The name Coco Chanel is well-known worldwide, but have you ever heard of the Wertheimers, the family who owns Chanel and who’s had the majority stake in Les Perfumes Chanel, since its beginning in 1924 with No.5? Don’t feel bad if you haven’t; almost nobody has.
There is no doubt that Coco Chanel is an icon, her fashion house is the most famous label in the world and Chanel No.5; the best-selling perfume ever. And who doesn’t know of Karl Lagerfeld, the head of Chanel for more than three decades and an icon on his own? So, who are the Wertheimers and how are they linked to Chanel?
Who are the Wertheimers, and why haven’t we heard about them?
The Wertheimers, more specifically, the brothers Alain and Gérard, own the French iconic label among other privately-owned companies like Bourjois Cosmetics, Holland & Holland and Isaac Mizrahi Company, to name a few. Alain Wertheimer lives in New York with his wife and three children and is the chairman of the board of Chanel. Gérard Wertheimer is the chairman of Chanel S.A. Geneva. He runs Chanel in Europe and lives with his wife and two children in Geneva.
Both brothers live very discreet lives in quiet luxury and avoid glitzy events. When they attend Chanel catwalk shows, the Wertheimers arrive in unpretentious cars and sit quietly in the third or fourth row so that nobody notices them. They explain that “It’s about Coco Chanel. It’s all about Karl. It’s about everyone who works and creates Chanel, not about the Wertheimers.” Quite refreshing in a world of fashion moguls whose names are almost as famous as the fashion houses they control.
How did it all begin?
The two brothers are Pierre Wertheimer’s grandchildren. Pierre’s father had left Germany to France, where he invested in the 1870s, in a small theatrical makeup company, Bourjois. Pierre’s two sons took over Bourjois, and by 1920, Bourjois had already become the biggest French cosmetics and fragrance company. It is at this point that the Wertheimers would join forces with Coco Chanel.
Pierre Wertheimer’s passion was racing horses, and he began what became an impressive racing dynasty. Gérard inherited his passion and runs it today, with 120 horses in Chantilly, some in the breeding farm in Normandy, others in California and Kentucky. But back to Pierre. So it was through the racing horses that the Wertheimers met Coco Chanel. At that time, she was a milliner in Paris and had created with the perfumer Ernest Beaux, a scent Chanel called No.5. Beaux produced the perfume in small amounts in his laboratory in Grasse.
The Wertheimers joining forces with Coco Chanel
The Galeries Lafayette founder, Théophile Bader, took Chanel to the races and introduced her to his friend, Pierre. Bader wanted to sell Chanel No.5 at the Galleries. Consequently, the three made a deal. Pierre’s Bourjois factory would produce the famous perfume, and he would earn 70% of the profits. Bader, who had introduced the Wertheimers to Chanel, would earn 20%. Lastly, Chanel would get 10% of the earnings. She later would feel the deal wasn’t fair. So she fought during years with several legal suits to receive a bigger share of the profits.
After the war, when the two brothers had to escape to the USA, they finally made a better deal for Chanel. Finally, in the mid-‘50s, the Wertheimers offered to Coco Chanel to pay all her expenses, including Chanel’s headquarters in Rue Cambon. In exchange, they would have control of the name Chanel, for fashion and perfumes, including Chanel No.5. After her death, they also bought the 20% that Bader still had. As a result, the brothers became the sole owners of the most iconic French brand. Chanel has since been one of the few family-owned luxury companies.
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