Research Highlights

From the Margins of Haute Couture: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Coco Chanel

Gino Cattani Headshot

Tenacious, talented, and inspired by the austerity of the abbey orphanage in which she was raised, Coco Chanel revolutionized fashion with simple designs like the little black dress. NYU Stern Professor Gino Cattani examines her unlikely entrepreneurial journey from orphan to fashion icon.

Born into poverty and sent by her father to the Aubazine Abbey orphanage at age 12, Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel (1883–1971) could hardly have come from more humble beginnings. Yet over the course of her lifetime, her name became—and still is—synonymous with elegance, luxury, and style. Chanel founded the eponymous fashion house in Paris in 1910 and by her 40s, her business was already grossing about $70 million in today’s dollars.

How a French girl on the fringes at the turn of the 20th century came to dominate the fashion world is the focus of a study co-authored by Professor Cattani. “From the Margins of Haute Couture: The Entrepreneurial Journey of Coco Chanel,” published in the journal Enterprise & Society, examines the tension between society’s periphery and core and the mechanisms that enabled Chanel’s remarkable trajectory from social outcast to possibly the most recognizable name in fashion.

Although external events such as the first World War created fertile ground for acceptance of Chanel’s radical ideas, her resolve, ingenuity, and charm were critical to her rise. “You can always argue that that could be a lucky break, but your ability to take advantage of that opportunity is a matter of agency,” says Professor Cattani. “You have to be able to see the opportunity and go after it.” 

Read more at NYU Arts Digest.