Gabrielle Chanel first began selling hats in 1909, from the ground floor of her lover (and textile heir) Étienne Balsan’s apartment at 160 Boulevard Malesherbes.
Soon after, in 1910 she opened her first shop called “Chanel Modes” at 21 Rue Cambon in Paris. Her flagship shop, nearby at 31 Rue Cambon would be opened nine years later. Chanel was her own favorite model, and was often seen wearing her hat creations in photos before anyone else. Chanel’s creations sold well, but her big break came in 1912 when French actress Gabrielle Dorziat modeled her hats in F Noziere’s play “Bel Ami.”
The publicity ensured that her hat line took off. Dorziat would later model Chanel’s early hats again in a publication called “Les Modes.”
Soon more famous French actresses were wearing her hats and putting her name on the map. Often referred to as “the plume boom”, wearing feathers in hats had reached peak popularity in the early 1900’s. Some women even wore full taxidermied birds on their hats. This led to a huge decline in the bird population and the extinction of some. Chanel’s early hats followed this lead and featured lush, beautiful wide brims with eye-catching feathers and embellishments.
Here you can see elements of what would become her signature style began to erupt. Early on, Chanel was also known to buy boater hats in bulk, customize and sell them. Today the boater hat remains a Chanel hallmark, and has been reimagined and featured in all recent runway shows. Though Chanel would become most famous for her clothes, hats remained a part of her collections for years to come and are still major sellers today.