adrienne share a tiny room, and dream of performing in Paris at the Alcazar. One of the rowdy, wealthy patrons is a man named Balsan. He picks up whatever scantily-clad floozie he finds each night, and befriends Coco. She will not go home with him, but enjoys his conversation. Balsan is heading back to his estate outside Paris, and hopes to see Coco sometime in the future.
After being fired from the saloon for not sleeping with the customers, Coco steals two of the costumes for the sister to wear for their audition for the Parisian shows that Balsan has promised to arrange for them. Adrienne back out, saying her young man wants to marry her, and she is moving with him to Paris. Coco is angry, and disappointed, and tells her sister not to be so gullibleno Baron of means and prestige would marry a lowly working girl. That type of thing isn’t acceptable, but Adrienne leaves anyway. Coco packs, too, and heads toward Paris on her own.
Coco arrives at Balsan’s estate, and he is happy to see her, but only for a brief 2-day stay, as it wouldn’t be good for his reputation to have her around. She stays, promising to stay hidden when he entertains. She does, but is depressed by how it makes her feel. Balsan takes her to the races, and Coco is thrilled at the sights there. She notices every detail of the prominent women’s attire, from the lace, buttons, detailed embroidery and the hats and jewelry. Balsan leaves her on the lawn with the commoners, and goes with his friends to the box to watch the race. While on the lawn, Coco bumps into her sister, who looks lovely, but also isn’t allowed to socialize with the upper crust in the boxes.
When she returns to Balsan’s estate, she takes some of his suits and shirts, cuts them up and makes an outfit: slacks, a vest and a bowtie. This style is totally original and no one has ever seen a woman ride a horse in slacks, so she gets quite a bit of attention from Balsan’s snooty friends. Balsan lets her stay, and she mingles with his friends, striking up a friendship with one of the “loose” yet socially acceptable women, Emilienne, who is an actress.
Balsan brings Coco a fancy dress to wear to his party, but after trying it on, Coco hates all the frills, gaudiness and skin it shows, and again creates a new outfit. This time, it is a simple plaid dress, with a white collar. Balsan doesn’t like it, but Coco does. After the party the next day, one of the guests plays the piano, and strikes up a conversation with Coco. They talk about books and clearly there is an instant attraction between the two. He is Arthur Capel, a visiting English businessman. Coco calls him Boy. He calls her “elegant” in her simple attire, and she smiles.
After attending a play of Emilienne’s, Coco tells her she also wants to act, but Eielienne tells her she is too old, but that she has talent with her creations and should open a hat making shop. Coco doesn’t like this idea.
Coco and Capel grow close, and after another party, they sneak off onto the expansive grounds, and share a kiss. They make love, and sleep out on the property, awaking under a tree early the next morning. Capel asks is she’d like to go away, and Coco agrees. They go to Deauville, a seaside town, and it is Coco’s first time seeing the shore. She is enthralled, and notices everything. She is intrigued by the wealthy women’s overdone clothes and jewelry, and the simple striped shirts of the local fisherman. Soon, Coco is wearing the same striped shirt, with black slacks and a simple straw hat. Their stay at the shore is romantic and Coco is in love. When they return, Balsan warns Capel not to hurt Coco, that she is more fragile than she seems. And he asks him to “tell her soon”. This distresses Capel, and he says he will tell her when he is ready.
Capel leaves Coco with Balsan to do business for a few days. While there, she goes to visit her sister, telling her she’s finally fallen in love and understands why she waits to marry the Baron. Adrienne is still unmarried and living as his mistress, as his parents will not consent to even meet her, as she isn’t worthy of their station.
Balsan approaches Coco and tells her he doesn’t want her to leave. He admits he was wrong in being ashamed of her, and wants to marry her. She refuses, telling him she is in love with Capel. He tells her that Capel is getting married to a wealthy English woman since he has no money. She is broken-hearted, and goes to her room. Outside her locked door, Balsan apologizes for hurting her and for telling her the ugly truth. When Capel returns, he realizes she knows his situation, and he says that they don’t need to be married, and it’s just a social obligation. Coco says she’ll never marry, as her father was a terrible husband and cheated on her mother all the time. She eventually died, and we assume it was a suicide.
Coco decides to move to Paris and start her shop of hats and clothing designs. Balsan thinks a woman shouldn’t work and it would be a disaster, yet Capel offers to front her all the money she’ll need to start.
The next scene is Coco smoking while making hats in a shop with several other working girls. It is apparent that they work for Coco, and her shop is doing very well. Capel visits, and after a romantic night, suggests that they take a 2 month rental on a beach house. Coco agrees, and is thrilled. Capel leaves for a one-day business trip, and then they will go to the coast. Later, her sister brings her the grim news that he has died in an automobile accident.
She cries for Capel, and begins to sew clothing in her grief. She makes new things, and uses other colors than her favorite, black. She uses red, pink, and even wool plaids. In the next scene, she has an entire staff behind her, while she puts the finishing touches on a dress. It is clear that she is a big success, and employs many in her shop. Then we see beautiful women wearing dress after dress, formal, suits, gowns, and entire line of signature Coco Chanel clothing. We see Coco, smoking backstage, as the women go out on runway for a show. She never smiles, just smokes. At the end, she is sitting on the steps of the fashion show and receives a standing ovation. She looks pleased….then flashes back to scenes of her childhood, her sister, her time with Capel…then smiles, relishing all she has experiences and finally accomplished.
The final scene tells us that Coco Chanel was and international success, designing for more than 60 years, until her death in 1971. Her company goes on today, creating her signature style of suits and dresses, with classic simple detailing, and pearls. She was ahead of her time, becoming a female designer before there were any, and a role model in fashion.
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